Two decades of practicing and a fair share of competitive heartbreak later, emotion almost overcame Madison Hubbell when she arrived on her sport’s biggest stage.
The American ice dancer, who spent part of her youth in Sylvania and whose family still lives in the Toledo area, is competing in the Pyeongchang Games this month. Along with partner Zachary Donohue, Hubbell will have her first taste of the Olympics as part of the U.S. team.
After a lifetime striving to reach the Olympics, the opening ceremony was a bit surreal for Hubbell, who spoke with The Blade in a phone interview from South Korea.
“I had to resist crying, because I didn’t want to be on TV crying,” Hubbell said, laughing. “It was even bigger than I expected, the feeling you have when you step out and the stadium’s cheering and you’re walking behind the American flag.”
Madison Hubbell, center, and Zachary Donahue, right, hug a coach after as they react to their scores which won the pairs skate event at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships last month.
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Hubbell and Donohue will have their chance thanks to a surprise breakthrough at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships in January.
Despite being a constant presence in ice dancing, something always seemed to go awry for Hubbell and Donohue when major competitions rolled around.
Hubbell sustained a nagging hip injury during the 2013-14 season, and the pair missed qualifying for the 2014 Olympics by mere points.
Then came third-place finishes at nationals three consecutive years.
Hubbell said they couldn’t figure our what was going wrong. They trained well and felt confident. They still liked competing. They were not nervous, and they had the skill to be world class.
“We really sat down and started to analyze the problem, because we felt so strong and we trained well but these flukes happened,” Hubbell said. “It seemed unlucky because they felt so out of our control — these random things.”
With help from their performance coach, Hubbell and Donohue revamped their mental preparation to competing. They acted as if everything was a new experience and approached every performance with an open mind.
Hubbell said she was apprehensive at first, but the pairing was eager to change its seemingly bad luck.
“It’s scary to try something new, but the truth was that we had never won before,” Hubbell said. “If we approached it the same way and if we went in thinking that we knew how to compete at nationals, we were going to get the same result over and over. Every year, we got third, third, third.”
Madison Hubbell, left, and Zachary Donohue perform during their free dance program last month.
This year, everything came together for Hubbell and Donahue. The pair dazzled at the U.S. Championships, and the strength of their program earned them first place and a trip to Pyeongchang.
With the help of the U.S. Olympic Committee and a GoFundMe.com page, Hubbell’s family will see her compete in person. Hubbell’s mother, Susan, already traveled to South Korea. Her father, Brad, and brother, Keiffer, will join later.
For the time being, Hubbell said she and Donohue are using practice to embrace the pageantry of the event.
“We’re kind of letting it [soak] in, so by the time the time we’re ready to compete, it’s just another rink,” she said. “Then when we’re finished — hopefully skating a perfectly clean program — we can let in the fact that we’re at the Olympics and look around and enjoy the moment.”
Hubbell and Donohue will be in the company of ice dancing’s heavyweights in Pyeongchang.
Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir of Canada have won gold and silver the past two Olympics, and the French pairing of Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron claimed two of the past three World Championships.
“I think in ice dance it’s pretty easy to say, ‘Well, I’m good, but even if I skate my best, I can’t beat Tessa and Scott, or I can’t beat Gabriella and Guillaume because they’ve been 10 points ahead of me all season,’’ she said. “But they still have to skate on the day just like we have to skate.”
In her sport’s biggest competition, Hubbell will use the same formula that worked at the U.S. Championships.
Hubbell and Donohue approach the Games in the best form of their careers. With their chance at an Olympic podium upcoming, Hubbell said the biggest mistake a pair can make is to feel pressure.
This is the opportunity 20 years in the making, and they’re ready for whatever comes next.
“The Olympics are one of those things where, even if we skate another four years, we have no idea if we’re going to make it back,” she said. “You certainly don’t want to spend the two weeks stressing out.
“We’ve just opened our mind to any possibility. It’s been really freeing.”
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