Ice Network

U.S. dancers jockey for position in PyeongChang

Opinions differ on whether being national champion provides advantage
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Even though Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue (center) arrive in PyeongChang as U.S. champions, all three American ice dance teams are viable Olympic medal contenders. -Getty Images

It wasn't long ago that once an ice dance team won the U.S. title, they could pretty much count on a reasonably long run at the top.

Starting with Elizabeth Punsalan and Jerod Swallow in 1996 and continuing through Meryl Davis and Charlie White's final U.S. crown in 2014, just four teams -- also including Naomi Lang and Peter Tchernyshev, and Tanith Belbin and Benjamin Agosto -- claimed the U.S. title.

But over the past quadrennial, three teams -- Madison Chock and Evan Bates (2015); Alex Shibutani and Maia Shibutani (2016-17); and Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue (2018) -- have reigned supreme in the U.S.

Twice this season, less than a point has separated the three. At the Grand Prix Final in December, where the Shibutanis won bronze, just 0.85 points spanned the couples. The standings at the 2018 U.S. Figure Skating Championships were even closer: The three teams were just 0.52 points apart.

To complicate matters further, while the Shibutanis' electric Perez Prado routine has handily won the short dance both times all three have met this season, Chock and Bates' inspirational free dance to John Lennon's "Imagine" had edged the other teams' free dances in the two meetings.

"The closeness between the top American teams gives a lot of credence to our sport," said Bates, a two-time world medalist with Chock. "The unpredictability from event to event with the results gives a lot of excitement to the public. Even though we were third at nationals, we've got a good chance to go in and win a medal. That sort of belief is realistic because of where the sport is right now."

Conventional wisdom -- and the history of the past two seasons -- indicates Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir of Canada will battle French skaters Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron for gold, with the U.S. teams fighting for bronze. And Hubbell and Donohue arrived in PyeongChang as the U.S. champions. Isn't that an advantage?

"No, I don't think it really gives us a leg up," Hubbell said. "We've been very close for years. ... We were third last year by quite a few points at nationals, and still in the short dance at (2017) worlds, we were able to medal."

"I think we are at a very comfortable place, with people talking about us being in the mix and possibly being up there," Donohue said. "But I'm not thinking, 'Oh, I'm a national champion now, and I'm somehow perceived as I'm better than.'"

Marie-France Dubreuil, who trains Hubbell and Donohue in Montreal, hopes her skaters are wrong.

"I think once you are a national champion, there is a shift in your head where you become the reference in your country," Dubreuil said. "I'm hoping for them that switch is there. We will see, because [the Olympics] is their first event as national champions. We will see what it did to them."

"But the three teams are almost equal, that's that," she added. "Every time they show up, we will never know who of the three will be ahead."

Not surprisingly, the Shibutanis, and Chock and Bates agree: Regardless of who the U.S. champions are, any of the three teams can medal.

"We know where we stand," said Alex Shibutani, a three-time world medalist (2011, 2016-17) with sister Maia. "The results for the last three years especially really speak for themselves. The U.S. championships was a little bump on the road to where we are going, and I don't think one competition will change the way we view ourselves, and I certainly don't think it will change the way the judges perceive us."

Five-time U.S. champion Tanith Belbin White, the 2006 Olympic silver medalist with Benjamin Agosto, doesn't think arriving as U.S. silver medalists will hurt the Shibutanis' chances in PyeongChang -- unless the siblings let it.

"It won't make any difference with the judges," Belbin White said. "It may make a difference if it plays on their mental game. Not being national champions takes away from confidence in performance, and that could perhaps have an impact. But, no, it's accepted within the international community that the three teams could (finish) in any order any given night."

Belbin White knows from whence she speaks. She and Agosto fought off a challenge from Davis and White at the 2008 U.S. Figure Skating Championships, withdrew from the event the following season and then placed second to Davis and White in 2010.

"Our loss was definitive," Belbin White said. "To be fair, they were defeating us all season long (in terms of scores), although we were not facing off. These three couples' (scores) have been so close numerous times, even internationally."

Not everyone discounts the power of being U.S. champion. Two-time European champion Nathalie Péchalat, working here with French television, thinks it may still hold sway.

"I think when you are the first one in your own country, it can help," Péchalat said. "But the Shibutanis took part in the team event; the U.S. didn't share the medal (with the other teams). I ask myself, 'Why is that the strategy?' But, still, the competition will take place on the ice, so we will see. I have my little preference, I will keep to myself."

Melissa Gregory, who won four U.S. silver medals (2004-07) with husband Denis Petukhov, agrees with Péchalat.

"Being U.S. champions absolutely matters. I think that going as the first couple is different mentally, and it's going to help Madi and Zach a lot," Gregory said, before pausing to add, "Of course, all three of the couples have made mistakes this season, so it's going to depend on who will skate in the moment and who will lay it down."