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Hubbell, Donohue hope to put a spell on judges

New team will show programs at Lake Placid

Madison Hubbell and Zach Donohue will perform their new programs in Lake Placid.
Madison Hubbell and Zach Donohue will perform their new programs in Lake Placid. (Jacque Tiegs)

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By Lynn Rutherford, special to icenetwork.com
(07/27/2011) - Madison Hubbell and Zach Donohue weren't thinking about teaming up, but when the two 20-year-olds happened to hit the ice during the same practice session this spring, coaches took notice.

"We all just suddenly said, 'Why not?'" Pasquale Camerlengo, who trains the couple at Detroit Skating Club (DSC), remembered. "From the first day they were very good together, and we decided to go with it."

Donohue -- who won U.S. junior ice dance bronze medals in 2009 and 2010 with Piper Gilles - had no qualms. The Hartford native had split with partner Alissandra Aronow after placing 11th at the 2011 U.S. Figure Skating Championships and was a free agent.

"I noticed all the coaches were huddled off by themselves talking excitedly and looking in our general direction," he said. "I figured this was kind of the start."

For Hubbell, the decision wasn't as clearcut. She had skated with older brother Keiffer for 10 years, rising to fourth in the U.S. in 2009 and 2011. When Keiffer grew undecided about his skating future, she was uncertain about her own next step.

"For the past three years, Keiffer has been struggling with his hip, and last season with his back," Madison said. "That was partially due to his body type, he's very flexible, and I was only a few inches shorter than him. We dealt with that, and I think it wore on him.

"Ultimately he was not really sure what he wanted to do, but he knew that he didn't want skating as badly as I did, at least at that time. So it was actually his decision independently to quit, and we were kind of in a state of limbo. Our mom would call me and say, 'I think you had better think about a new partner,' but I wasn't ready yet."

Eventually, Madison's love of skating -- as well as the fast progress of her new partnership -- took over her thoughts.

"It was hard for me emotionally because I was enjoying it, and I knew it was really working, but I felt like I shouldn't be moving on so quickly," she said. "It was a crazy couple of days, but I think I knew from the beginning this could work."

It may have been chance that brought both skaters to that session, but pairing the two was no major leap. Both are among the taller ice dancers in the U.S., with Madison standing about 5-foot-7 or 5-foot-8 and Donahue over six feet.

"We said maybe we have a problem, because she's pretty tall, but we never realized that Zach is taller than Keiffer [who stands six feet]," Camerlengo said. "So then we put them together, and their proportion is right for dancing. It was great to see that."

"There are few people who are that tall and even fewer people with the same athletic build I have," Madison said. "A few others were looking for partners, and they were a little taller than Keiffer, but not that same build so I was definitely fortunate with Zach."

Since then, the two have been hard at work at DSC, where a dream team of coaches headed by Camerlengo and his wife, two-time world champion Anjelika Krylova, and also including 2010 world ice dance bronze medalist Massimo Scali; former European ice dance medalist Natalia Annenko-Deller; and five-time U.S. ice dance champion Elizabeth Punsalan, are whipping them into shape for the coming season, starting in earnest at the Lake Placid Ice Dance Championships this week.

Jason Dungjen occasionally helps with elements, including spins and lifts, and Punsalan's husband and partner, Jerod Swallow, is managing director at DSC.

"Pasquale and Anjelika are our primary coaches, but Pasquale is definitely the most stubborn in his ways," Madison said. "He pretty much gets it the way he wants it.

"Massimo is very good to work with because he was just [competing] last season, he's done all the things you need to with the [judging] rules. He's great at being the guy and the girl in the situation; he can skate with me and be very strong and be the leader, and he can then go skate with Zach and show me exactly what I'm supposed to do."

Camerlengo -- who also trains European champions Nathalie Pechalat and Fabian Bourzat and Canadian silver medalists Kaitlyn Weaver and Andrew Poje -- said step one was matching the two skaters' techniques.

"Madison, let's say, was more accurate and precise. Zach [was] used to moving more free in his positions. We have to find a common point and now they are getting more comfortable. That was the first thing, to really make them match."

Despite the trend to more risky and complex lifts, the skaters think their heights give them an advantage.

"Our lines match, and it's a lot easier to have a more mature look," Donahue said. "We have a little difficulty coming up with more unique [lift] positions; it's an obstacle but a lot of teams have overcome it, and we're overcoming it.

"All in all it's a huge asset. We're both big, powerful skaters, and as a team we have a big presence on the ice."

While all involved say the partnership is developing quickly, there were a few personality adjustments, particularly from Madison.

"Most people have skated with multiple partners and have experience dealing with people other than family," she said. "I think I was spoiled in certain ways. Keiffer and I were best friends going into it and skating was just kind of on top of our normal relationship.

"Zach and I have definitely adjusted and worked through some things and learned how to work with each other. There haven't been any issues with personalities or work ethic. I feel like we've been progressing well for a new team. I'm really excited."

She is also appreciative of the program possibilities of skating with someone who is not her brother.

"Before, people might have thought our programs were a little inappropriate, even if we weren't trying to portray loving characters," Madison said. "If you were to watch the Shibutanis [world bronze medalists Maia and Alexander] one of their strong suits is the ability to portray characters that don't seem inappropriate for a brother and sister. I think I had a harder time with that. I've really enjoyed exploring those new aspects."

"I think it's easier for her to relax a little more, get into the character of the program, with me not being her brother," Donohue said. "You look at some [sibling] teams -- the Zaretskis, the Kerrs -- they are a bit limited in the range of the programs they can do. We can do virtually anything."

The skaters hope their chemistry will help power their combustible free dance, choreographed by their coaches.

"It's based mainly on Joe Cocker's "I Put a Spell on You," a very bluesy, sensual program to try to show our connection right off the bat," Donahue said.

Hubbell and Donahue tried out the program at an ice dance camp in Maryland in early May and at Skate Detroit last weekend, where they also gained judges' feedback on their short dance to rumba, samba and mambo rhythms. Adjustments were made to a lift and costumes.

"We are trying to get a little bit different with [the free dance]," Camerlengo said. "Many people are doing very separate rhythms with very clean differences, because it's in the [ISU] rules. This program will be something on the edge, with blues and jazz rhythms and not, say, Tango and Waltz, but we all have a feeling it will be good and will be appreciated."

In Lake Placid, Hubbell and Donahue will compete against many fine senior teams including U.S. junior champions and world junior bronze medalists Charlotte Lichtman and Dean Copely; Shannon Wingle and Tim McKernan, seventh in the U.S. last season; and DSC training partners Anastasia Olson and Jordan Cowan.

While they hope a strong showing could lead to an international assignment, they're trying to take things one step at a time.

"We can't get ahead of ourselves," Hubbell said. "Right off the bat if we become too placement and goal-oriented we run the risk of being discouraged. For the [potential] length of our career, given we are both 20 years old, we've got time."

"Dance is like any partnership; it's really longevity that gets you what I want," Donahue said. "I adore skating with Maddie. She is an amazing girl. I can't see any reason why we shouldn't be in it for the long haul."