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Hubbell, Donohue play to strengths in Sochi push

Team banking on power, chemistry; Buckland must pace himself

Ice dancers Kaitlin Hawayek and Jean-Luc Baker look like they could be prime contenders for a medal at the 2014 World Junior Championships.
Ice dancers Kaitlin Hawayek and Jean-Luc Baker look like they could be prime contenders for a medal at the 2014 World Junior Championships. (Jacque Tiegs)

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By Lynn Rutherford, special to icenetwork.com
(07/29/2013) - When you're fighting for a U.S. ice dance spot in Sochi, you pull out all the stops.

For Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue, that meant putting their programs on display a bit earlier than they may have liked.

The 2012 U.S. bronze medalists presented a short dance of quickstep and foxtrot rhythms, and a free dance to violinist Lucia Micarelli's "Bohemian Rhapsody in Nocturne" at Skate Detroit. The goal wasn't to notch a high score but to prove program readiness before a judging panel and U.S. Figure Skating officials.

Hubbell, who hit her head in a training fall May 29, had to grit her teeth and smile.

"I had post-concussive syndrome," the 22-year-old said. "I struggled with balance, memory and headaches for a while."

After countless trips to her doctor, Hubbell resumed the semblance of a training schedule the first week of July.

"We've only been training the last few weeks, trying to get a few run-throughs in," she said. "Fortunately, we got an early start on our free dance this season. We have things we want to change about the short dance before Champs Camp (in late August)."

Hubbell and Donohue hope for a senior B international assignment, perhaps Nebelhorn Trophy in Oberstdorf, Germany, in September, and U.S. Figure Skating requires athletes to demonstrate competition readiness in an event at least 35 days before an assignment.

Their programs promise well. The free dance, choreographed by their primary coach, Pasquale Camerlengo, uses the skaters' height -- Hubbell is about 5'8" while Donohue stands more than 6 feet -- to their advantage, creating flowing lines and shapes.

Pleased with the debut, the skaters think they have only scratched the surface.

"This year the [free dance] choice is back in our wheelhouse," Donohue, 22, said. "Pasquale took a lot of time with us."

"I'm healthy, but after resting for six weeks, I'm out of shape," Hubbell said. "We wanted to get through the program as cleanly as possible to show it is competition-ready, but it's obviously not going to be perfect at this time."

Their short dance, which like all others this season features the Finnstep pattern dance, included a Charleston to Big Bad Voodoo Daddy's "Diga Diga Doo;" a foxtrot to "Fever;" and a closing quickstep to "Mr. Pinstripe Suit."

"We're doing some re-arranging next week," Hubbell said. "We're swapping the first and third quicksteps around, so we will start with the Finnstep. We're taking out 'Fever' and adding 'Maddest Kind of Love' (by Big Bad Voodoo Daddy)."

The Finnstep -- created from an original dance performed by Finns Susanna Rahkamo and Petri Kokko during the 1994-95 season -- presents challenges for all senior ice dancers this season.

"It's fun if you're good enough on that kind of smooth, light style," Donohue said. "The first section is easier. Once you get into the men's choctaw and the stop, and then have to spin the twizzles fast, it's harder to maintain control."

"Everything has to look light and easy," Hubbell said. "The key points are doable. The hardest part is to make it look like a quickstep in a ballroom -- smooth and light."

A couple on and off the ice, Hubbell and Donohue have reflected on last season, when they missed making the U.S. world team. That came a year after they placed 10th at the 2012 World Figure Skating Championships.

"We have to think about what brought us success our first season together," Donohue said. "We didn't quite reach our goals last year. The U.S. has five very different [ice dance] teams who all want the top three spots. The only way we can succeed is to strengthen our weaknesses and emphasize our strengths."

That includes power, presence and undeniable sexual frisson, seen often from couples of the past but more rare today, due partly to the complex elements and technical precision demanded by the international judging system (IJS).

"I think everyone is more aware of our [off-ice] relationship, and the audience likes seeing it on the ice," Donohue said. "You can tell when someone is skating, whether they have a true connection to the other person. We have to highlight that this year."

They're taking another page from their 2011-12 season playbook.

"It's very important to show up at our senior B strong and super prepared," Hubbell said. "Physically, we have to look great. Our costumes have to be ready. I think that really helped us our first year; everyone was surprised we went to Nebelhorn and won, and that was a big push for us.

"Six weeks off the ice was hard, but it was a real wake-up call, too. I can use it to my advantage when I see other skaters in better shape. It makes me want to work harder to prove myself faster."

U.S. junior ice dancers look strong for Mexico City

Two U.S. junior ice dance teams scheduled to compete at Junior Grand Prix Mexico in early September competed their programs here. Both are polished and prepared.

U.S. novice champions Chloe Lewis and Logan Bye, who make their JGP debut this season, skated a sparkling quickstep short dance to a medley including "Call Me Irresponsible," featuring a three-part twizzle sequence. Their free dance to Schindler's List and "Hava Nagila" had fine lyricism and a strong rotational spin.

U.S. junior silver medalists Kaitlin Hawayek and Jean-Luc Baker showed excellent unison in the steps of their charming short dance, and opened their free dance with an impressive curve lift highlighting Baker's deep edges. With last season's top junior teams moving up to seniors, they look like early favorites for a 2014 world junior medal.

Heart scare for Britain's Buckland

When British ice dance champions Penny Coomes and Nick Buckland halted their free dance choreography for a few seconds at the 2013 World Championships, they left out a spin. The mistake contributed to their dropping from 10th after the short dance to 13th overall.

The incident brought to light a far more serious problem.

"With the stress of the free dance, my heart did not beat regularly," Buckland said. "I had to pause a few seconds before being able to continue the program." (The Brits did not halt their music and leave the ice.)

To help prevent future trouble, doctors implanted a cardiac monitor, also known as an implantable loop recorder.

"It's just underneath my skin, at the top of my chest," he said. "It's the size of a USB memory stick and monitors my heart's activity."

The duo is hard at work in Mount Laurel, N.J., where they have trained under two-time Olympic ice dance champion Evgeni Platov since 2009.

The device is especially necessary for Buckland and Coomes this season, as they are skating their free dance to heart-stopping music from the King of Pop, Michael Jackson. Their short dance is set to Fred Astaire's "I Won't Dance" and music from alternative hip-hop group Jurassic 5.

"My stepfather (two-time British ice dance champion) Philip Askew choreographed our new programs in June when we were at home," Coomes said. "We have never done the Finnstep before, and it was hard at the beginning. Now, I think we've got it."

Coomes and Buckland will debut their programs at the U.S. International Figure Skating Classic in Salt Lake City in September.

Klaus-Reinhold Kany contributed to this report.