Nationals ultimate test for new dance teams

Hubbell feels liberated; Chock, Bates challenged by rumba; Samuelson, Gilles overhaul programs

Madison Hubbell and Zach Donohue are hoping to heat up the ice in San Jose.
Madison Hubbell and Zach Donohue are hoping to heat up the ice in San Jose. (FSC-SportIms)


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By Lynn Rutherford, special to
(01/26/2012) - Conventional and every other kind of thinking says world champions Meryl Davis and Charlie White, and world bronze medalists Maia Shibutani and Alex Shibutani, have pretty much sewn up two of the three U.S. ice dance slots available for the 2012 World Figure Skating Championships, leaving 12 teams battling for the remaining spot.

Last summer, ice dancers played their own version of change partners and dance, and three new partnerships -- Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue; Madison Chock and Evan Bates; and Emily Samuelson and Todd Gilles -- are among those vying for the podium.

Hubbell skated with her brother, Keiffer, for 10 years, but after the 2011 U.S. Championships, he wasn't sure he wanted to continue. Coaches at the Detroit Skating Club suggested she try out with Donohue, who had recently split with his partner. The two hit it off immediately.

The team made their international debut at the Nebelhorn Trophy in September, winning gold. They followed up with a sixth-place finish at Skate America in October, where they placed third in the free dance but missed a medal by 1.54 points, partially due to lower levels on their rumba sequences in the short dance.

"We had a great start; I think it shocked people at the beginning of the season when we showed up strong at Nebelhorn, and it was great to receive Skate America," Hubbell, 20, said. "Still, we didn't have much experience together. We were working on it, but I don't think we were really together yet, and I think that showed up in the rumba [at Skate America]. I think [now] we're a lot better skating more as a team, with one force."

"We've been drilling our rumba over and over again on a daily basis," Donohue said. "We've got a great team of coaches looking at the change of edge, which is hard for a lot of teams to get this year, and even [helping us] angle it so it looks proper on the ice. We're trying to take in all aspects and apply them to our rumba so it's as strong as possible."

After an extra three months training time, Hubbell says they are ready.

"Our training has been going well -- no issues, no injuries -- which is great," she said. "We feel comfortable fighting for third place at nationals. That's what we're going for, and no matter how it works out, I think we're very happy with our first year together. We just have to fight as hard as we can."

The skaters and their coaching team, headed by Pasquale Camerlengo, have chosen a free dance to "I've Put a Spell on You" that brings out Hubbell's sexy side.

"It's been very liberating," Hubbell said. "Keiffer and I always struggled with finding the correct program, just because our personal styles didn't necessarily fit [with] lighthearted themes. We would try, and no matter what we did, people always seemed to think it was inappropriate.

"It's definitely been fun this year; I can completely let go, and there's no possible way I can get deducted for looking too sexy or looking like I have a connection with my partner."

When Evan Bates sustained an Achilles tendon injury during training in the fall of 2010, he and then partner Emily Samuelson, the 2010 U.S. bronze medalists, had to sit out the entire competitive season. When they began training again, they were unable to recapture their pre-injury form.

"We had quite a bit of struggle to rekindle what we had, and it had become kind of frustrating," Bates told icenetwork last September. "The skating was not [feeling] the way it was supposed to feel."

In the meantime, 2011 U.S. bronze medalist Greg Zuerlein retired, leading his partner, Madison Chock, to a series of tryouts. Chock and Bates teamed up in July and placed fourth and fifth at their two Grand Prix events, Skate Canada and Trophée Eric Bompard.

"For us, overall improvement is the key goal," Bates said. "There are so many aspects that are still so new to us. The last seven months went by so quick. It's unbelievable nationals are here.

"We haven't competed since November, and there have been a lot of improvements. We're completely ready to fight for that third spot, but rather than get caught up in that, we want to relax and enjoy our first nationals [as a team], and not add too much stress."

Primary coaches Marina Zoueva and Igor Shpilband get most of the headlines, and deservedly so, but Chock and Bates also credit Johnny Johns and Adrienne Lenda for helping get their elements up to speed.

"We're lucky that we have such a diverse group of coaches," Bates said. "[Johns and Lenda] are experienced pair coaches, and really expert in the lifts and spins."

"We're doing repetitions every day, to make the lifts flow effortlessly in the program," Chock said.

Another focus is the rumba pattern dance sequences incorporated into the short dance. The team gained Level 2 on both sequences at Skate Canada, improving to Level 2 and Level 3 at Bompard.

Of course, they would like achieve Level 4.

"Like most dance teams, we've been challenged by the rumba this season," Bates said. "It's really one of our bigger issues. We've been working on the patterns, and the [double] choctaw sequence."

Whatever the result in San Jose, Bates is confident the new partnership will stand the test of time.

"Certainly, we want a spot on the podium, but we know this is just the first of many nationals. Whatever happens this year will not define our career together."

Samuelson had tryouts of her own before teaming up with Gilles in August. The new team placed eighth at Cup of China and improved their scores at their qualifying sectionals competition later in November.

"We made a couple of changes to the programs in between the two events," Samuelson said. "We got three points in deductions in China. One was for a rotational lift with a split position. We changed so it's still a split, but a little different.

"There was also a two-point deduction for the last transition lift in the program. I got stuck on [Gilles'] shoulder, and his hands went above his head [to lift me]. We took that out; now it's a transitional element, not a lift."

There has also been a change of music in the short dance.

"We're still using [the theme from] Goldfinger as the middle section, but the first piece for the rumba is now 'Como Golondrinas' [by Angela Carrasco]," she said. "It fits the character of the rumba a bit better.

"We've also switched the order of elements in the program. The straight-line lift is in the beginning, then rumba pattern 1, then twizzles, then pattern 2, with the circular footwork at the end."

Like her former partner, Samuelson is incredulous that the 2012 U.S. Championships have arrived.

"It blows my mind that four months ago we were getting choreography [from Christopher Dean] in Colorado Springs," she said. "It's been an absolute whirlwind. Things moved so fast.

"We're happy with the programs; they're feeling easier and more comfortable. Of course, it's a long process, and hopefully we'll keep improving after nationals."