by Jacquelyn Thayer | Photos by Daphne Backman, Melanie Hoyt & Robin Ritoss
The move from Michigan to Montréal for two of the Detroit Skating Club’s leading couples—two-time U.S. bronze and Grand Prix medalists Madison Hubbell & Zach Donohue and three-time Canadian bronze medalists and Olympians Alexandra Paul & Mitch Islam—was one that each team expected to make solo.
“We didn’t know each other were planning on it, because obviously it’s not something you want to discuss with a lot of people before you discuss it with your coaches,” Paul said. “So neither of us really knew that the other were planning on going there because we had to wait to have the meetings with Anjelika [Krylova] and Pasquale [Camerlengo], so as soon as we had those meetings, it was like ‘Oh, hey…’”
“‘…we had the same idea!’” Islam continued while Paul laughed. “So yeah, it’s been fun having them there with us, you know, some familiar faces, and I think they’re just as excited as we are to train there.”
For the Canadian duo, motivation to join the camp led by coaches Marie-France Dubreuil, Patrice Lauzon, and Romain Haguenauer came after disappointing overall results in international competition. Despite achieving new ISU personal bests, they dropped to a 13th-place finish at Worlds after finishing tenth last year.
“No one was more disappointed, I think, than we were in the way that things went last year,” Islam said. “We really loved everything about DSC—we achieved one of our biggest dreams there and we’re very appreciative of all the coaching staff and the staff there and all of our friends that we made there. It was an incredible three years, but after last year, we knew it was time to move on and we couldn’t be happier, honestly, to be in Montréal.”
“We love the city and we love the rink and we love the people that we’re training with as well. It’s been a really amazing experience,” Paul said.
“It’s really injected a passion for skating again,” Islam added. “Something that, for me, I know kind of waned last year a little bit, just with how the results were going.”
Especially exciting for the couple, the move marks a return to their native country after departing Barrie, Ontario, for Michigan in 2012.
“That is one of the greatest things, is being home,” Islam said. “Obviously you just love to be where you’re from, and it’s fun to be in Montréal. It’s an incredible city, it’s so much fun.”
The recently precarious position of the Canadian dollar relative to the American had also proved troublesome. “It’s nice not to lose thousands of dollars on the exchange,” he noted. “It was starting to kill us last year with the dollar dropping.”
Metropolitan environs have also presented a novelty for the two. “We’ve never actually lived in a city,” Islam said. “We consider Toronto kind of home, but obviously we lived forty minutes north. And then Michigan was a little different that way, too.”
“Like, you couldn’t walk anywhere,” Paul injected.
“You literally couldn’t walk anywhere,” Islam said.
“You’d get nowhere if you tried to walk,” Paul concluded.
“It’s honestly fantastic,” Islam continued. “We’re loving it. We’re five or ten minutes from right downtown and we can walk to grocery shop, we can walk to shop, we can walk to have lunch—”
“Lots of restaurants,” Paul added. “There’s parks everywhere. It’s really incredible.”
And the French-language culture has posed minimal difficulty. “We both know our way around the language enough to get by and most people in Montréal can speak some English,” Islam said. “We’re also living in a very English part of the city.”
But the move has also entailed certain sacrifices. Both Paul and Islam were seniors at Michigan’s Oakland University, but a relocation late in the scholastic journey has meant momentarily setting aside academic goals.
“The last few classes we have to take need to be done on campus at OU,” Islam said. “We are both able to take a couple of courses online this summer, but once that’s done, we’ll have to put our degrees on hold until we finish skating. In transferring back to a Canadian university, we would lose several credits and be backtracking too much to make it worthwhile.”
At the rink, however, the two are focusing on their performance education, including work with both a ballroom specialist and theatre coach to further draw out emotional dimension. Though the training program is large—with the stable at Gadbois now including seven teams who competed internationally last season, plus others at the national level—its disciplinary emphasis has proven an asset.
“It’s mainly dance there,” Paul explained, “so we’re not surrounded by the singles skaters, the pairs teams.”
“It’s very dance-centric in terms of the environment that the coaches have made for us,” Islam agreed. “We’ve worked with Marie-France and Patrice before, we’ve worked with Romain before on choreography. So there wasn’t that sort of new, ‘getting to know each other’ stage—we jumped right into it. They started whipping our butts and I think we’re going to thrive there.”
And all three coaches, noted Islam, are involved in choreographing each of the couple’s programs for the coming season—though specifics were pending at time of interview, as the team sifted through music options for the free dance.
“They have lots of ideas for us, we’re just kind of making our way through everything,” Paul said with a laugh.
“We think that the short dance is going to be great for us,” Islam added. “We love the Ravensburger. And, you know, the waltz-y style is one that we enjoy, and the free dance, we’ll see.”
The couple aim to make an earlier start this season than last, when Olympic obligations meant later-than-normal preparations.
“Looking back on the year after Worlds, that was one thing we really felt like we kind of missed out on,” Islam said. “Getting that early feedback and getting our programs out early. Not competing perfectly, just throwing everything out there and then building on it. So that’s definitely something we’re going to be doing this year.”
Plans include a return to summer competition—likely at the Québec Summer Championships, potentially at past haunt Thornhill. “It might be one program at one, another program at another,” Islam said.
With a placement in the ISU’s top 24 World Standings, the two are also guaranteed at least one Grand Prix berth, and are in good position to obtain two given an additional slot in the top 24 Season’s Best for 2014-15. But any details of assignment are of little concern for the team, who have made appearances at each of the circuit’s six stops.
“There’s cool things about being at home and, you know, there are cool parts about anywhere—China, Russia or whatever; Japan’s awesome with the fans,” Islam said. “For us, we’re just going to be happy with whatever we have and we’re not going to be thinking about stuff like that this year. We’re just going to compete and work our butts off to get back to where we need to be.”
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For Americans Hubbell & Donohue, the move to Montréal has meant a different sort of adjustment, from paperwork to certain cultural shifts.
“We are still working out the kinks of living and training in another country, and without speaking French, work is challenging,” Hubbell said. “We hope that over the next few months, we will figure out all of those details.”
City life, however, also agrees with this pair. “Montréal is a beautiful place to live, although it may take us all summer to really explore all of the treasures the city has to offer,” she said. “So far we are loving the active lifestyle, walking and biking through the city, and the fresh outdoor markets are wonderful.”
And after a difficult pair of seasons—bracketed by recoveries from concussion and hip surgery for Hubbell—the opportunity afforded by a new beginning outweighs any minor challenges.
“With the help of Anjelika, Pasquale, and our entire team in Detroit, we were able to fight through and find some success,” Hubbell said. The couple achieved a tenth-place finish at the 2015 World Championships, along with medals at all four prior international and national events last season.
“We will always be grateful for their hard work and dedication when times were hard,” she continued. “At the end of the season, I was finally healthy, and we felt that it was the right time in our careers to turn the page and start fresh. We are loving our new adventure and the home we found in Marie-France and Patrice’s school.”
Hubbell, who has now trained two months free of physical therapy, feels optimistic that those health issues are firmly behind. “My injury is in the past, and my focus is now on getting stronger,” she said.
While the rink at Gadbois presents a similar training set-up to that at the DSC, with gym, ballet, and ballroom training available on premises, the dance emphasis means a wide training schedule—ice time from 7 a.m. until 5 p.m.—and rotating on-ice training groups. “We skate with different teams every day, which keeps people friendly, motivated, and focused,” Hubbell said.
For both partners, it’s a focus on fundamentals that’s proving most alluring, particularly after past injuries and recovery resulted in limited training time.
“We are two skaters who love stroking and footwork, so we are having a blast working with Romain and Patrice on new exercises,” Hubbell said. “The team here has a great way of challenging their skaters to better themselves, but to not take it too seriously. Patrice is always encouraging us to have fun, and to laugh at our mistakes.”
While the couple can anticipate another busy fall, with their top-ten placement at Worlds assuring two Grand Prix spots and August’s Champs Camp meaning intense program review from federation officials, their mindset for now is one of concentrating on the moment. Both draw inspiration from the trajectory of new training mates and 2015 World champions Gabriella Papadakis & Guillaume Cizeron.
“Work your butt off, focus on the present, and see where it leads you,” Hubbell said. “We have dreams for our future, and we believe we are now in the right place to make those become reality.”
But it’s the support of those closest to them, past and present, that’s most driving Hubbell and Donohue.
“Our friends, family, and fans, your words of encouragement mean a lot to us,” she said. “We thank our new coaches, and the skaters in Montréal for welcoming us with open arms. And last, but certainly not least, a big thank you to our team in Detroit for our time and our successes together. Your kindness and understanding during this transition has been truly appreciated.”