Article & Feature Photo by Francesca | Skating Photos by Robin Ritoss
Francesca met with Madison Hubbell & Zachary Donohue after a practice at Gadbois. It was a warm and sunny day, so the trio conducted the interview outside at one of the bars with a beautiful terrace along the river.
IDC: Congrats on a breakthrough season: U.S. national title, World silver, and fourth at the Olympics. Did you expect such a season, how did you feel looking back, and what are you most proud of?
ZD: I wouldn’t say expect, but we planned this kind of season and set goals at the beginning of the year. We didn’t meet every single goal (with missing our goal at the Olympics), but the rest was pretty awesome.
MH: Looking back, we are very proud. We’ve come a long way. There has been a lot of perseverance along the way to keep pushing and believing in ourselves when a lot of people thought it was not going to happen. We found our place here in Montréal and a coaching staff that believed in us and pushed us to set higher goals. We are proud of our Worlds performance. We knew it was going to be tough after we finished a bit shy of what was possible for us at the Olympics. We came home, we regrouped, and we grew a lot through that experience. Worlds was a great way to end the season.
IDC: You didn’t take part at the Team Event at the Olympics. Were you disappointed, and how did you manage to stay focused between your arrival to Pyeongchang and the individual event?
ZD: Luckily staying focused was easy because we left the Village for almost a week and trained off site. Of course it was disappointing not to be in the Team Event, especially with the success of team USA, but we already knew going into the Olympics that we were not going to do it, so we were prepared. It would have been nice to compete another time and possibly walk away with the medal. There were arguments to pick us for the Team Event as the U.S. champions.
MH: Like most sports, when it comes to selections and the way the federation makes its decisions, it’s not in our control. When we finished Nationals, we believed we would do the Team Event, but we knew it was not up to us. There was nothing we could have done differently.
IDC: From your first Olympics experience, are there things you already know you’d approach differently at the next Olympics?
ZD: I am sure there are, but that’s still a long way off. What we shifted from the Games to Worlds is how we are going to take the next approach to all of our competitions. I think it’s a mistake to make the Games so much more important than any other competition. As long as we trust our coaches and work effectively, not just harder or more aggressively, and cover all our bases, I think we’ll be better off.
IDC: How did you find the energy and mental strength to keep training for Worlds after the Olympics? Did the experience from last year’s Worlds motivate you?
MH: Luckily, we are very close with Gabriella [Papadakis] and Guillaume [Cizeron]. They had a successful Olympics, but also maybe disappointing, because they were going for gold. Gabriella and I were able to be there for each other through the struggle of letting go of what happened and looking forward to what we could work towards. I felt like we had the camp very focused on Worlds: we came back and there were already people training who hadn’t been at the Olympics, so we stepped right back into that momentum. We owe it to our training facility and our training mates to be able to stay mentally strong. I think having the redemption from last year’s Worlds where we fell and the Olympics where we didn’t skate clean enough, finally being on the World podium with two great performances, made us realize we had it all along.
IDC: You are good friends with your training mates and rivals Gabriella and Guillaume. How was it to share the podium with them in Milan (it looked like a lot of fun)?
ZD: I don’t know if we were celebrating more how well we did or that it was all done… from the moment Nationals finished until the season ended, it was non-stop crazy. The disappointment of the Games and then ending the season on a higher note made me very eager to be done with that season and start a new one, while appreciating everything that has happened. We are World silver medalists, so I love that, but I’m ready to start moving forward applying the lessons we learned. It was great being on the podium with such good friends and incredible people with great energy.
IDC: You plan to stay until 2022. Now that you reached the top, what is your goal for next year and in the long term for the quad?
MH: Such a big part of our evolution here in Montréal has been taking what we already have, power and chemistry, and refining it. Even in the last year, it has gotten better and better, but there is still that margin of error that we want to minimize. It would be easy in my shoes to feel frustrated. I’ve been skating since I was five, and there are these other people who have all those titles and career history that I could never compare to. We have skated together for seven years, while Gabi and Guillaume or Tessa [Virtue] and Scott [Moir] have skated together for all their lives, but I feel like everybody’s story is different. We’re finally getting to a point where we know each other well, we are hitting that stride, and I look forward to the next four years when we can be at the top of the game and dominate, even though we won’t have that 20-year career that Tessa and Scott had. We can have the last seven years of our career to be very strong, and this is what I’m looking forward to. We are finally there where we want to be and can enjoy that.
IDC: You asked on social media for music ideas for next season. Can you already share something about next season’s programs? Do you have any music selected, or at least general ideas, and who will be choreographing them?
ZD: No, we don’t have the programs yet [at the time of the interview]. But this year, I don’t want to make a big announcemen. People are going to show up at competitions and not know what’s happening, and they are going to be surprised.
MH: We’ll continue to work with Marie and Sam. We have a workshop this weekend to start working on the FD. It’s in the works. We hope to be done with both programs by mid-July. We have some ideas.
IDC: It’s been a long time since the tango was the chosen pattern. Did you already compete it? How are you going to approach learning a new pattern together? Are you looking forward to this rhythm?
ZD: Madi has competed the tango with her brother, but I never did. We’ll approach it by… just trying not to kill ourselves. It’s a technically hard dance, a lot of intricate tracking and new skills to learn. It’s a fun challenge. Every day when we think we have it, we realize we don’t, so it’s keeping us on our toes. At the same time, it’s a very fun dance with cool elements that are not just pushes and strokes and crosses and three turns, lots of dynamic movements and interesting timing to get to play with.
MH: I think it’s sometimes easier never having done the pattern. If you learned a dance a few years before, you have that idea in your head and body, but then you have to change it to fulfill the new key point requirements. I think it’s a cool opportunity, it’s a good style for us. There is so much variety within the music that you can have something sharp, staccato, and quick, or you can have something long and dramatic. It should be a good genre in a way that everybody can find the right type of music that would fit them, and I’m excited to play the dramatic, tense character between the two of us.
IDC: Are you actively following the changes to the scoring system and the introduction of the new rules? What do you think about some new features introduced by the Rhythm Dance for next year, e.g. the Choreographic Sliding Element, Choreographic Character Step Sequence?
ZD: Madi and Adrian [Diaz] have been following more the technical side, I am more into the creative choreographic side.
MH: I think we have a cool balance, and it’s the same balance Marie and Patch have: Patch really reads the rules and focuses on what the technical panel is looking for. Marie doesn’t like to watch other skaters, or read the rules too much, because it really leaves your mind open. Someone else can be there to tell you whether something works or not. That’s a little bit like us—Zach is the Marie and I am the Patch.
ZD: I think the new elements offer lots of possibilities, but I think what tends to happen every time a new rule comes out is that the ISU wants to control how it works and how it affects the dance. I think if they really want to have a lot of originality, they will have to loosen up the rules and look for new elements instead of trying to fit an existing element into the current set of rules. That being said, we have seen a few people trying some interesting things, but we haven’t gotten there yet. We are looking forward to perform a ‘show’ type of feature in competition, and it’s going to be exciting to see what everybody else does.
IDC: Your former DSC training mates Kaitlin Hawayek and Jean-Luc Baker joined Gadbois this year, and Madison Chock and Evan Bates will join soon, too. How do you feel about training with your internal U.S. competitors? Did the coaches consult you before this decision?
ZD: Madi was a little shy about it at first, and I was kind of open to it right away. Of course the coaches respect us and the rest of the team, so they asked us. We used to train with Kaitlin and Jean-Luc, Madi used to train with Evan before, and having competed with both teams, they are probably the two teams we get along with the best. Now that Tessa and Scott are not here, my take on it was, why not have another team to push and motivate us? And it’s going to be great for Kaitlin and Jean-Luc too, to be in a place where they can maximize who they are as skaters. They have always been struggling against the U.S. hierarchy. I’m honestly just looking forward to it, I can’t wait for Evan to get out here and finally have a guy who has some things in common with me. He likes music, we’ll drink at the terrasses [the open air bars in Montréal], and then play music.
MH: We only have a couple of months of this, and then come August, we have to train hard!
ZD: On no, this is going happen until the terrasses closes…you only live one time! I lift up enough heavy things at the gym to make up for one beer.
IDC: Dancer/choreographer Sam Chouinard was an important part of your team in the creation of both your competitive programs this past season. Tell us about the creative process from the floor to the ice between you, him, and your coaches, and how a program evolves throughout the season.
MH: Sam is a bundle of fun. He started working here when we first came as the school was expanding and they were looking for choreographic input. I don’t even know how they found him. He has a background in many styles of dance. It all started with doing some hip hop classes to have fun in preparation of the upcoming season, and then he helped us with our hip-hop SD. We were one of the teams who worked with him the most. He’s so much fun and he’s so open. He had never skated before and has been learning it so he can feel how the dance moves he created off-ice feel with the glide. He keeps everything very fun and creative. He’s close to our age, so he’s good at balancing the fun, but he makes sure we get things done how he wants. It’s really a dream team—he and Marie have so much fun working off of each other during choreography. At the moment, we are just listening to a bunch of pieces for the FD and trying to decide how to cut them together. This weekend will be our first time ever with Marie and Sam doing a workshop off-ice, sitting down and deciding on the piece. We are anxious because it’s almost June and time to get going!
IDC: What were your favorite elements/moments from your programs last season?
MH: I like all the music in the Short Dance, especially the rhumba. The most fun and sassiest part was the last one with a little bit of samba, where we ‘shhhh’ everybody. In the FD, I wanted to skate to Beth Hart for so long. I love this music, so my hardest part was cutting it. They were like, “We need another piece!” and I was, “No no no, we can do 4 minutes of this song!” But there were so many cool moments. We liked doing the twizzles at the beginning with the music and then the accents and nuances that Marie and Sam created. Towards the end of the FD where she’s just going crazy with her voice, it’s really fun to skate to that, because you feel that’s really coming out of you. It’s hard to pick with the FD, I think all of it is my favorite.
ZD: That’s a good question we don’t get often. I liked the curve lift in the FD, that was cool, and we had a lot of fun making it up. We struggled with finding a cool entry and it turned into a pretty cool lift. And then rhumba, it’s just fun, it’s an easy dance.
Last year’s FD is really special to you. It worked from the beginning and you didn’t have to make many changes throughout the season, as it has happened sometimes with past programs. Did you know from the beginning it would be something special or did it grow with the memories attached to it? How did you feel when Beth Hart, the singer of the piece you chose, posted about it on social media?
ZD: We kind of knew it was special right away. We really took the time to make a good choreography. It was a more in-depth, slower process than usual. The first time we showed it to our judges, we had lots of ideas but not much to show them, which was new for us. Madi felt a huge attachment right away and the coaches worked with it. Slowly, she got me on board and it ended up…well, being the work of art you saw at the end!
MH: It was so cool when Beth Hart posted about it. It was the first time we skated to an artist who acknowledged our performance. It’s nerve-racking as well as cool because she put lots of heart and soul into that performance, and we want to represent what she created. But I just feel her music so much, hopefully we did her justice. Actually after the Olympics, we ended up getting a message from Bootstraps, the authors of last year’s FD music. That’s how the Olympics is, everyone suddenly knows you… [this transitions to us discussing Madi’s dog being on a Buzzfeed article]
IDC: You just came back from a really long Stars on Ice tour, where the arenas were full and the crowds enthusiastic. What are your best memories and feelings from the tour?
MH: One of the coolest shows for me was when we got back to San Jose, that rink is super special for us: our first nationals, last year’s nationals, and it was one of the best-selling SOI shows. Just to do the free dance there and not worry about competition stress and perform with gratitude for all that happened last season was great. And overall, it was only our second year of SOI, but the first time doing the full post-Olympic tour. Last year, as much as it was a cool experience, I think everyone was focused on getting prepared for the Olympic season. There were small fun moments, but it was not like, “OMG, Stars on Ice was so fun, I love these people.” This time, we had much more time together. It’s the first time in my life that Ashley Wagner and I hung out so much, and we realized we are actually the same person. We have so much in common.
ZD: How did you think I felt about that… aaaargh [makes gesture of self strangulation]! I don’t know if Ashley and I could ever skate with each other. Madi deals with me very well, but Ashley would try to kill me.
MH: Everyone had a more laid back vibe. It was fun to be with Meryl [Davis] and Charlie [White], Meryl is such a sweetheart and Charlie is the cutest with his baby. He just shows everybody pictures and videos of his baby, and I love babies!
ZD: You have no idea how much Madi loves babies! And every excuse Charlie has is, “Well, I’m a father now.”
MH: It ended up being really fun. Unfortunately, the next three years I don’t think it’s going to be that big of a tour, but I look forward to 2022, to being fully retired, and then doing a tour, with an Olympic medal and with a Team Event gold! We’ve got Alexa and Chris going to Aljona Savchenko, so that’s now a possibility. It’s our time!
IDC: How are your off-ice projects developing? Madi, you are working with your mom on skating dresses and Zach you play music and you have done some choreography for other teams. Can you tell us more?
ZD: I do choreography when we go to seminars, but here, I don’t do much. I’ve done some exhibition programs for Lilah [Fear] and Lewis [Gibson], but it’s hard to work here without a visa. Mostly, I’m starting to branch out into music. I got a new guitar set up and some big projects in the U.S. that are in the works, so I’m not going to talk about that yet. Music is more the alley I’m going into now. When I retire, it will be more about choreography.
MH: I have a business now with my mom and it’s just a matter of how to expand it and create a website that will be able to encompass everything. I like to write, I like to blog, but as much as I like to write about my life and skating, it’s a bit challenging because we do the same things almost all the time, and we are not going to share everything we do for training, too. I want to create a web space where I can branch out in different directions as we would like to create a lifestyle brand. Skating clothes, but we also love children’s clothes, home goods, arts and crafts. It’s a big project, and neither of us are particularly web savvy and most of the time, to create a business like that so quickly, you need money. It’s going to be slow and steady, but the goal is to build exposure over the next four years so by the time I would retire I can still use this skating platform to launch myself in this other career.
IDC: Until last season you were still crowdfunding for part of your training expenses. Have your recent results and Olympic exposure helped you with this, and did you find new sponsors?
ZD: No, no, no, no. There aren’t many sponsorships for ice dance teams, and they are mostly centered around the beautiful girl of the partnership and the guy is kind of left to die.
MH: It is challenging to find a financial sponsor. A lot of times you’ll get product sponsors, like we have with Voss, which is really helpful. They send us Voss water for free and we post about it. They support us in that way, but there is no contract. We do have one sponsor that helps us, which is Shaklee, and they give us plenty of products, proteins, and vitamins to help us with our training. There are also placement bonuses, for example, for qualifying for the Olympic team. We had the Topps trading cards. My uncle, who’s a big sports fan, went to the shop to buy them and someone recognized me and said, “OMG, that’s your niece, she’s on a Topps card, so she must be a millionaire now.” Well, I think people have a warped sense in that they think everything is paid for an Olympian, but it depends on the sport. There are great things about being a U.S. athlete and we have a great federation, but they have so many good athletes they have to help, so the money gets spread out. Definitely the results and SOI helped financially, but we’ll still be looking for other donations. Also, the biggest pain is living here in Canada and not being able to work. We try and go to Lake Placid when we can for shows or seminars, so we’ll just keep going like this.
IDC: What are your favorite programs from other skaters in the last few seasons? Both in ice dance and other disciplines.
ZD: I got those, it’s easy. It took me a while to warm up to it because I have my own idea of what the program should be, but I love Tessa and Scott’s “Moulin Rouge,” even though it’s not my favorite of theirs (my favorite is one from when they were juniors). Nathan Chen’s short, it wasn’t his best at the Olympics, but I got to see it at SOI, and it was really nice. Aljona Savchenko and Bruno Massot’s free, come on, and Vanessa James and Morgan Cipres’ “The Sound of Silence.” As for ;adies…
MH: Carolina Kostner, the faun program. he is beautiful!
ZD: I liked the short better, but yeah I’m going to miss her, now that she’s not there, it’s going to be less about the artistic side of skating and more about just jumps.
MH: The free program of Sui and Han, the lift that they do at the end where he’s in spread eagle and puts her up, it’s crazy. In men, I am a big fan of Yuzuru Hanyu’s “Seimei” free. We saw it at NHK the first year he competed it, there was something very special about that performance. I also really loved Daisuke Takahashi.
ZD: His “Blues for Klook” was incredible! He’s the most underrated freestyle skater of all time. Yagudin was my favorite freestyle skater. I also worked with him a little bit!
MH: I always saw myself in some of the more athletic and muscular dancers. I liked [Isabelle] Delobel and [Olivier] Schoenfelder a lot, the year where the SD was the boogie [2008-09]. I really liked them that year, and it was also the year they did Pink Floyd.
ZD: That was one of my favorite programs from Tessa and Scott, even though they hated it. It was different for them, that’s why I liked it.
IDC: What are you best competition memories together, of the fans, cities, atmosphere, teammates, etc.?
ZD: Japan is always incredible. We both love to go there—the food, the culture, the people. The ice is always nice and loud, so we know when we are skating well. And I’ve never seen an ice dance event so crowded.
MH: They clap on time!
ZD: Then you can go to Italy, eat as much pasta as you like and not put on a pound. Italy and France are the places for food. Spain is the place for parties.
MH: It was special for me the first time we did the Grand Prix Final in Barcelona. It was my first time in Spain being with a Spanish guy [Adrian Diaz], and it was also the first Final we qualified for. Just the idea of competing close to the beach, it was fun. Also, our first year together, we went to Nice. It was an event that took us by surprise. We were in awe of being at Worlds. We skated in the first or second group and I remember sitting in the stands watching the competition. The crowd was really loud and we were watching and every skater was going by and we were still in first and we were like, “What is this? We haven’t been to worlds ever!” That was exciting.
ZD: Wait, was I the first you went to Worlds with? I had forgotten. [Laughing] My ego just got so much bigger.
IDC: Now something about your partner: what’s…
Your favourite thing about them:
ZD: I know this one about me.
MH: You think I’m going to say your voice, which is one of my favorite things. His singing voice is very nice and I have plenty of memories where he was singing to me, but I am very thankful for Zach’s passion for skating. We struggle with the fact that we butt heads sometimes because we have both strong personalities, but no matter how hard it gets, we never give up and it comes from our absolute love of skating and our unwillingness to throw that away for anything. I love his commitment.
ZD: Also I am really stubborn. What do I like about Madi…I could ramble on for ten hours, but an easy way to say it is how much she challenges me, not only about skating. She’s a really supportive partner and she always holds me to my highest standards, higher than the standards I hold myself to, which helped me to grow up pretty fast and gave me a drive I didn’t have before. That tops everything in my life
A pet peeve about them:
ZD: How much more time do we have?
MH: My pet peeve is also mostly his voice. He has that piercing tone. He can whistle very loud. He loves talking and singing, so when we are skating together I’m very close to his mouth and he’d say something to someone really further away, my eardrums want to burst.
ZD: I don’t know if there’s anything about you that I don’t like. You annoy me every day for about 30 seconds. That’s normal with a guy and a girl skating together, but there is nothing I can say I wish you did differently.
MH: Say something, you can be really petty, it’s fine. You always get mad at me if I say “but,” or if I think things are impossible.
ZD: That’s true, you have a lack of imagination sometimes. You decide it’s impossible too soon.
IDC: Something that people may not know about them:
MH: People that get to meet Zach think his energy is very high, he talks a lot, he’s a fun loving person, but I think especially with me, he can be different, if we are hanging out or at a competition or traveling. Especially when we were training by my home in Ohio, we spent many weekends at my family’s house, and you wouldn’t hear from Zach the whole day, he would just be reading or watching a movie. I don’t think many people see this side of him. That’s shocking to a lot of people.
ZD: Madi is actually really shy. She comes off as a confident, independent woman, but especially when it comes to speaking a new language or putting herself out there, she’s very shy. She’s very confident in herself, but I think she wants to be very confident in something before she displays it to the world.
IDC: Is there anything else you would like to share with our readers?
MH: Stay tuned for new things, until our first competitions! I think we are trying to keep our same agenda as usual, so Salt Lake [2018 U.S. International Figure Skating Classic] should be first, and then I guess as U.S. champs, we’ll go to Skate America. We like Washington.
ZD: Merci beaucoup!