“Sometimes it’s hard to see them compete against one another,” Marie-France Dubreuil said as she watched her pupils at the French leg of the Grand Prix season in November.
The top three U.S. ice dance couples train at the Montreal school that she manages with Patrice Lauzon and Romain Haguenauer: Madison Chock and Evan Bates, 2015 U.S. champions; Madison Hubbell and Zach Donohue, two-time U.S. champions and Kaitlin Hawayek and Jean-Luc Baker, who made their first nationals podium last year.
They are again the medal favorites at this week’s U.S. Figure Skating Championships in Greensboro, N.C., after which the three-couple team for March’s world championships will be named. It’s quite rare, in any country, for the top three teams in one discipline to share coaches.
“They are very different from one another,” said Lauzon, who with Dubreuil earned world silver medals in dance for Canada in 2006 and 2007. “I don’t compare them. That’s one of the bases of our coaching. Each team competes against itself. Our goal is to try finding the best version of each one of them. We work on both their qualities and their faults.”
The Montreal school swept the podium at December’s Grand Prix Final — France’s Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron followed by Chock and Bates then Hubbell and Donohue. Montreal has seemingly become the place to be in ice dance.
The third American dance couple, Hawayek and Baker, qualified for their first Grand Prix Final last year in their first season under Dubreuil, Lauzon, and Haguenauer.
“Kaitlin and Jean-Luc need to take their own place,” Haguenauer said. “They are an atypical dance team. They may be less tall than other teams, but the way they cover the ice is just as brilliant. it’s amazing. We’re working to bring them to their very best level: you know, excellence is made of details. Our sport judges dancing and skating, but also the aesthetics and the impression skaters radiate on the ice. Those impact directly a performance.”
As Hawayek and Baker moved to Montreal after the 2017-18 season, so did Chock and Bates. They joined the Montreal school during 10 months away from competition, as Chock was recovering from an ankle injury that required surgery.
This season, Chock and Bates had their best Grand Prix results in four years. They could become the first skater, pair or dance couple to go five or more years between national titles since the 1920s.
“[Chock and Bates] allowed us to put them in discomfort, so that we could help them crack the mold they were into,” Dubreuil said. “Evan is tall and powerful. We tried to help him be more aligned with his blade-to-ice contacts, more controlled. Both are hyper-elegant. So, we tried to free the machine and let it go.”
Bates continued the metaphor in an interview with NBC Olympics Research.
“I think it’s one of those instances where you bang on the glass ceiling for a while and then it finally breaks and then you get through,” he said regarding the duo’s success since their move. He also called the fact that they were headed to Greensboro for nationals, the site of their championship title in 2015, “poetic.”
When Hubbell and Donohue moved to Montreal in 2015, Dubrueil said the aim was to make them look “classier and more sophisticated.” They went from finishing third or fourth at four straight nationals to earning world championships medals in 2018 (silver) and 2019 (bronze).
“When you see their results, they’re always at the top after they’ve been down,” Haguenauer said. That was the case after worlds in 2016, or after the Olympics. When things are going too smoothly, they have more difficulties.”
Hubbell said in a media teleconference last week this season is different from others because they spent more of the summer “brainstorming” their programs. They also waited longer to debut than in previous seasons.
“This year is a very competitive season with a lot of teams that seem to be all chasing after those top spots,” she added. “We worked quite hard before [December’s Grand Prix] Final knowing that everybody would skate really great performances. We wanted to make sure to end up on the podium. It was great to be up there. It was the first time we’ve been able to share an entirely [Montreal-coached] podium at a major event. That’s a really special feeling for everyone on the team.”