Detroit — They honed their skills training for years for the ice dance in Metro Detroit, and after Friday's first day at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships they sit first, second and third entering the free dance Saturday.
The defending champions Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue, the comeback kids Madison Chock and Evan Bates and Kaitlin Hawayek and Jean-Luc Baker have all decamped to the new training mecca of Montreal.
But, they said that the comforting environs of Detroit felt like strong encouragement during their rhythm dance, formerly known as the short dance, Friday in Little Caesars Arena.
“It was great to be here in this beautiful arena,” said Hubbell, who calls Okemos her hometown and lived in Ann Arbor until she and Donohue moved their training base to Montreal.
“It’s just a beautiful facility, and a good home crowd. A lot of our family was in the audience today.”
Hubbell and Donohue, the reigning world silver medalists, first skated with each other at the Detroit Skating Club.
They recently joined a massive exodus to Montreal and the next big thing in ice dancing, training with the acclaimed coaches Marie-France Dubreuil, Patrice Lauzon and Romain Haguenauer, who now hold sway in the sport in the way that the Russian coaches Marina Zueva and Igor Shpilband did over the course of four Olympics from Metro Detroit.
“We’re pretty lucky that we get to train with the best in the world,” Donohue said. “All of the best teams in Montreal, we’re pushing each other really hard.
“We all love each other. We all want to beat each other.”
Hubbell and Donohue and Chock and Bates might challenge for medals in March at the World Championships in Japan.
Hubbell said she and Donohue first viewed the move to Montreal as a chance to leave the glaring spotlight on international ice dancing in Detroit.
“At that point, I think that’s what we needed,” she said. “We needed to step out of this kind of fishbowl of Detroit and find our own way and decide who we were and to have confidence in that.”
For Chock and Bates, their high score Friday marked a triumphant return to healthy competition for the first time in about 18 months, since before the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Olympics.
A complex ankle injury left Chock skating in pain and requiring surgery.
Now fully recovered, they seemed at about the top of their skating Friday after a warm-up competition in a lower senior classification in Poland this month.
They said they felt so at home back in Detroit that they went out for pierogis for dinner Thursday.
“We’re happy to be back,” said an ebullient Chock, in the mixed zone, immediately after the skate.
“The crowd was incredible. I had to try to contain myself at the beginning because we got such a warm welcome, and that was really exciting and nice to feel.”
Both agree that returning to competitive skating just before the nationals provided a big boost.
“I think Poland helped a lot,” said Bates, who attended the University of Michigan, is a native of Ann Arbor, and who trained in Ann Arbor, Canton and Novi before decamping to Montreal.
“There’s still the same kind of jitters, and I think being home there was a little extra pressure we put on ourselves to perform for all of our loved ones that are here.
“But, I think with the happiness we are experiencing in life and off ice,” he said, referring in part to the romance between the couple, “we’re really excited about the path that we are on.”
After a long struggle for health and a fall at the Olympics, Chock is clearly joyful on the current phase of her career and life.
“I’m just so happy to be healthy and to skate, to do what I love, and with the person that I love, and with coaches that are so wonderful and nurturing of this emotion,” she said.
“I’m just the happiest I’ve ever been, and it’s going to get better.”
Hubbell and Donohue scored at 84.56, skating a few skates after Chock and Bates’s 82.33.
Kawayek and Baker also trained at the Detroit Skating Club, before moving to Montreal. She is a native of Bloomfield Hills.
They edged Christina Carreira and Antony Ponomarenko by 1.54, with their 76.77 score in the rhythm dance.
Plenty of ice dance training still occurs in Metro Detroit, with Shpilband still churning out skaters at the Novi Ice Arena, several years after he and Zueva ended their partnership.
Zueva announced this month she is moving her training from Canton to Florida.
The free dance for all competitors is at 6:16 p.m. Saturday. NBCSN will televise it live.