When Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue finished 10th at the 2015 World Championships, they thought it was time to switch things up. The ice dance team, formerly training in Detroit, Michigan, sat down with coaches Marie-France Dubreuil and Patrice Lauzon to discuss a tryout at their Montreal, Canada school.
“We approached them [at Worlds] and they said, ‘yeah, come out for a couple of weeks and see how you like it. Give it a test,’” Donohue recalled in an interview with NBCOlympics.com. “After the first day we said, ‘yeah it’s pretty good here!’”
Dubreuil and Lauzon had spent the past year coaching Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron of France to their first world championship gold medal, vaulting from a 13th place finish the year before. When Dubreuil and Lauzon competed as ice dancers themselves, they earned silver medals at the world championships in 2006 and 2007.
Hubbell said the abrupt change wasn’t out of the ordinary for her and Donohue’s “crazy lifestyle of traveling and just going for things and not necessarily having a plan.”
“I remember calling my mom and telling her, “we’re moving to Montreal.” She was like “O-ok…ay?” I called her from China, and I can’t talk about anything because I have no data, but I’m going on vacation now for a week, and I won’t have any internet for a week, or a way to talk to you, but when I come home, I’m packing up and I’m leaving! I felt that that was a normal thing to do.”
The 12-hour drive from her home to Montreal hasn’t hindered Hubbell’s mother’s involvement in the team’s creative process. Hubbell and her mom shop in Montreal for fabrics and rhinestones and then she’ll make the 12-hour drive back home to work on the team’s costumes. She’ll drive back and forth to Montreal for fittings leading up to the beginning of each season.
“Montreal is an incredible city in and of itself,” Donohue added. “The city is beautiful. The outdoor market and the culture that is surrounding everything is something that we have never really lived in. We have experienced it for a week at a time when you visit a beach or something at a European competition but it’s really like a mini-France with a strange and different accent.”
But the team said there aren’t many daily challenges to living and training as Americans in Montreal. They can get around by speaking English almost everywhere. Grocery shopping isn’t a problem, Donohue explained, as everyone learns English and French in school.
“While the Quebecois accent is not the typical accent – very different than a Parisian accent – a lot of it’s the same. You dive in and you’re living here, you pick things up pretty quickly,” he said.
Sometimes, they run into websites that don’t translate easily into English. But they just call someone if they need assistance.
Otherwise, their training is pretty typical for ice dancers. They’re on the ice between three and four hours per day, plus they have daily cardio workouts. Most of their sessions overlap with Papadakis and Cizeron, who went on to win another world championship title in 2016. Hubbell and Donohue placed sixth, a career high after just one season in Montreal.
Canadians Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir, who won two silver medals in Sochi after winning Olympic gold in Vancouver, returned from a two-year competitive break for the 2016-17 season. They joined the Montreal school, too.
“We didn’t know what would happen when Tessa and Scott came back because we had a really good dynamic with Gabriella and Guillaume, even before moving here, and it always throws a wrench into the mix. Like, ‘oh you’re the world champions? Well we are bringing Olympic champions!’” Hubbell said of the Canadians’ return to competition. But she added that the environment continues to inspire all the teams. “I applaud both of the teams for how well they have handled it and keeping a really healthy, friendly environment and it kind of inspires Zach and I to do the same. We don’t see our fellow Americans that often, but when we do it keeps it kind of in perspective for us. It is a constant reminder that the competition isn’t with another person; the competition is always going to be with yourself.”
After the short dance at the 2017 World Championships, Montreal teams stood in the top three. Virtue and Moir were first, followed by Papadakis and Cizeron in second, and Hubbell and Donohue in third. The Canadian and French teams held on to their spots for gold and silver medals, but a surprise mistake cost Hubbell and Donohue about six points and they finished ninth overall.
Something else that helps each of the Montreal camp’s top teams hold on to that perspective is that the school primarily tries to train just one team from each country.
“They have a few Canadians but other than that they have the top team from France, us as the only Americans, a Spanish team, they have a lot of really high-level athletes and yet we are not directly competitive within our own countries,” Hubbell explained. “So it gives us a sense of pushing each other, being able to support each other without that daily competitive thing.”
This season, Hubbell and Donohue are skating to an instrumental version of “Across the Sky” by Rag’n’Bone Man and “Caught out in the Rain” by Beth Hart. Hubbell first heard the Hart song while warming up for the 2017 Four Continents Championships, in the same venue that will host Olympic figure skating in PyeongChang.
“When we came [to Montreal], Marie and Patch wanted us to try the more romantic style, they wanted us to try things that we hadn’t done in Detroit to see what our strengths were, to explore different avenues, and now we are coming back to what we originally began with which is a little bit more powerful, sexy, that kind of blues program,” Hubbell said.
She said it feels the most genuine to who they are as skaters, with more precision and refinement added.
There’s a sense among figure skating and ice dance circles that sometimes the programs coming out of the Montreal camp are too similar to each other. Some programs have been vaguely termed “Montreal-style.”
Hubbell laughs at that.
“People will say it’s ‘Marie-France music.’ Well she has some great music then. She has a huge collection of music!”
And some of the programs have earned a “contemporary” label, but don’t tell Hubbell or Donohue that.
“They don’t really know exactly what they want us to call it, so they just say the first thing that comes to mind,” Donohue said. “Everyone sees on TV all of these ‘So You Think You Can Dance’ [shows]. It’s not the classics, so, ‘oh, it must be contemporary.’”
Hubbell likened true contemporary dance to something audiences might see from Cirque du Soleil. Ice dancers wouldn’t be able to move like that on the ice – it’s against the rules.
“Our style isn’t at all the same as Gabby and Guillaume’s style, and it isn’t at all the same as Tessa and Scott’s style. Somehow we are all getting called contemporary. Well, if you look at the programs they are really not the same at all. There will always be someone there trying to lump us together.”