Hubbell and Donohue back in Michigan to defend US title

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              FILE - In this Jan. 7, 2018, file photo, Madison Hubbell, left, and Zachary Donohue perform during the free dance event at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships in San Jose, Calif. Lansing native Madison Hubbell is back in Michigan for the U.S. Figure Skating Championships, where she and Zachary Donohue will try to defend their ice dancing title. (AP Photo/Ben Margot, File)
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DETROIT (AP) — For Madison Hubbell and her family, this week’s U.S. Figure Skating Championships are a title defense, a homecoming and a winter sports party all rolled into one.

Hubbell and Zach Donohue won ice dancing gold at this event last year, and their bid for a repeat championship brings them back to Michigan, where Hubbell was born and where the two used to train. They’re expecting plenty of familiar faces this weekend. Hubbell’s family is even planning a tailgate Saturday that, as far as she knows, is happening regardless of the weather.

“My uncle especially was kind of in charge. He’s a huge sports fan — Detroit sports fan — so he was in charge of creating a more typical American football experience,” Hubbell said. “It’s somewhere very near the arena in a parking lot. I have a diagram. Saturday at 3, there’s going to be barbecue, hot chocolate, coffee.”

Last year at nationals in San Jose, California, Hubbell and Donohue beat two-time defending champions Maia and Alex Shibutani for the title . It was considered an upset at the time, but Hubbell and Donohue have shown it was no fluke. They finished fourth at the Olympics, just behind the Shibutanis, who are not competing this season, and second at the world championships. Since the start of September, they’ve won titles at the U.S. International Classic, Skate America, Skate Canada International and, in their best international victory, the Grand Prix Final.

So they won’t take anybody by surprise if they win again this week, although Donohue downplayed the idea of any extra pressure.

“No expectations really. We’ve got a job to do, and this isn’t really the be all and the end all,” he said. “While it’s an important event, we’re taking the season as a whole. It’s actually kind of easy to forget that we’re coming in defending anything when we’re so focused on what we have to do.”

Bradie Tennell is back to defend her title in the women’s event, and world champion Nathan Chen and Vincent Zhou headline the men’s competition. But Karen Chen is out with a foot injury and Mirai Nagasu is taking a break from the sport. Two-time national champion Gracie Gold isn’t competing this week either after halting her comeback.

And with the Shibutanis also absent, that leaves even more of the spotlight for Hubbell and Donohue.

“I think that there are growing pains that first year right after the Olympic Games, and every discipline kind of has to work out that shuffle of the hierarchy — who’s going to end up on top in these next four years? And you’re going to see a lot of young blood, which is very interesting,” Hubbell said. “I like going into an event and not really feeling like I know who’s going to win.”

Hubbell and Donohue are certainly familiar with some of the competition. They train in Montreal under the same coaches as Madison Chock and Evan Bates. Chock and Bates are from Michigan as well.

“Evan is one of the first friends I had in ice dance,” Hubbell said. “He was best friends with my brother growing up.”

A few years ago, Hubbell and Donohue moved their training base from Michigan to Canada so they could work with coaches Marie-France Dubreuil and Patrice Lauzon. Chock and Bates relocated there this past offseason.

Chock and Bates finished third at nationals last year and fifth at worlds. Now Chock is coming off ankle surgery.

“We feel the most prepared that we ever have, especially coming back from 10 months off competition. I feel so much stronger than I ever have before, and my ankle feels much better as well,” Chock said. “It feels wonderful to be healthy.”

If Hubbell and Donohue enjoy a home crowd advantage this week, Chock and Bates can probably expect one, too.

“It’s really special. We know we’re fortunate, because this doesn’t always happen. U.S. Championships don’t come to everyone’s hometown,” Chock said. “So we’re very lucky, and we’re really going to try to harness that energy and emotion and use it this week.”