Americans only manage bronze medal in ice dancing

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Madison Chock and Evan Bates of the United States stumble and fall during the ice dance, free dance figure skating final Tuesday. | AP

GANGNEUNG, South Korea — It is not often a dance team ends up falling in a heap on the ice, but that’s exactly what happened to accomplished Americans Madison Chock and Evan Bates on Tuesday in the Olympic ice-dance long program.

It’s also not often that another dance team, the current U.S. national champion, has the distinct bad fortune to have someone fall from their knees onto their hands near the end of the program, but that’s exactly what happened to Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue on their way to a possible bronze medal.

Hubbell and Donohue finished fourth and Chock and Bates finished ninth while their U.S. teammates Maia and Alex Shibutani won the bronze medal as the Olympic ice-dance competition came to a crashing and dramatic conclusion.

Disaster struck as Chock and Bates, the 2015 U.S. national champions, were going into their combination spin, with Bates picking Chock up, then setting her skate back down on the ice, and then, skates tangled, both of them flat on the ice.

They got up and finished well, but their well-received “Imagine” program, choreographed by the great Christopher Dean, ended not in triumph, but in tears on the ice.

“Everybody’s looking at us like we’re injured puppy dogs,” Bates said later in the mixed zone. “I think we just clicked blades entering the spin and it’s really impossible to spin with that kind of friction. One moment things were going exactly how we wanted them to and the next moment, in a flash, disaster struck. There’s no other way to put it.”

Both were fighting back tears, Chock moreso.

“It’s just so fresh,” said Chock, who has been skating all season with two loose bone fragments held in place by cartilage in her right foot. “We just got too close. I’m really proud of how we recovered and got up and just still can’t believe it happened.”

“I wish I could have the moment back,” Bates said, “but that’s part of sport and part of life. It’s part of our story now.”

Hubbell and Donohue, in third by 2/100th of a point after the short dance, skated 45 minutes later, knowing a medal could be theirs if they nailed their program. But they started off a bit raggedly on their twizzles, one of the staples of any ice-dance program, and doubt suddenly crept in.

“I think we both had a little bit of a moment mentally,” Hubbell said. “We knew everybody was skating very strong in the event, and we knew that it was going to be very close. It’s your natural reaction to say, ‘Well, it’s already gone.’ ”

But they pressed on, until, toward the end of the program, Donohue lost his balance while sliding on his knees on their choreographic twizzle sequence, putting his hands down on the ice.

Nearly 11 months ago at the 2017 world championships in Helsinki, Donohue slipped and fell on a twizzle sequence, costing the team the bronze medal there.

Asked what he was thinking after the unthinkable happened again, Donohue replied:

“How many minutes has it been since we finished because that’s how long I’ve been replaying it for and I still have no idea. There’s no good excuse or reason why that happens when I can do it a billion times out of a billion at home. It was just a moment I wasn’t focused and a mistake that cost us a medal.”

Donohue slumped and put his hand to his head as he watched their score appear: 187.69, nearly five points below the Shibutanis (192.59) and out of the medals.

Who could explain this nightmare, the strongest ice-dancing nation on earth watching not one but two of its best teams in history slip or fall when it mattered most?

“It’s an incredibly difficult sport, very, very precise, Hubbell said. At this point where ice dance is in the world, there are no mistakes to be in the top three. We made a program that’s challenging, that’s intricate and difficult. We don’t have to risk things like that in our choreo twizzle sequence, but at the same time, we ask ourselves, if we don’t do something that’s interesting and that we enjoy doing and that we find challenging, would we be in the top three anyway? Who knows?”

That was the question of the hour for U.S. ice dancing: who knows, indeed.

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