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Ice Dance at the Beijing Olympics Was a Big Victory for Team USA’s Favorite Training School

9 minute read

With the results of the ice dance event at the Beijing Olympics, it’s official. The elite training center for ice dance is now in Montreal. The Ice Academy of Montreal (I.AM), founded in 2014, fielded 11 of the 23 teams competing at this Games, and now claims four Olympic medals. This is the second Olympics at which I.AM teams have earned two spots on the podium.

The French team of Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron, who train at I.AM, decisively won gold, improving on their silver medal finish four years ago in Pyeongchang, while the American team of Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue, who also train at I.AM, won bronze. The Russian team of Victoria Sinitsina and Nikita Katsalapov won silver.

The French firmly established themselves as the best in their sport; on Saturday, their rhythm dance established a world record. “This year we gathered the courage to want to win,” Cizeron said. “That was a pretty important shift.”

All three of the top U.S. teams also train at the Academy, a testament to the inclusive and motivating atmosphere created by co-founders and husband-wife team of Marie-France Dubreuil and Patrice Lauzon and Romain Haguenauer. It’s unusual in figure skating for so many teams who compete against each other throughout the season to train together—and share coaches, choreographers and trade secrets. But Dubreuil and Lauzon stress the benefits of friendly rivalry—rather than the jealousy and selfishness that can turn the competitive spirit toxic.

READ MORE: Inside the School Where the Best Olympic Ice Dance Teams Train

“We do our best to develop each team individually with their own personality,” Dubreuil told TIME prior to the Games. “So something that I work with for the French team might not be possible for when I work with Maddie [Hubbell] and Zach [Donohue], who have a completely different style. When you have a sport that has a certain art form, it’s important to develop individuality. By doing this, I feel like I am developing everybody at their best level, and then it’s the judges who have to decide which style or flavor they prefer. Because they are all equally good. Just different.”

With newly crowned Olympic men’s champion Nathan Chen cheering them on, Americans Madison Chock and Evan Bates were the first of the top four ice dance teams to skate. Chock played the role of an alien, in a tale of universal love to Bates’ astronaut, and their lifts and synchrony on the all-important twizzle turns were truly out of this world. Only an intergalactic love story could follow the team’s memorable program last year, when Chock played a snake. “Our program is deeply rooted in the message of accepting and finding love with someone who is different than you,” Chock told TIME. “It’s important for us to have that message behind our program every season, and especially in the Olympic season when we feel we have the opportunity to share our creating and inspire others around the world.”

Figure Skating - Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics Day 10
Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron of Team France skate during the Ice Dance Free Dance on day ten of the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympic Games at Capital Indoor Stadium on Feb. 14, 2022 in Beijing. They won gold in the event.Xavier Laine–Getty images

Dubreuil said that Chock and Bates allow her imagination run wild when it comes to choreographing their programs. “With them, I’m not afraid to go deep imagining and creating stuff that I wouldn’t create for anyone else,” she said. “[Chock] has the power to transform and really play a role, and make you forget who you are watching.”

Dubreuil especially liked the idea of having a program that would distinguish Chock and Bates from the rest of the teams in the last group of top finishers. “After doing the snake program, we couldn’t go back to something very classical,” she said. “We knew the Russians probably would do something classical, and Gabby [Papadakis] and Guillaume [Cizeron] already had music with piano. So we thought we need to keep being different.”

Chock and Bates are establishing themselves as the team at the artistic edge of ice dancing. “I feel like we have a strong identity in the sport as a team who will push the boundaries creatively, and who are not afraid to take chances,” said Bates.

While the concept was a risk in an Olympic year, it proved to be worth it. They couple set a personal best score in the free dance of 130.63, besting their previous personal best set days earlier in the team event in Beijing. But it wasn’t enough to keep them on the podium, and they finished fourth overall.

They definitely made an impression, however, even among non-skaters. “I would love to work with that couple,” Cheryl Burke, professional dancer and choreographer on Dancing With the Stars tells TIME after watching the event. “[Chock’s] facial expressions are real, raw and authentic and it comes from her gut. She feels her character so much; I was captivated and that’s why I’m so excited about them.”

Their U.S. teammates, and training mates at I.AM, Hubbell and Donohue, were next to skate, with a very different, and intensely personal program. Hubbell and Donohue announced at the beginning of the season that they are retiring after 11 years. Their partnership is a unique merging of two independent and strong personalities—they’ve disagreed, and had ups and downs with communicating with each other, especially at the beginning of their union. Donohue admitted the pairing got off to a rocky start because, “I was immature and under developed in how to communicate; I was rough.” They dated, then broke up but remained skating partners through it all. Their routine reflected that evolution of two people who have lived together, loved together, struggled together, and ultimately came through those challenges together.

They wanted the entire season to serve as a goodbye and thank you—to each other and to their families, friends and fans. Their free program is the culmination of that farewell, Hubbell told TIME. “I hope people acknowledge that we are inviting them into our last moments, knowing that we carry with us out there on the ice our appreciation for them, and for their part in our journey,” she said. “We are inviting them into it, as much as we can through the TV screen, to allow them to feel what it is we have felt for 11 years—the freedom and joy that comes from moving and flying across the ice.”

Their program was therefore more intimate than other teams, and carried a far deeper emotional undercurrent. It was enough to score 130.89 and overcome their American teammates.

The Russians were next, skating to Rachmaninov and displaying the classic speed and flow that kept Russian teams dominant in the sport for decades. Unlike the American teams, however, their program didn’t tell a story, and included an abrupt change in music and pace in the last third, creating a sharp contrast between the serene beginning of the routine. Still, it was enough to best Hubbell and Donohue for silver.

Papadakis and Cizeron, as the leaders following the rhythm dance, took to the ice last. Their program, a contemporary tango, actually came together in an unusual way. After they initially started with a more traditional tango, they decided to modify the style after working with a modern dance choreographer, alongside Dubreuil and the Academy’s choreographer Sam Chouinard. “A tango is for showing passion in many different ways, for letting go,” Chouinard tells TIME after the event. “They were giving everything they lived through personally in their lives during COVID-19, [which both of them contracted last year]. Gabby especially had a rough time, and she processed a lot of it in that program. So I think it was like therapy for them to do this.”

In describing his emotions afterward, Cizeron agreed. “[The program] is a melting pot of all the extreme emotions we can feel as humans and what we have been through ourselves, through our lives and through our careers.” The performance was hallmark Papadakis and Cizeron, whom Dubreuil described as being “poetic” on the ice—deep edges and impeccable technique that made it seem like they were floating, rather than gliding on the ice. With a technically precise and artistically fluid program, the French team easily overcame the Russians in both technical elements and program components, with a score of 136.15.

Whether Papadakis and Cizeron continue to skate into the next Olympics, I.AM will most likely continue to be well represented at the 2026 Milano Cortina Winter Games by younger teams training in Montreal. U.S. national bronze medalists, Kaitlin Hawayek and Jean-Luc Baker, made a statement with their understated and technically precise program to Chopin, while China’s Shiyue Wang and Xinyu Liu are hoping to earn the country’s first Olympic ice dance medal.

With I.AM teams taking two of the three medals in ice dance, it’s clear that the formula of working with, rather than against, your competition may be the secret to success. And it’s not just lip service. The skaters training in Montreal are truly a team—they pet-sit for one another, and enjoy dinners together. Hubbell, who taught herself nail art techniques during the pandemic, is the go-to manicurist for nearly the entire team. She packed all of her tools, including everyone’s chosen nail colors in preparing for Beijing. It’s a good thing: after the rhythm dance, she joked she was quite busy despite being confined to her room in Beijing because of COVID-19 precautions, occupied by Olympic collecting pins, reading and watching Netflix. And putting her manicurist skills to use. “Madison Chock broke a nail, so I have to fix it tomorrow,” she said. “I’ve got a packed schedule; I’ve got no down time!”

That’s the true definition of team work.

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