By Hiro Yoshida
After finishing second at the 2015 World Championships and backing that up with a World bronze in 2016, most observers expected Madison Chock and Evan Bates to be on or close to the podium at the 2018 PyeongChang Olympic Games. However, things did not go to plan for the Americans and, as they embark on another Olympic cycle, they reflect on what turned out to be a trying season that made the bonds between them even stronger.
The 2015 United States national champions had been fourth and in the medal hunt at 2017 Worlds after the short dance. Unfortunately, a slip by Bates on a twizzle sequence in the free dance saw them fall out of contention and they wound up in seventh place overall. Following this disappointing result, they set their sights on the upcoming Olympic season and began to choose themes for their programmes. For their free, things were not straightforward at first as the duo wanted to find something that would have meaning for them and resonate with the public.
“We had a few different ideas for the free dance,” Bates said. “We switched music I think three times at least. Our initial idea was to skate to “La La Land” and we started choreographing with Christopher Dean and it was kind of fun and light hearted. Then when we thought more about it we wanted to keep searching and try to find something that had more significance for the Olympic year. We started playing with the idea of doing a tango and we thought that would be good to show romance and passion. Then we came across the idea of doing “Imagine” and it was the light bulb moment that it would be a great Olympic programme because of the message the song conveys.”
“It means a lot to us,” Chock added. “We take things to heart when we watch the news. It’s just so heart breaking to see all the tragedy that happens all over the world, so this programme is a beacon of hope not just for us, but hopefully for other people.
“We thought it was the perfect opportunity to say something and voice how we feel as something that we really connect to as dancers and artists. We just wanted to share that.”
Chock and Bates had a challenging start to their season when Chock had bone fragments chip off her right ankle in August 2017. Despite this setback, they were still able to compete at their Grand Prix assignments in China and France. Two second place finishes enabled them to qualify for the Grand Prix Final for the fourth time in a row. They placed third in the free skate in Nagoya, but they remained in the fifth-place position overall in which they had ended after the short.
The New Year saw them in a tight three-way battle at the United States Figure Skating Championships in San Jose, California. Since the retirement of Meryl Davis and Charlie White following the Sochi Olympics, Chock and Bates had won the 2015 U.S. title and ended up runners-up to Maia Shibutani and Alex Shibutani the next two seasons. They also faced Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue who had made rapid progress during the previous season. In the end, less than a point separated the three teams. The Shibutanis won the short, Chock and Bates took the free and Hubbell and Donohue skated to their first title with second places in both segments.
There was never any doubt that the top three American teams would be selected to represent the U.S. at the PyeongChang Olympics. As the Shibutanis were given the task of being the sole American dancers to skate in the team event, Chock and Bates began with the individual short. Disaster struck in the final moments of the warm-up when Chock aggravated her injury. They battled through the short to put themselves in seventh place ahead of the free. However, any hopes of moving up were dashed when the duo fell in the middle of a dance spin. The error dropped them to ninth overall. It was a disappointing end to their second Olympic experience together.
“I remember the last 10-15 seconds of the programme,” Bates recalled. “I saw Maddie already becoming very emotional. It was almost difficult to finish the programme seeing the person I love so much feeling that way and I’ve shared in that feeling of heart break. I don’t know if we said anything to each other, but I remember hugging and holding her close and feeling the heart break physically in our arms. I think the next few hours were difficult for us and the low point was somewhere there in the next hour or two.
“Since then we have found a lot of inspiration and hope from the messages and the words of our fellow competitors, our coaches, our families and strangers. A lot of people reached out and offered words of encouragement and honestly it really helped more than I could ever expect. Even though I have been to the Games three times, it’s so hard to grasp the scope when you perform how many people are watching, what you do and what you say on the Olympic stage, how much weight that can carry and I was blown away by the impact that it had.”
“We were in a very different spot in Sochi,” Chock explained. “We were happy to be there and excited to show our skating. We weren’t expecting anything as far as placement. This time we weren’t expecting anything as far as placement, but we were definitely hungrier, and we knew we wanted a medal. We were really trying our hardest to get a medal and obviously an unfortunate thing happened, but we went into the Games with a different mindset.”
“Skating with expectations is always harder than being the fresh faces and going,” Bates added. “Even my second Games in Sochi, it was our first Games so there was the kind of feeling that it was just wonderful to be here and have the experience for four years from now. Four years later in PyeongChang, we knew we would be in close competition with a lot of teams. It was a different feeling in my opinion skating there versus skating in Sochi. Even though we didn’t come away with a medal, the goal we had set for ourselves, we really had some wonderful accomplishments. The most significant was the reaction of the public in the arena after we fell and got up. The crowd were clapping along and cheering for us and, even as we were bowing and heartbroken, looking into the stands I can remember seeing people who were supporting us. I remember looking up and seeing a group of all Canadians standing for us. Afterwards the messages we received on the internet and through email and text – honestly, I could never have expected that kind of response. It’s one of those things where sport becomes a life lesson. The way we performed connected with people because it transcended what we were doing, and it was relatable to other people. Everyone in their life fails at some point. Everybody falls down literally and metaphorically and getting up and finishing the programme and putting our hearts into the performance I think connected with people. At the onset of the Olympics that is what we wanted to do.”
“We’re happy our programme was able to have that impact and it is what we intended,” Chock said. “It is almost more meaningful and more impactful that we struggled through the programme and like Evan said people related to it more.
“There is a struggle, but there’s always hope and if you persevere and continue. You still have hope and that’s the most important thing.”
The Americans put PyeongChang behind them and closed the season out at the World Championships in Milan, Italy. They finished fifth in both segments of the event with a season best total of 187.28 to place fifth. Two weeks after the conclusion of the competition, Chock had surgery on the ankle. While apprehensive about the procedure, she was looking on the bright side.
“It forces us to take more time off which I think in the long run will be better because we’ll feel more refreshed,” Chock said. “When I come back, I know I will feel so much stronger. That’s what I’m really looking forward to.”
Throughout their rollercoaster of a season, Chock and Bates found solace in the strengthening of the emotional bonds between them both on and off the ice. In the latter half of the 2016-2017 season they became romantically involved. Their relationship had evolved a long way from when they started out with previous partners competing against each other on the junior circuit.
“We were friends,” Bates said. “I could never have predicted that we would skate together.
“When you are young, I think that you never predict difficulty for yourself. You are naïve, and you think life will be perfect. Life is not perfect, and both our paths were winding and eventually crossed. I just think that no-one would have ever paired us together based on our physical height difference and just the look that we have. Nowadays it’s more common to see teams who have a height difference. When we got together it wasn’t an immediate fit. In our first year at nationals, we were fifth at Nationals. We didn’t qualify for Worlds.”
“There were some growing pains,” Chock added.
“We did two Grand Prix events that year and we fell in both,” Bates continued. “It took some time to gel.”
In the aftermath of a disappointing result at the Grand Prix Final in Marseille, France in December 2016, a post-competition trip to Paris brought their relationship to a whole new level. Even though they had doubts about the wisdom of becoming an off-ice couple, they felt it was the right decision.
“In Marseille, we had a really difficult competition,” Bates said. “We finished last and it was a difficult time for us. We went to Paris for a few days afterwards together and we were talking, evaluating life and skating and thinking beyond just skating. We sort of knew that we cared for each other in that way, but it’s sometimes suggested that you don’t date your partner on the ice. It can be tricky and risky if things don’t go well off-ice and can put things in jeopardy on the ice. When we were in Paris, we came to the realisation that we really love each other and wanted to be together. We knew that it wouldn’t jeopardise our skating. We had already skated together for five years. We had already been friends for ten years and knew each other well. We decided that we wanted to be together and weren’t going to put off that relationship. We just felt strongly that it would work, and it has worked. Maybe it was because we were in Paris and it’s the city of love.
“I think it was because we’ve had a few difficult seasons with results and injury. Things have pushed together. We have each other and that is the most important thing. I don’t think we would be a romantic couple if we had not experienced the adversity together. It has really pushed us together and it’s shown us that we are each other’s best friend and rock and support system no matter what and we’re a team. I’m very thankful for that.”
“We knew each other well before, but now we know each other even better,” Chock said.
Like most skaters of their generation, Chock and Bates realise the power of social media to create a narrative for themselves as skaters and reach out to their fan base. They also feel a responsibility to use their accounts as a positive force in the world.
“We feel like social media is such a good way to present yourself to the world and nowadays everyone can be their own publicist and photographer,” Bates said. “It is something we enjoy, but it’s also something that’s not natural for us. We’re kind of more to the private side of the spectrum, but it’s an opportunity to show who we are to the world and I think we are going to make a conscious effort to share more and be more open. I think it’s good so long as you are thoughtful of what you are posting and not being obnoxious.”
“It’s another platform to use our voices,” Chock continued. “We’re not the most famous, but we are athletes in a sport that is fairly popular. In that aspect we can use it to send a message and our message is usually always something of positivity and hope. We don’t ever want to add anything negative to the world so in that aspect we will use our accounts and our voices only to spread positivity and light as much as we can.”
There is a lot of positivity these days in ice dance with many of the top teams sharing close friendships with each other. The Americans confirmed that the sense of camaraderie and mutual respect is genuine.
“We’re so lucky to have so many good friends,” Chock said. “The sport brings so many good people to one spot. It’s nice to get to know people, even if we only see them infrequently, but we keep in touch.
“It’s that feeling when you see a friend you went to elementary school or middle school with,” Bates continued. “You met them at a really young age and you don’t always see them or talk to them, but when you see them it brings back all the memories of back in the day. We really grew up together in this sport and a lot of us have trained with each other at some point along the way and have so many shared experiences.”
“It’s just a mutual respect,” Chock said. “Everyone goes through the same thing. We’re not really in direct competition all the time. When you are on the ice by yourself, you compete against yourself. You want to skate your best and it’s not about beating another team or doing better than another team. That’s just the results and how they stack up.
“We know everyone works hard. If you have respect and work hard as an athlete, it’s really important that you have mutual admiration for your competitors.”
Chock and Bates are also big fans of the sport and can talk at length about contemporary skaters that they admire, including Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume, Yuzuru Hanyu, Nathan Chen, Shoma Uno, Wakaba Higuchi and Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir.
“We watch everything,” Bates admitted. “We’re fans of skating. I’ll go home and watch it on the internet because everything is right there.”
“Gabby and Guillaume’s free programme this year is just a masterpiece,” Chock said.
“I really loved Gabby and Guillaume’s free dance in Boston,” Bates said. “I remember that was the year she came back from concussion and I think they only skated Europeans and Worlds. I didn’t get to see it live. I think we were in a green room or maybe I just watched it on YouTube. I can’t even remember, but that was probably my favourite performance of theirs. Just knowing the struggle of the concussion, the journey back and then coming back after not competing for so long and skating like that. That’s my favourite performance.”
“I also love Yuzu’s Prince programme,” Chock said. “He was such a boss. It’s my favourite hands down.”
“Yuzu at the (PyeongChang) Olympics was so impressive because I know he was injured,” Bates added. “He wasn’t training for a long time. He was only jumping quads for a few weeks before Olympics. He’s a legend. He really is.
“I like Nathan Chen’s short programme this year. It’s such a modern programme to do in an Olympic year. It’s really a risk to take that sort of approach and he’s just amazing. He’s got a lovely ballet and gymnastics base, but he’s also a modern dancer. Shae-Lynn Bourne did a really good job of bringing out that side of him and then his costuming by Vera Wang was so cool and edgy.”
“He is so young and yet he skates with such maturity and we know how dedicated he is,” Chock said. “It’s something unique to see and he is one to watch.”
“I really love watching Shoma perform,” Bates said. “He’s one of those captivating performers.
“Wakaba’s James Bond programme was so good.”
“Scott and Tessa’s short programme from this season – they do Latin like nobody’s business,” Chock said.
At the end of May, Chock and Bates made a surprising announcement that they would be leaving their long-time coach Igor Shpilband and moving their training base from Novi, Michigan to Montreal, Canada to work with Marie-France Dubreuil, Patrice Lauzon and Romain Haguenauer
“We are so appreciative to Igor and his team,” Bates said in a U.S. Figure Skating press release. “He helped us advance our careers and reach new heights and we are very thankful for that.”
“We’re really excited to start a new chapter in Montreal,” Chock said. “I’m looking forward to getting back on the ice this summer once I’m fully recovered from my ankle surgery.”
While nothing in sport is certain, Chock and Bates believe that this is not the end of the road for them.
“I really feel we have more to give to the fans and to the sport,” Bates said. “I think in our hearts we would really love to compete in Beijing. It’s a long way away and it’s an unpredictable world and we can never know what the future holds for ourselves, but I don’t think we are finished with skating.”