For Madison Chock, Evan Bates, an ice dance to seize, at long last, at figure skating worlds
When an 18-year-old Madison Chock went looking for a new ice dance partner in 2011, she already had a résumé that attracted plenty of candidates. She had won the 2009 World junior title and 2011 senior U.S. Championships bronze medal with Greg Zuerlein, who retired after the 2010-11 season.
Chock, speaking last week, remembered the names of several men with whom she tried out or who reached out to gauge her availability. Chock rattled off the list while sitting next to her fiancé, Evan Bates.
Weeks after Chock went partner-less in 2011, Bates and his 2010 Olympic teammate, Emily Samuelson, ended their partnership. They were unable to get back into a groove after he sat out the entire 2010-11 season after his Achilles tendon was severed by Samuelson’s skate blade in a freak training accident.
Samuelson and Bates announced their split on June 23, 2011. Chock tried out Bates, who was already a friend, and remembers “smiling ear to ear” the whole time. Chock and Bates were first reported to form a couple that June 29.
“Looking back on it, I can’t believe she picked me to skate together,” said Bates, who hadn’t tried out with anybody else. “I’m sure I would have kept skating [if Chock chose somebody else] because I loved it, but it worked out this way, gratefully.”
Nearly 12 years later, Chock and Bates went into this week’s world figure skating championships as the world’s top-ranked dance couple. In a sport where the elite often avoid stressing results (publicly, at least), they have not been shy about their goal all season -- to win their first global title.
They delivered with the world’s best score this season in Friday’s rhythm dance and go into Saturday’s free dance in gold-medal position.
In 12 prior appearances between the Olympics and world championships, they finished in every place from second through ninth, including three previous world silver or bronze medals. They also competed at six Grand Prix Finals and won four medals -- all silver.
Now they are in Japan on the brink of what could be a career-defining moment, coming off the best performances of a challenge-filled partnership. They can become, collectively, the oldest couple to win a world title at least since ice dance was added to the Olympic program in 1976 and possibly ever.
“All of our years of training and knowledge are kind of coming together and blending together seamlessly,” Chock said.
Chock and Bates are one of the headliners at these world championships that carry emotional stories across the four disciplines.
The leading men’s singles skaters are Japan’s Shoma Uno and 18-year-old American Ilia Malinin, the first person to land a quadruple Axel in competition. The fight for another place on the podium could come down to a pair of beloved veterans -- 31-year-old Canadian Keegan Messing in his final season and 28-year-old American Jason Brown in what could be his final competition.
In the women’s event, Japan’s Kaori Sakamoto is the alpha. There is also 16-year-old American Isabeau Levito. The crowd will no doubt root for Japan’s Mai Mihara, who won December’s Grand Prix Final, the biggest victory of her career, one which could have ended while she was hospitalized seven years ago.
A Japanese pair won a world title for the first time (Riku Miura and Ryuichi Kihara). Americans Alexa Knierim and Brandon Frazier, last year’s champs, took silver in what may be their final worlds. They are likely to retire after this season. They also competed three weeks after Todd Sand, one of their coaches, suffered a heart attack. A team that just missed the medals included a 2000 World junior medalist in singles who came out of a 15-year retirement.
Chock and Bates look to join 2014 Olympic champions Meryl Davis and Charlie White as the lone Americans to win a senior world title in ice dance. In 2011, when they first partnered, Chock and Bates joined a training group that included all of the reigning world medalists, led by the reigning champions Davis and White.
“We were skating with people like Meryl and Charlie and [2010 and 2018 Olympic champs] Scott [Moir] and Tessa [Virtue] and the Shibutanis [Maia and Alex], who skated together since the dawn of time,” joked Bates, who at 6 feet, 1 inch, is listed 11 inches taller than Chock. “And we’re, like, kind of figuring it out, height difference and all this stuff.
“It was just a different feel, but the chemistry was there. The enjoyment was there. That was sort of the foundation of, I think, what brought us together, and that’s still a huge part of our relationship on and off the ice.”
Ice dance is often a wait-your-turn discipline. But, by their second season together, Chock and Bates displaced the Shibutanis as the No. 2 U.S. dance couple behind Davis and White. After Davis and White left competitive skating following their Olympic title, Chock and Bates ascended from eighth at the February 2014 Olympics to fifth at the March 2014 World Championships.
Then they led the 2015 World Championships after the short dance (now called the rhythm dance). Two days later, Chock and Bates delivered their best free dance score of the season and went into the lead over Canadians Kaitlyn Weaver and Andrew Poje, to that point the only couple to beat them all season.
About 10 minutes later came the global arrival of Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron, a French couple that finished 13th at the previous year’s worlds and was fourth after the short dance.
Papadakis and Cizeron overtook Chock and Bates with the world’s highest-scoring free dance of the season, becoming the youngest world champions in ice dance in 40 years and earning the first of their five world titles.
With silver, Chock and Bates met their season goal of a world championships medal.
“I was like, OK, well, there’s only one way to go from here. It’s just one more step [to first place on the podium],” Chock recalled last week. “At that time, it seems a bit naive to just think it’s one step when it’s actually hundreds, thousands of little steps.”
Over the next seven years, Papadakis and Cizeron and Virtue and Moir, who had a comeback from 2016-18, were unbeatable. Chock and Bates, meanwhile, were passed domestically by the Shibutanis and then Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue.
At the 2018 Olympics, Chock aggravated an ankle injury in the short dance warm-up, getting her blade caught in the ice while practicing a lift. Then in the free dance, both fell on their combination spin. They finished ninth, and then Chock underwent ankle surgery.
“It felt like maybe the end of the road for us,” Bates said.
They changed coaches and moved from Michigan to Montreal. Chock said their signature has been an ability to reinvent themselves.
“I’ve been incredibly impressed with how they’ve been able to do that time after time, and yet they still are able to keep the best of what they are,” 2006 Olympic silver medalist Ben Agosto said.
Stick with anything too long, especially in dance, and programs and reputations can become stale. Chock and Bates performed as a snake and a snake charmer, an alien and an astronaut and now fire and air. They’ve danced to Chopin and Gershwin and Elvis Presley and Daft Punk.
At the 2022 Olympics, they placed fourth, missing a medal by 3.35 points. They will have a medal, at some point, from the team event, be it gold or silver pending the resolution of Russian Kamila Valiyeva‘s doping case.
Chock and Bates were the top returning couple this season. Olympic gold medalists Papadakis and Cizeron are on an indefinite, perhaps permanent, break from competition. Silver medalists Viktoria Sinitsina and Nikita Katsalapov are banned until further notice, along with all other Russians, due to the war in Ukraine. Bronze medalists Hubbell and Donohue retired.
After an offseason filled with 40 skating shows, Chock and Bates didn’t have the start to this season that they wanted. They won October’s Skate America but were outscored in the free dance by Kaitlin Hawayek and Jean-Luc Baker for the first time in 45 career head-to-head programs.
They improved with every competition in the fall, then won January’s U.S. Championships by the largest margin under a 13-year-old scoring system with what Bates called probably the best skating of their partnership.
Two weeks later, they won the Four Continents Championships in the stamina-sapping altitude of Colorado Springs with the world’s best total score this season.
Canadians Piper Gilles and Paul Poirier, the top couple in the fall Grand Prix Series, went into worlds having not competed since Gilles’ appendectomy in December. (Chock said that Gilles’ older brother, Todd, and Poirier reached out to her during her 2011 partner search, but neither worked out.)
In Agosto’s mind, the favorites are clear.
“Madi and Evan have the best free dance, I think they’re the best performers, and what they have this year is really special,” he said before worlds.
Chock, 30, and Bates, 34, have not decided whether they will continue competing next season. How they perform this week will factor into it, among many things. The fact that the 2024 World Championships are in their training base of Montreal is enticing.
They’re also planning a summer 2024 wedding and the rest of their lives together.
“As you get older and the goals get higher and higher, it takes more of you to even just maintain what you have, let alone to improve,” Bates said. “We’ve had to put so much into the season to get to where we are now, skating the way we are now with these programs. I think we just have to decide, are we still willing to pay that price to continue on?”
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