With the results of the ice dance event at the Beijing Olympics, it’s official. Montreal is home to the elite training center in ice dance. Fondated in 2014 by the Ice Academy of Montreal, I.AM was responsible for 11 of 23 competing teams at these Games. It now holds four Olympic medals. I.AM has now earned two podium spots at the Olympics for the second time.
Gabriella Papadakis of France and Guillaume Cizeron of the I.AM won gold. This is an improvement on their silver medal place four years back in Pyeongchang. The bronze award went to Madison Hubbell of America and Zachary Donohue of the USA. Victoria Sinitsina of Russia and Nikita Katzsalapov from Kazakhstan won silver.
French rhythm dancers have established themselves as world champions. “This year we gathered the courage to want to win,” Cizeron said. “That was a pretty important shift.”
Three of America’s top teams train at the Academy. This is a testimony to the positive and inclusive atmosphere that Marie-France Dubreuil (Patrice Lauzon) and Romain Hauenauer, co-founders of the Academy. 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.
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“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]Zach [Donohue]Different styles. 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. They are all equal in quality. 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.”
Dubreuil claimed that Chock and Bates have allowed her to let go of control when choreographing their shows. “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 particularly liked the idea that a program could be created to distinguish Chock and Bates among the other teams who were in the final 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]Guillaume [Cizeron]Already knew music for piano. So we thought we need to keep being different.”
Chock and Bates have established themselves as the team that is at the cutting edge of ice dance. “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.
The idea was risky, but it paid off. Their personal best in free dancing was 130.63. This beat their personal best from the Beijing team event. But it wasn’t enough to keep them on the podium, and they finished fourth overall.
Even amongst non-skaters, they made an impact. “I would love to work with that couple,” Cheryl Burke, professional dancer and choreographer on Dancing With the StarsTIME interviewer: After watching the event, he told TIME. “[Chock’s]Face expressions that are genuine, authentic, and real come directly from her gut. She feels her character so much; I was captivated and that’s why I’m so excited about them.”
Hubbell, Donohue and their U.S. teammate, who were also training partners at I.AM (Hobbell and Donohue), were the next to skate with a completely different and personal program. Hubbell, Donohue and their eleven-year relationship announced that they were retiring at the start the season. 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. They shared the evolution of two people who lived, loved, and persevered through many challenges.
They wanted the entire season to serve as a goodbye and thank you—to each other and to their families, friends and fans. Hubbell explained to TIME that their free program was the end of this farewell. “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.”
The program they created was more personal than others and had a deeper emotional undercurrent. This was sufficient to win 130.89 over their American counterparts.
Next came the Russians, who skated to Rachmaninov. They displayed the same speed and flow that made the Russians so dominant for many 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. It was still enough to beat Hubbell and Donohue in the silver medal race.
Cizeron and Papadakis, who were the rhythm dance’s leaders, went last to the ice. The program they created, which was a modern tango, came together in a unique 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 was particularly affected by her difficult times and had to deal with a lot in the program. So I think it was like therapy for them to do this.”
Cizeron agreed with Cizeron when he described his feelings afterward. “[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. The French team won with an artistically flawless and technically correct program. They scored 136.15.
Cizeron, Papadakis, and Cizeron will still be skating in the Olympics. I.AM will likely remain well represented at 2026 Milano Cortina Winter Games. Younger teams from Montreal are expected to represent I.AM. 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 is the team’s go-to manicurist, having learned nail art from her mother during the pandemic. 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 she put her manicurist skills into practice. “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.