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Tired skaters? Nah, they’re going on tour now

April 5, 2018

FILE - In this Jan. 7, 2018, file photo, Madison Hubbell, left, and Zachary Donohue perform during the free dance event at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships in San Jose, Calif. When the Stars on Ice tour for 2018 debuts Friday night, April 6, in Estero, Fla., a fully American cast led by world champion Nathan Chen, world silver medalists Hubbell and Donohue, and Olympic double bronze medalists Maia and Alex Shibutani will headline. (AP Photo/Tony Avelar, File)

After an exhausting, often exhilarating and sometimes excruciating figure skating season, it would seem logical for the Olympians to seek a long rest.

Instead, they’re embracing even more time on the ice. For fun.

When the Stars on Ice tour for 2018 debuts Friday night in Estero, Florida, a fully American cast led by world champion Nathan Chen, world silver medalists Madison Hubbell and Zach Donohue, and Olympic double bronze medalists Maia and Alex Shibutani will headline.

“There is no technical mark, no necessities, you go out and enjoy performing with the rest of the cast,” says Chen, who followed a career-worst short program at the Olympics with an historic free skate that lifted him from 17th place to fifth. He then went to Milan and won his first world title. “The vibe is so different in competitions, the focus is only on yourself. Here in the show, we have the opportunity to rehearse with each other, a sort of team, and it’s a great feeling to have fun and enjoy each other’s companies. No one wins the show.”

Stars on Ice debuted in 1987 and has been a fixture in the spring pretty much since. Each Olympic year brings an extra challenge for the participants — this 22-city tour has 14 skaters, including 2014 Sochi ice dance gold medalists Meryl Davis and Charlie White.

Generally, the current competitors are quite worn out by the end of March. Yet they find touring energizing, not enervating.

“It’s really a nice way to finish off the season,” Donohue says. “You have the opportunity to keep training and skating, which is important because it’s easy to let yourself go. This is one of my favorite things we are doing, and after worlds it’s a way of keeping your momentum. We can do something new, there are no judges watching, and just have fun on the ice.”

There are adjustments, of course. Chen is accustomed to being the only skater on the rink when his music is played. Same for Hubbell and Donohue. In Stars on Ice, they often are skating to someone else’s music, to new choreography, and in a group. Donohue estimates taking part in “five to six (ensemble) numbers, all pretty long. It keeps us on our toes.”

Adds Hubbell, who along with Donohue won a first national title in January : “Part of what is so cool is being part of the cast. When I was still very young I went to Stars and we rented a box, and I just loved watching. For me it was Kurt Browning and Kristi Yamaguchi and Scott Hamilton. I just remember it being so awesome.

“The first year we were asked, it was definitely an honor to help continue that legacy. It’s an iconic show.

“And,” Hubbell adds with a laugh, “we’re on the cover of the program, something I will keep in all my memories.”

What remains in their memories, and in Chen’s, is the disappointment of the Olympics. The games also have served as motivation, which the three skaters proved in Milan.

And while Chen, 18, has yet to reveal future plans — he has been accepted to Yale but still is weighing his options — Hubbell and Donohue are all in on the ice for a while.

“I think especially right after the Olympics everything seemed underwhelming,” Chen explains. “The pressure was nothing like I felt at Olympics. It did not feel like a major competition at worlds to me, more like a smaller competition. That approach worked (at worlds); I was able to let it all go on the ice.

“Obviously, knowing I have the world championship has given me a lot of confidence moving forward. The kind of things I learned on how to set my mind for a competition, how to pull it all out when I need to pull it out. It was something I can build on.”

Hubbell and Donohue had a bronze medal within reach in South Korea, but his error in the free dance helped spoil their chances for making the podium. Finishing just out of the medals serves as an incentive for other competitions, as it did at worlds.

“We have always kind of felt pride in the way we push ourselves,” she says. “It kind of just is naturally what we like. We always liked the style of free dance we did. We knew it was a risk in the Olympics to do a piece of music not well known. It was not something the public can latch onto ... so we had to portray the whole thing ourselves.

“But that is a fun challenge and fits into our strength. It opens the window next year to so many possibilities and variations.”

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