Madison Chock, Evan Bates eke out third career US championship in ice dance

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NASHVILLE, Tenn. — They've been neck-and-neck for nearly a decade, so why would this time be any different?

In the latest chapter of their longstanding rivalry, the ice dance teams of Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue and Madison Chock and Evan Bates once again came down to the wire at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships. And this time, it was Chock and Bates who came out on top.

Buoyed by their strong rhythm dance, Chock and Bates held on to claim their third national title Saturday, beating Hubbell and Donohue by just 1.78 points. It's the fourth consecutive national championships in which those teams finished first and second.

"I'm really proud of all the work we put in, because it showed up and we relied on it," Bates said. "I feel like the momentum is now good for us going into Beijing."

Both Chock/Bates and Hubbell/Donohue were considered shoo-ins for the U.S. Olympic team — and possible medal contenders — even before they stepped on the ice at Bridgestone Arena this week. The Beijing Games will be the third Olympic appearance as a team for Chock and Bates and the second for Hubbell and Donohue, who have said this will be their final season of competition.

Bates is also set to become the first U.S. figure skater to go to four Games; He competed at the 2010 Olympics with a different partner.

With their third-place finish, Kaitlin Hawayek and Jean-Luc Baker now have the inside track on the final Olympic spot in the event.

"This means so much to us," Hawayek said. "It has not been a straight journey to this point for us, whatsoever.. ... So to be able to get the bronze today, it's just a combination of emotions for everything that we've been able to accomplish."

The full Olympic figure skating team will be finalized Sunday.

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For Chock and Bates, Saturday's win marks the latest milestone in a long, successful partnership. The two have competed together for more than a decade now, and also been in a romantic relationship for more than five years.

Fourth-place finishers at the most recent world championships, they decided to take a "mainstream" approach to their programs this year, according to Chock. They skated their rhythm dance to a Billie Eilish medley, and their free skate program features Chock as an alien-esque character and Bates as an astronaut.

Chock and Bates actually finished second to Hubbell and Donohue in the free skate Saturday night, but the cushion they built in the rhythm dance earlier proved to be enough to win.

"We couldn't make up the 2.5 points from a poorly-skated short program," Hubbell said. "But we're really satisfied with the feeling that we left these championships with, and we feel very prepared for what's to come in Beijing."

Madison Chock and Evan Bates complete their rhythm dance.
Madison Chock and Evan Bates complete their rhythm dance.

Cain-Gribble, LeDuc win pairs

In a moment they said they had long visualized, Ashley Cain-Gribble and Timothy LeDuc used a well-executed free skate program to win their second national title in the pairs event, posting an overall score of 225.23.

"We prepared beyond what we thought possible," Cain-Gribble said. "And at times, it could feel really isolating, because honestly you felt a little bit crazy. But at the end of the day, it's a beautiful process and we were able to look back and say that we couldn't have done anything more."

With just two pairs spots available on Team USA, Alexa Knierim and Brandon Frazier are expected to qualify based on their body of work, even though they did not compete this week. Frazier tested positive for COVID-19 on Wednesday.

Cain-Gribble and LeDuc are expected to earn the other spot, with LeDuc believed to be the first publicly out non-binary athlete to compete at a Winter Olympics.

"We've always been here. We've always been a part of sports. We just haven't always been able to be open," said LeDuc, whose pronouns are they/them. "I know that me being here and being able to be out now is only possible because of the many, many brave people that have come before me."

Contact Tom Schad at tschad@usatoday.com or on Twitter @Tom_Schad.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Madison Chock, Evan Bates win ice dance at US championships