It’s one thing to work with your ex. It’s quite another when that work is ice dancing.
Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue won bronze for the U.S. in the Olympic ice dance competition Monday after an emotional and passionate free dance — capping off a decadelong career together as the pair will retire after the Beijing Games. It was a performance that felt “like watching something behind closed doors,” one commentator said.
And as it turns out, that intimacy and connection played out in a real-life romantic relationship. But after a little over two years, they broke up, deciding they were better off as friends.
On the 3rd hour of TODAY, Craig Melvin spoke for many when he asked: “How do you dance with your ex like that?”
The duo laughed at first, with Donohue teasing that Hubbell “throws a left hook or an elbow every once in a while.” But when it comes to the ice, it’s easy to separate the personal from the professional, Donohue said.
“I think the casual viewer might tune in and see two adults who are able to stare each other in the eyes and not get uncomfortable, but we’re sharing so much more than just the quintessential love story out there,” he said. “It’s a passion of not just emotion, but hard work, dedication, physicality.”
Sharing that passion for the sport is part of what fuels their connection on the ice, he said.
Hubbell, 30, and Donohue, 31, first started dating shortly after they were paired up on the ice, back when they were 18 and 19 years old. And their chemistry on the ice confounded even themselves.
“We confused the love that we have for each other and the connection that we share on the ice for a romantic connection,” Hubbell said.
Even after deciding that they were “not suited for each other off the ice,” Hubbell said, the pair chose to continue skating together out of a shared love for the sport they had grown up with.
And their friendship has remained strong. Donohue told NBC New York that Hubbell is more than just an ex. "We’re family,” he said.
Hubbell and Donohue are both in relationships with other ice dancers. Hubbell is engaged to Spain's Adrián Diaz, and Donohue is dating Australia's Chantelle Kerry.
While it didn’t work out for Hubbell and Donohue, it did for their coaches, Marie-France Dubreuil and Patrice Lauzon, former figure skating partners who are now married.
Dubreuil told NBC New York that Hubbell and Donohue’s on-ice chemistry comes from their real-life friendship and support.
“They know how to push each other’s buttons really well,” Dubreuil said. “On the flip side, nobody knows better how to make Maddy feel good, and nobody knows better how to make Zach feel confident and strong.”
Ice dancing is essentially ballroom dancing on ice. Routines often communicate romantic stories, crafted through lingering glances, prolonged touch and careful, in-sync choreography. After a performance, many viewers find themselves searching questions like, “Are they dating?”
One viral tweet argues that commentators for the sport should be required to tell viewers the relationship status of the duo.
“They have so much chemistry, I almost think they are all dating,” Carson Daly said Monday morning.
Team USA has one real-life pair in Madison Chock, 29, and Evan Bates, 32. Their love story started with just one dinner date at age 16.
Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir, 2018’s gold medal winners from Canada, were known for their palpable chemistry on the ice. But fans were heartbroken to learn their romantic history was a brief relationship at the tender ages of 8 and 10.