SALT LAKE CITY -- This is the time of year when figure skaters are just beginning to put the first layer of polish on their programs for the season while seeing what judges think of them.
"Kind of test the waters," U.S. ice dancer Madison Hubbell said. "Let everyone see the material…and build upon that."
Hubbell and her partner, Zachary Donohue, did all that Saturday at the 2017 U.S. International Figure Skating Classic and wound up with a couple bonuses: their fourth-best international score in the free dance, 107.65 points (0.72 from their personal best), and a third straight title in this Challenger Series event.
Their total score, 178.80, was within two points of their international personal best in that category. It gave them an overwhelming victory over U.S. rivals Kaitlyn Hawayek and Jean-Luc Baker.
While comparing scores from different judging panels can be a fool's errand, there is no doubt the scores Hubbell and Donohue received were encouraging.
"We prepared as well as we could, and that's why we could get some great scores in September," she said.
Yet she and Donohue, third at the U.S. Championships the past three years, refused to get caught up in a numbers game.
"We're kind of trying, in some ways, to take the emotion out of the result," Hubbell said. "We're trying to let things roll off our backs, whether they are good or bad. Yes, (the score) is great, but with the goals we have, we're going to have to do a lot of personal bests this year."
The couple's primary goal is to make the Olympic team and be in medal contention, as they were at last year's World Figure Skating Championships until he fell on a twizzle late in the free dance. That is why they are taking a less emotional approach to doing the elements to minimize the risk of getting carried away by their feelings during the performance.
"We've seen what can happen when we get too emotionally involved in a performance, like what happened at worlds," she said. "It's easy to get wrapped up in our sport in the artistic side and the story-telling side. At the end of the day, most of your points are going to come from the technical components, and that's where we have kind of beaten ourselves in the past, with technical mistakes.
"Especially in September, when we know we can't perform the programs how we want in the Olympics, we take ourselves out of it a little bit and try to be really methodical, get all the technical things we could."
They received Grade of Execution (GOE) scores from +1.2 to +2.2 on the nine elements, but lost points by earning less than maximum levels on two of those. Their twizzles, now the second element in the free dance, received a top Level 4 grading and a GOE of 1.8.
Artistically, they achieved a seamless transition between the different choreographic moods of the two pieces of music in their free dance: understated, low-speed subtlety of movement to accompany an instrumental version of "Across the Sky" by Rag N' Bone Man, followed by an up-tempo passion to Beth Hart's bluesy "Caught Out in the Rain."
Asked how they blended the two pieces, Donahue laughed.
"I don't know if there is a recipe we can put out there," he said. "It's who we are as a team. There are very few teams that have that naturally, and they are all in the top right now.
"We truly feel connected to our music" he added. "We don't go, `Okay, at 38 seconds, we do this.' The music tells us what to do, and we listen. We have a synonymous feeling of the music between each other."
Call it good vibrations.
(This article originally appeared on icenetwork.)