Golden Skate

Shibutanis push new boundaries

Maia Shibutani and Alex Shibutani

USA’s Maia Shibutani and Alex Shibutani perform their short dance at 2014 Skate America.

USA’s Maia Shibutani and Alex Shibutani took second place at their first Grand Prix event of the season at 2014 Skate America in Chicago, Ill. It was their third outing at this event, and they stepped up from their third place finish from both 2011 and 2013.

The four-time U.S. national medalists showed a mature intensity in their short dance at Skate America, staying in character until their dramatic final pose. Their flamenco to “Asturias Variations” and paso doble to “The Last Corrida” featured a level-four lift, however, they had a small hiccup during their level-four twizzle sequence which resulted in negative grades of execution (GOE).

“That was a costly mistake,” noted Maia. “It was at the beginning of the program, but we had a really strong recovery. So much of the program has improved and we feel really good about how strong this program is.”

The team’s step sequence was skated with meticulous sharpness and precision, but their required pattern dance sequence, while skated with commendable paso doble character, failed to hit many of the dance’s key points. They finished second in the short dance (64.14).

For the free dance, they presented a smooth, elegant rendition of a classic Viennese waltz with a finesse that drew a strong, positive reaction from the crowd.  The team earned a level four for the three lifts, while the twizzles and diagonal steps merited a level three. They scored 96.19 points for a second place finish in the free dance and overall (160.33 points).

“It’s definitely a classical approach,” Alex said. “We are so lucky to have coaches that did a beautiful job choreographing the program. We are really aiming to hit all of our musical nuances and show dance in its purest form. It’s already one of our favorite programs, and we are looking forward to the progress we can make with it this season.”

Coming off their 2014 Ondrej Nepela win, the ice dancers are feeling confident this season.

“This is the first time in the past two years that we’ve done a Senior B,” said Maia. “Being able to put out two strong programs and getting feedback before the Grand Prix series starts has been beneficial.”

Alex agreed, adding that the event in Bratislava, Slovakia, was a great experience for them.

“It’s early in the season, very early,” he noted, “but we were prepared and ready to put out two strong performances. Our main goal was making that first great impression.”

While the 2011 World bronze medalists earned a new personal best in their free dance at Ondrej Nepela, they were still challenged with a few levels.

“There have been a lot of different rule changes this season,” observed Maia. “To start off with, in order to have a good year, you have to be confident in your program, and we love our short dance—it’s really strong.”

“As far as the levels go, that’s why you go to the Senior B, to get your material out there and take the information home,” continued the 20-year-old. “We know ourselves and we know we can make a lot of changes in just a few weeks.”

“We really enjoy what we are doing in our programs right now, and I think that is showing,” offered Alex. “We hope that will continue to show as the season progresses. There is plenty of room to grow, but there are some things that we are obviously going to be working very hard on.”

Alex also emphasized the fact that there had been a lot of rule changes and that it’s proving to be a challenge for everyone.

“Moving forward, we want to take in all aspects of our skating so that we can really harness our technical prowess and engage it through the entire performance,” said the 23-year-old. “We do believe that while there are some new things to think about, like footwork, twizzles, and key elements, we’ll figure out a way to be successful no matter what the rule changes are. We have the right team of people around us to make that happen.”

The ice dancers, who train under Marina Zueva, took a different direction with this year’s new free dance, and are performing to Strauss’ “Rosen aus dem Süden” and “The Blue Danube”—a contrast to last season’s Michael Jackson routine.

“Every season we try to push our boundaries and grow where we can as far as characters in the program,” said Maia, regarding how they came to choose the music. “Last year, we were thrilled with how the Michael Jackson program went, but this year is the beginning of the next Olympic cycle and it’s time to turn a new page.”

The brother-and-sister team realizes that a lot can change in four years, however, they feel they are ready and that the program does a good job of displaying their skating skills and musicality.

“Over the past four years since we’ve become seniors, we’ve learned a lot and have been able to apply that to our programs this year,” said Maia.

They are also excited about getting such a high score this early in the season at Ondrej Nepela.

“The Olympics really inspired us and we were in full gear,” said Alex. “We are very young and we have a lot of room to grow, so we are very excited about the progress so far this season.”

The 2011 Four Continents silver medalists are off to a good start, and moving forward, their aim is to become national champions, as well as the best team in the world.

“Again, it’s very early, but we are confident and happy with our skating right now,” said Alex. “Agan, we have a great team around us. Marina Zueva, as always, is our number one supporter and we have Massimo Scali who began working with us this summer and he’s been a great fit to the group.”

Less than a point separated their free dance score at Ondrej Nepela from fellow ice dancers Madison Chock and Evan Bate’s free dance at Nebelhorn Trophy, which could result in an exciting challenge for both teams this season, especially at US Nationals.

“Regardless of who we are competing against, we are always looking to up our game and bring our best to the table,” said Alex. “That’s how it should be at any competition.We have a lot of respect for the other teams out there, but our primary focus is on us. You have to kind of block out some of the noise sometimes.”

Shibutani and Shibutani, known to fans as ‘The Shibs’, are good friends with 2014 Olympic Champions Meryl Davis and Charlie White, the latter who is now advising them on occasion.

“It’s a different dynamic now as over the past four years we were competitors,” said Maia. “There was good comradery there, but now it’s really just kind of naturally slipped into Charlie being able to see what we are doing. He knows our skating so well, where if he has suggestions or if we want to run something by him, he’s a great sounding board.”

“He’s an Olympic Champion!” she added. “Who wouldn’t want that ability to ask an Olympic Champion, ‘so what did you think of what we just did?’ He can be really honest with us and we trust both him and Meryl, so it’s just been a great addition to our training.”

“We went to our first Grand Prix event with them in 2011 at Skate America and then NHK Trophy,” noted Alex, “so, we’ve really grown with them as a team and we’ve seen all the amazing things they’ve accomplished. It’s a team atmosphere at the rink, and that hasn’t changed. Our relationship hasn’t changed, if anything, it’s gotten stronger because we know that they are there for us and we are there for them.”

Two top teams and Olympic champions—Meryl Davis/Charlie White and Tessa Virtue/Scott Moir—are not competing this season, so the atmosphere is a bit different in the rink in Canton, Mich., where all three teams have shared the training ice.

“We got a taste of that after the Olympics leading up to the World Championships,” said Maia, “but in that time, I think we really found ourselves, our strength as a team, and with Marina as a coach. In our fifth year as seniors, we know that we have the drive in ourselves where even if the environment is different, it doesn’t make a difference.”

“Luckily for us, we have a bunch of teams and new energy,” she added. “Victoria Sinitsina and Nikita Katsalapov (RUS) are training with us now, and they are a good team to practice with. They will only raise our level of skating.”

Shibutani and Shibutani, who placed ninth at the 2014 Winter Olympics, have been competing against Katsalapov and his former partner (Elena Ilinykh) since they were juniors.

“It’s great because it’s a strong, positive relationship,” said Alex. “We push each other.”

“To be honest, even if there was no one else at the rink, Maia and I are ready to step up,” he added. “We’ve been able to witness champions like Meryl & Charlie and Tessa & Scott every day, which was huge for us. We feel our experiences over the past four years have been positive. There have been some peaks and valleys, but we’ve (learned from) those experiences and we are a very confident, strong team. We are mentally tough and we are ready for what’s going to come over the next four years.”

The 2009 World Junior silver medalists will compete again in two weeks at the 2014 Lexus Cup of China in Shanghai.