Sometimes it takes years to find the right partner in ice dance. Some skaters go an entire career without finding a partner, let alone the one that will help propel them to great heights. Other times, however, a partner is found at home – such as in the case of former World Champions Isabelle and Paul Duchesnay and European medalists Sinead and John Kerr.
USA’s Maia and Alex Shibutani are another budding brother-and-sister team that are on the cusp of breaking into the top echelon of elite figure skating.
The Michigan-based Shibutanis have skated together since the spring of 2004, and are each other’s first and only partners. The younger of the siblings, Maia, got the ball rolling in the sport when she was introduced to figure skating at the tender age of four.
“While we were growing up, our parents wanted to expose us to all sorts of sports and activities including swimming, tennis, and music,” said the now fifteen year-old Maia. “We were living in Old Greenwich Conn., and birthday parties involving skating were really common. I immediately fell in love with skating and began taking private lessons.”
At age seven, older brother Alex, 19, followed his sister to the ice, but not before having dreams of becoming an athlete of another kind.
“When Maia started skating, I would be taken to the rink when she had her lessons,” Alex explained. “As I was still under the delusion that I would grow to be at least 6’6″ and play professional basketball, skating wasn’t an instant interest for me. However, Maia always looked like she was having so much fun, so I decided to give it a try too.”
The pairing came together naturally, of course, but was inspired by a trip to Washington D.C. in March 2003 when the family attended the World Figure Skating Championships.
“We were seated close to the ice in the second row, and when the ice dancers came out for their warm up, we could actually feel a gust of wind as the skaters flew by,” Alex remembered with a sparkle in his eyes. “We were so impressed with the artistry, skating quality, and speed of the top teams that we decided to give it a try.”
And success came quickly for the mighty duo, winning the silver medal at the Juvenile level at the 2005 U.S. Junior Championships in their first season of competition. Over the next two seasons, Maia and Alex won both the Intermediate and Novice national titles, and quickly moved up to the junior level for the 2007-08 season. Though ineligible to compete internationally due to age restrictions, Maia and Alex harvested the pewter medal at the 2008 U.S. Championships, making a strong case for themselves in future competitions.
That fall, as Maia met age eligibility requirements, the Shibutanis were assigned to their first Junior Grand Prix events in France and Spain. After winning gold and silver medals in those events, they earned a trip to the Final and finished in fourth place. They followed that up with a silver medal at the 2009 U.S. Championships, and as a result, earned a spot on the Junior World Championships team.
In Sofia, Bulgaria, at those championships, the Shibutanis rallied in the free dance and finished second, earning the silver medal behind their American teammates Madison Chock and Greg Zuerlein.
Looking to improve on their international standing, Maia and Alex again competed on the Junior Grand Prix circuit in 2009, and won both of their qualifying events in convincing fashion resulting in a second trip to the Final. In a much stronger field than the previous season, the duo earned the bronze medals with inspired performances in each phase of the competition.
“Heading into every season, our goal is also to make sure that we are raising the level of our game in every way we can throughout the season,” Alex shared with his usual thoughtfulness. “We gained a lot of experience on the Junior Grand Prix circuit, and had a lot of fun competing. Qualifying for the Junior Grand Prix Final in Tokyo was very exciting for us. We are Japanese-American, and [are] very connected to our heritage. The fans in Tokyo were amazing.”
Next up was the 2010 U.S. Championships in Spokane, Wash., where Maia and Alex were the odds on favorites to win the junior title. In the end, they won each phase of competition and the title with strong performances, earning themselves a second trip to the Junior World Championships later in the season.
“Winning the U.S. Junior Dance title is an amazing accomplishment,” Alex admitted. “We were very proud of our performances in Spokane and the audiences were so enthusiastic. It was also our second time winning a national championship in Spokane since we won the U.S. Novice dance title there in 2007.”
Heading to the Junior World Championships, the Shibutanis were poised to harvest another medal, but instead were relegated to fourth place behind three very strong teams.
“We were extremely happy with our performances this year at Junior Worlds,” Alex shared. “Since we competed the Argentine Tango for all of our Junior Grand Prix events and Nationals, we did not learn the Westminster Waltz until after Nationals. It was a challenge, but we were pleased that we skated well because the other teams at Junior Worlds competed the Westminster throughout the season. In particular, we felt that our free dance performance was the strongest of our season.”
The duo has gained a unique and much needed perspective through their frequent competing, and has learned to accept their results in competition with grace and poise.
“We are continually learning to separate what we can control and what we can’t control,” Maia said matter-of-factly. “Scores and results are not something that we can control. The only thing we can do is give it our all each time we compete. When we do that, we are not disappointed. Hopefully our fans realize that one competition is not indicative of the direction of our career. Other skaters and teams have shown perseverance over years, and proven successful. For us, it is a continual learning process and we are in it for the long haul.”
This season Maia and Alex will compete as seniors for the first time, both internationally and on the national level. Recently, the duo learned that they were selected for two events on the Grand Prix, and are very much looking forward to making a strong debut.
“We are truly honored to have the chance to represent the U.S. at two events in the ISU’s Grand Prix series this fall,” Alex said the day after learning of their selections. “We are incredibly excited to learn that our first event will be at NHK in Japan, followed by Skate America in Portland. As newcomers to the senior circuit, we have nothing to lose. Both events look very competitive and we are really looking forward to taking on the challenge and rising to the occasion.”
The move to the senior level on the national level has been a bit more challenging than just being selected, however, as both skaters are required to pass a series of tests in order to qualify to the senior level.
“In April we tested and passed the compulsory dance tests that we needed to qualify to compete as a senior team in the U.S.,” Maia explained. “We did six dance tests in a single session, for a single panel of judges, which was pretty exhausting. We will take our Senior Free Dance test later this summer.”
The biggest challenge that Maia and Alex will face as senior level skaters will be adapting to a change that all teams will face in the way that they compete. Last week at the bi-annual ISU Congress in Barcelona, Spain, it was decided that the Compulsory Dance and the Original Dance would no longer be separate parts of competition for ice dancers. Instead, teams will be required to perform a new short dance that is somewhat of a combination of the two. For this season, the dance will be the Golden Waltz, and the Shibutanis are well on their way to preparing for this change.
In hearing of the possibility of the change, the team has been preparing a new dance to meet the new requirements. Alex explained: “We are working on the Golden Waltz, a pattern of which will be a required element within the body of the proposed Short Dance event.”
As siblings, Maia and Alex have had to learn how to separate the role of competition partner and family member, and found it quite easy to distinguish between the two.
“Because we are family, it is very easy for the two worlds to just naturally mix,” Maia explained. “We attend different schools and live in different places. I think that skating has strengthened our relationship as a whole. We have always been close – even before we started skating together. Even though our partnership is “built-in,” it still takes work like any other relationship. We are both passionate about what we do and we are very motivated. I think we make a great team!”
Alex agreed, and shared some advice he received from an elder dance team who also share parents several years ago.
“When Maia and I first started skating together after our Juvenile year, I had the chance to spend a day tagging along with a top skating photojournalist at U.S. Nationals,” Alex remembers about interviewing siblings Julia and Philip Rey. “Although we all shared a good laugh, [one] answer still resonates with me. They said that when they were younger, they sometimes fought. However as they grew up, they kept in mind that they loved and respected each other. Philip also advised me that the boy has to remember that the girl is always right. I think maybe that’s what we were all laughing about!”
Maia and Alex stick to a very regimented training schedule, and are at the rink by 5:30 each morning five days a week. After four and half hours of training, the brother and sister head their separate ways to fulfill their educational obligations.
They train with famed coaches Marina Zueva and Igor Shpilband who currently coach the Olympic gold and silver medalists, and have perhaps the most competitive ice dancing group in the world. Additionally, Maia and Alex frequently work with Johnny Johns and Adrienne Lenda on ice.
“Our early morning schedule makes it possible for Maia to get in almost a complete day at school,” Alex explained. “Depending on the day, we also do off-ice workouts with a trainer or take dance classes including ballroom and ballet.”
After their long morning of training, Maia heads to Huron High School in Ann Arbor, Mich., where she just finished her sophomore year. As a student, Maia assumes a full course load which included AP US History this past year.
“For electives, I developed independent studies which centered on exercise physiology, and another on cooking and nutrition,” said the ambitious scholar. “It’s not easy to coordinate the schedule demands of both school and skating, but we think it’s definitely worthwhile.”
In her free time, Maia enjoys traveling, which naturally fits with her lifestyle as a competitive skater.
“I really enjoy traveling. Over the past two years, we have gotten to see many places by extending some trips following competitions. I especially enjoyed visits to Paris and Tokyo for two things I love – great food and fashion design,” said bubbly Maia.
“I love watching all sorts of shows on the Food Network and Bravo like Top Chef, and always look forward to diving into my copies of Teen Vogue as soon as they arrive. My mom and I also share a passion for reading, and we are always downloading and sharing new books on our Kindles.”
Alex is currently finishing up his freshman year at the University of Michigan, and is inspired by the high quality of education that he is receiving as a student.
“The top notch professional schools and graduate programs make for a very high quality environment for undergrads, and the culture of the school is very supportive of students making serious commitments to their sports. It has been a great environment to be in,” he said proudly.
“Since taking two courses a semester is less than a full-time load, I plan to be in school all-year round,” Alex said. “I am interested in economics and political science. This summer I am taking a course in communications, and am looking to take classes offered through the Business school as well.”
For the past year, Maia and Alex have been taking Japanese lessons in an effort to connect further with their Japanese heritage, an effort that paid off at the Junior Grand Prix Final in December.
“While it was a little intimidating at first with just our beginner’s skills, it was so heartening to be greeted with such kindness, patience and encouragement when we interacted with skating fans and journalists last season in Tokyo,” Alex said.
Last season Alex lived in a four bedroom house in Ann Arbor with Olympic silver medalist Charlie White, U.S. bronze medalist Evan Bates, and pairs skater Trevor Young. Recently, however, he moved into his own apartment in the same building as his mother and sister.
The Boston-born Alex is a huge sports fan, and he is admittedly passionate about any team from his birth city as well as University of Michigan Wolverines athletics.
An addition to the family has also added another much needed distraction from their everyday grind. “We recently got a new puppy-Po,” Maia said. “It’s just endless fun playing with him.”
In the future, Maia and Alex hope to make the most of their skating careers, and hope to earn spots on the U.S. World Championship and Olympic teams. Alex hopes to remain involved in sports beyond his skating career, possibly in journalism, new media, or management. Maia hopes to attain advanced degrees in law or business, and weave her experience as a figure skater into areas that involve creative expression and international travel.