Next week, two former Greenwich residents, Maia and Alex Shibutani, will be fulfilling a lifelong dream of representing the United States at the Olympic games, as they prepare to take on the best ice dance teams in the world over in Sochi, Russia.
Three weeks ago, this talented brother and sister ice dance duo, who placed third at the 2011 Worlds and are four-time national senior medalists, earned a berth on the U.S. Olympic figure skating team after scoring bronze at the 2014 U.S. Championships at the TD Center in Boston.
“It’s incredible for Alex and I to look at each other and be on a pre-Olympic conference call,” said Maia Shibutani, 19, in a telephone interview with her brother, Alex, 22, last week. “This has been a dream as long as we can remember.”
Ever since placing third in Boston, the two, who live and train in Canton, Mich., have been working as hard as ever to make sure they deliver another stellar performance at the Olympics.
“Since nationals, we’ve been working really hard,” said Maia, who attends the University of Michigan, along with her brother. “We’re aiming to put out the best performances of our season, hopefully of our lives.”
Somehow, this prediction seems likely, especially in looking at the team’s impressive competitive history.
Back in the late 1990s, Maia, who attended Greenwich Academy, and Alex, who went to Brunswick School, began skating at ages 5 and 7, respectively, and since then, they have come to be known as one of the most formidable ice dance duos in the sport.
In the 10 years they have competed together, this team has racked up some serious hardware, including two silver and two bronze national medals in the championship division, a World bronze, and consistent top-three placement at more than a dozen International Skating Union junior and senior Grand Prix events.
At the same time, they have finished first or second in every competitive level from the juvenile through the junior divisions at the U.S. Championships, a feat matched by only a handful of other American teams in the history of the sport.
“We’ve really learned so much in the 10 years we’ve been together,” said Maia. “Skating has brought us so many wonderful opportunities.”
Her brother agreed and said the two are driven individuals committed to achieving their best in everything.
“We’re both driven and love each other very much,” he said. “This ride has been amazing and we’re looking forward to the next couple of weeks, as this has been a dream for us as long as we can remember.”
A stellar work ethic
Reputed to be some of the most congenial, focused and hard-working members of the 2014 U.S. Olympic figure skating team, the Shibutanis seemed to have always had a knack for making magic happen out on the ice.
As youngsters, they experienced success as singles competitors at local events around the New York metropolitan area.
Maia consistently medaled in the lower levels and had even been selected as winner of the esteemed Alis McCurdy Cup award for showing promise and talent at the annual town of Greenwich competition at the Dorothy Hamill Rink one year.
Alex, meanwhile, medaled at competitions through the juvenile level and had come to be known as an upcoming men’s contender.
Destiny had different things in mind for these two, however, who trained during this time at the Hamill Rink, Rye Playland Ice Casino and Harvey School Rink in Katonah, N.Y., among other places. They worked with various coaches, including Kathy Bird of Westchester and Slavka Button, a U.S. Figure Skating Hall of Fame member from Greenwich.
“They were both eager, loved the sport and wanted to learn,” said Button, whose famous charge, Janet Lynn, the five-time U.S. champion, placed third at the 1972 Olympics. “I always felt they would make it to this level.”
After a few years in the singles realm, the two decided to join forces and pursue competitive ice dancing. Almost immediately, they started earning excellent results, clinching their first National medal (a silver) in the juvenile division in 2005.
That same year, Maia and Alex, along with their parents, Chris and Naomi, decided to uproot themselves from Greenwich and move to Colorado Springs so the two could train full-time with Patti Gottwein, an international dance coach, at the Broadmoor World Arena.
There, they worked intensively on their technical acumen and artistry and flourished, claiming two national titles in the intermediate and novice divisions in the following two seasons.
“So many people have seen us grow up,” said Alex. “We had a lot of support from [everywhere], especially the U.S. and around the world.”
Detroit Rock City
In 2007, the two, under the guidance of their parents, executives who met at Harvard University, felt it was time to make another move and decided to relocate to Michigan in order to further raise their game.
There, they worked with Igor Shpilband and Marina Zoueva, known as some of the best ice dance coaches in the world, and concentrated on strengthening their power, speed and overall performance quality.
In Canton, they also thrived on the fact that they were training alongside some of the best dance teams in the world, including Meryl Davis and Charlie White, the six-time U.S. titlists and reigning World champions, and Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir, the 2010 Canadian Olympic gold medalists, who were also coached by Shpilband and Zoueva at the time. (In 2013, Zoueva and Shpilband parted ways and all three teams decided to work exclusively with the former coach.)
From the outset, the dynamic between the three teams at the Arctic Ice Arena was incredible, and in 2011, they all wound up on the podium at that World Championships. (This outcome was deemed historic, as it marked the first time any coach, or coaches, ever had that number of teams medal in the same discipline at a Worlds).
According to the Shibutanis, the training environment in Canton has played a paramount role in their success and has helped to bring them to a whole new level.
“Charlie has some of the quickest feet ever, and I’ve learned so much from watching him and Meryl,” said Alex.
The feeling is apparently mutual.
“The [Shibutanis] are incredibly hard workers,” said Charlie White, who made history at the 2014 U.S. Championships when he and Davis won their sixth consecutive dance title, a first for any American pair in this discipline. “It’s one of their greatest assets.”
In addition to their reputation as hard workers, the Shibutanis are reputed to be good, solid people who have given their time and expertise to help others.
When the family lived in Greenwich, Alex helped out the Special Olympic athletes at the Hamill Rink, where he was said to have done an outstanding job.
“Alex would always ask what more he could do to help everyone out,” said Sarah Dickinson Gleeson, a longtime coach and Special Olympics volunteer who lives in Greenwich. “He was just a great person.”
Slavka Button agreed.
“When the Shibutanis set their mind to something, they work hard and know what to do to make it happen,” said Button.
Edging their way right to Sochi
Over the past few years, the team have been as focused as ever on making their Olympic dreams come true and have consistently earned top placements at major national and world-level events.
In particular, they have earned accolades for their free dance programs, which are technically exceptional, dramatic and moving, including their poignant rendition to the Memoirs of a Geisha film score from a few seasons back, for which they earned big scores.
According to Maia and Alex, their primary goal over the past few seasons has been to stay focused on just elevating their standard.
“With all of our programs we strive to maintain authenticity,” said Alex. “We try to be honest with our skating and who we are.”
This season, the two selected an electric Michael Jackson medley featuring the songs Wanna Be Starting Something, Man in the Mirror and Thriller for their free dance, which so far has been a big hit with both audiences and officials.
“We wanted to challenge ourselves in a way to let loose,” said Maia. “It’s a new experience.”
In order to create an authentic pop style in the image of the iconic Jackson, the two spent the year working intensively with Stacy Walker and Travis Payne, both of whom had been selected by the late singer for his much-anticipated This Is It tour before he unexpectedly died in 2009.
“To be working with the best of the best was the first step to success,” said Alex. “We surrounded ourselves with high talent and did our best to absorb as much as we could, and they were great.”
Throughout the season, the two have also been working pragmatically with Zoueva on their edges, turns, steps, power, and flow.
“We know there are definitely things to improve upon after every competition,” said Alex. “With all of our programs we want to grow as athletes and artists.”
Based upon their performance in Boston, the two seem to be right on target and as ready as ever to face the competition in Sochi.
“I think we’ll have a great time at the Olympics,” said Alex.
The brother-and-sister duo said the best thing about being on the Olympic team is the fact that they will be playing an integral role in an event that helps bring everyone around the globe together for a brief period of time.
“I guess I have a romantic notion about the Olympics,” said Alex. “It has a unifying quality about it and for two weeks it brings the whole world together.”
No doubt Alex and his sister also reflect much of the magic and mind-set of their original hometown as they get ready to skate for the United States in Sochi, which is something to really be proud of.