Shibutanis finish Sochi Olympic ice dancing in top 10

Former Greenwich residents Alex and Maia Shibutani take to the ice during the 2014 Olympic Games in Sochi, Russia. — Getty Images

Former Greenwich residents Alex and Maia Shibutani take to the ice during the 2014 Olympic Games in Sochi, Russia. — Getty Images

Maia and Alex Shibutani, the two former Greenwich residents who scored a coveted berth on Team USA for the Olympics after placing third at the U.S. Championships in Boston in January, have done their country and original hometown proud in Sochi.

On Monday, they capped off their Olympic experience by earning a top 10 finish in the ice dance event and serving as popular social medial goodwill ambassadors for the entire American team.

These past few weeks, the talented and amiable brother and sister ice dance duo, who grew up in Old Greenwich and skated for numerous years at the Dorothy Hamill Rink in town, have been having the veritable time of their lives.

Aside from spending much of their time hobnobbing among many of the world’s premier winter athletes from all over the world, they delivered the goods on the ice in the dance competition skating two solid performances that put them ninth in the standings among the formidable 24-team field.

This team, who are the 2011 World bronze medalists and four-time national championship dance podium finishers, were happy with their placement and deemed the entire Olympic experience as a resounding success, citing it as an important stepping stone in their competitive career.

“Everything went the way it should,” said Alex Shibutani, 22, a former Brunswick student who makes up half the team with his sister, Maia, 19, a Greenwich Academy attendee, and have come to be regarded as one of the leading ice dance teams in the world. “We’ve been taking everything in since we’ve gotten here so to finally have our Olympic moment it totally blew our expectations.”

Team racks up results

In this event, the Shibutanis put out performances defined by power, grace and technicality and earned a 155.17 total score, a good set of numbers considering they were pitted against some of the world’s most strongest teams.

Some of those teams included Meryl Davis and Charlie White, the venerable gold medalists who made history in this event by being the first U.S. team to ever win an Olympic ice dance competition and Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir, the Canadian 2010 Olympic winners who clinched silver.

Last Sunday, the Shibutanis, who train alongside the top two finishers at the Arctic Edge Ice Arena in Canton, Michigan with the iconic Marina Zoueva, kicked off the competition with their lively short dance to a Michael Buble medley for which they racked up their personal best score of the 2013-14 season, a 64.47.

Following the event, Buble sent a shout out via Twitter thanking the Shibutanis for using his music.

In this program, they performed their edges, steps, turns and lifts with speed, flow and expertise that drew enthusiastic television kudos from onlookers, including the enigmatic NBC television Olympic commentator Johnny Weir, a U.S. World bronze medalist who described their style as “interesting and modern.”

“I think it was the most fun we’ve ever had performing,” said Maia Shibutani following this portion of the event. “And it was a season-best [score] for us.”

On Monday, the Shibutanis skated an electric free dance to a Michael Jackson medley that was defined by skill, quickness and theatricality.

Although they faced a minor wardrobe issue when Maia’s tights had ripped after her dress caught on her brother’s costume during a lift, the overall quality of their skating was exceptional and they wound up right behind the number-two American dance team, Michigan-based Madison Chock and Evan Bates, who were eighth with a 164.64.

“I thought they skated great and that the American ice dancing was the best it’s ever been,” said Slavka Kohout Button, a U.S. Figure Skating Hall of Fame coach from Greenwich who had worked with the Shibutanis when they lived in town along with Kathy Bird, Susie Kelly and Andrew Stroukoff at rinks in the New York-metropolitan area.

The Shibutanis’ placement, along with the results of their fellow teammates was significant since it represented the second time three American dance teams have all wound up in the top 10 standings at an Olympics.

This is not exactly a shock, since during the past decade, the Detroit area, the site where all of the top three U.S. teams train, has emerged as the veritable ice dance capital of the sport since it is where Zoueva, as well as her former teaching partner, the esteemed Igor Sphilband, coach of Chock and Bates, are both based.

“The coaches of all these skaters are just great,” said Kohout-Button, who taught Janet Lynn, the five-time U.S. champion and 1972 Olympic bronze medalist. “These skaters have such clarity of position and no unnecessary movements and show a complete lack of clutter.”

Team enjoys facing the music

The Shibutanis’ results at Sochi and at so many other events are particularly impressive considering they have faced the challenge of performing as siblings amongst teams who are not related and able to interpret conventional romantic themes that are so prevalent in this discipline.

In signature character, however, they have done anything but let this issue deter them from pushing full steam and straight ahead toward achieving their full potential and have only used this as an opportunity to showcase their talent and skills in a unique and individual manner.

At this stage, in fact, the two have gotten so good at selecting music to suit their story, personality and skating they have helped elevate the overall performance bar of ice dancing as a whole.

“They picked great music, something that [especially] young people could relate to and that they could relate to,” said Kohout-Button, who coaches at the Hamill Rink in Greenwich and at other venues in the Fairfield and Westchester County areas. “I see them being mischievous and comical as they continue to bring [their performances] to the next level.”

These past few years, the Shibutanis have worked harder than ever to remain high in the world standings, something that has required great effort due to the fact that the overall standard among teams in this discipline keeps increasing.

Still, they remain as determined as ever to continue racking up high results, which seems only likely in looking at their competitive history. (The two scored their first national medal, a silver, at the juvenile level in 2005 and have been on an upward trajectory ever since.)

“We’re a great physical match for each other with ice dancing and we’re both driven individuals,” said Alex in a pre-Olympic conference call. “We get along, have a great understanding of each other and [get that] the highs and lows bring us closer together and give us a distinct advantage.”

Next month, the Shibutanis are slated to compete their final event of the season, the World Championships in Saitama, Japan, just north of Tokyo, and seem as geared up as ever to put out two more exceptional performances.

“We know there are definitely things to improve upon after every competition,” said Alex Shibutani. “We try to be honest with our skating and with who we are.”

Sochi’s social media darlings

Aside from racking up some solid results on the ice, the Shibutanis have also emerged as some of the most popular social media athletes at this Olympics these past few weeks and have attracted a huge domestic and worldwide following on social sites such as Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.

During their stay, Alex and Maia have given their followers a rare peek into Olympic village life with their ongoing stream of humorous, informative and witty tweets and photos documenting this once-in-a-lifetime experience. In turn, they have emerged as goodwill ambassadors for the entire American Olympic team, which is exciting.

“I was checking my Twitter feed,” said Alex Shibutani when asked by reporters about the team’s social media popularity after the short dance event.  “I think I have some questions waiting for us.”

On a sidenote, earlier this week, Alex had received hundreds of Twitter and Instagram hits when he had posted a photo of a McDonalds meal he was about to eat in the Olympic village after completing the short dance, among numerous other things.

“[Alex] is one of the funniest people I’ve ever met,” said Tara Lipinski, the 1998 Olympic champion and NBC Olympic figure skating commentator. “He has a [really] dry sense of humor.”

Without a doubt, this brother and sister act seem to have a definite knack for entertaining people and seem destined for greatness on and off the ice, perhaps due to the fact that they seem to understand the significance of knowing both where they are headed and also where they have come from.

“This has been a huge journey for us,” said Maia Shibutani. “Skating has brought us so many wonderful opportunities and one of the things is the ability to form friendships and make connections.”

Well said, indeed.

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