Shibutani siblings have stellar outing during World Figure Skating Finals

Maia and Alex Shibutani performed their short dance at the 2014 US Championships in Boston. — photo courtesy of  Jay Adeff, US Figure Skating.

Maia and Alex Shibutani performed their short dance at the 2014 US Championships in Boston. — photo courtesy of Jay Adeff, US Figure Skating.

Just like they started off 2014 in grand fashion, the ice dancing duo of Maia and Alex Shibutani, former Greenwich Academy and Brunswick School students, kept the good times rolling in March as they took to the ice again for the ISU World Figure Skating Championships.

The Shibutanis kicked off their competition at the Saitama Super Center, a popular retractable wrestling venue located about 50 miles north of Tokyo that was also former home for the John Lennon museum, with an entertaining short dance to Michael Buble’s The Best is Yet to Come and For Once in my Life and scored sixth.

The Shibutanis, who were third at the 2011 Worlds and are four-time U.S. senior medalists, earned a 63.55 for this program, which was constructed around the highly technical foxtrot and quickstep dance patterns.

They performed a lightning-quick twizzle sequence, turns, edges and steps, racking up high plus-one, two and even three grade of execution marks from the discerning nine-member panel of International Skating Union officials.

“We were proud of the short dance we put out at the Olympics, but it feels like performance-wise we even topped that [here],” said Maia Shibutani, who, along with her brother, had received a Twitter shout out from Michael Buble during the Olympics saying he felt like he had won a gold medal due to the fact that they had used his music. “This program has grown so much since the beginning of the year and it’s been one of our favorite programs [and] I think  that showed.”

On Saturday, the two performed their popular Michael Jackson free dance to Wanna Be Startin Something, Man in the Mirror and Thriller with gusto and strength, earning 95.02 points for a 158.57 total score.

“We were aggressive and attacked every practice and every performance to make the most of the opportunity and show people what they can look forward to from us in the coming years,” said Alex Shibutani, who has been training in Canton, with his sister since 2007 with the iconic Marina Zoueva, also coach of 2014 Olympic champions Meryl Davis and Charlie White, as well as the 2014 Canadian Olympic silver medalists Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir.

Slavka Kohout Button, one of the Shibutani’s former coaches who resides in Greenwich and teaches in Fairfield and Westchester counties, described their skating as exceptional.

“They have good edges and steps and could’ve wound up in the top four,” said Kohout-Button, whose famous charge, Janet Lynn, was the five-time U.S. champion and 1972 Olympic bronze medalist. “To me, that’s how good they are.”

Social media stars

This past year, both Maia and Alex, reputed to be some of the most popular members of the entire Team USA group, also emerged as breakout social media stars, drawing thousands of followers on their Twitter, Facebook and YouTube accounts for their witty and informational repartee.

During their two-week stay in Sochi, they operated at an optimal social media level and provided followers with a detailed inside look at their experience as Olympians.

Throughout their stay, they posted notes, quips and photos depicting things such as the opening ceremony and life at the Team USA house and Olympic village, among other things, serving as important American social ambassadors of sorts due to their goodwill efforts.

“I guess I have a romantic notion about the Olympics,” said Alex Shibutani in a pre-nationals conference call last December. “It has a unifying quality about it and for two weeks it brings the whole world together.”

In Japan, they posted photos depicting the culture of the country, which is also the same locale where their mother, Naomi, had been born. Naomi’s family then moved to Miami before she went on to attend Harvard, the place where she met Chris, her husband, a hedge fund executive who grew up in Chappaqua, New York.

Ready to rock next season

Even though this team has been in the midst of wrapping up their action-packed season, they seem to be as eager as ever to return home to resume training in preparation for next year.

“Next year starts right away for us,” said Alex Shibutani, who, along with his sister, had been described by his former training mate, White, as incredibly hard workers. “We have a great team of coaches and we really trust Marina.”

According to Kohout-Button, the two are in excellent hands.

“Marina is a genius, she really is an artist,” said Kohout-Button, whose charge Lynn, was known as one of the sport’s great artistic innovators. “She teaches beautifully, but also sends them to the right people and places to learn about other aspects in regard to what they’re doing.”

Last year, she helped encourage the Shibutanis to use Stacey Walker and Travis Payne, two of the late Michael Jackson’s lead choreographers, to work on the performance aspect of their Olympic free dance.

In the next four years, the team said they are looking forward to coming up with more innovative programs to showcase their skills.

“We are looking forward to the future,” said Maia Shibutani. “We have so much in us.”

Indeed, she seems to be right on the mark. According to Kohout-Button, who helped Maia to learn most of her double jumps through the flip, these two former Greenwich residents possess the right stuff to reach the top of the leaderboard.

“There are skaters who step on the ice and your eyes just go right to them and that is to me, what defines star quality,” said Kohout-Button, a member of the U.S. Figure Skating and ProfessionalSkaters Association Hall of Fame. “Alex and Maia are so lively and open, and I see them stepping up to a whole other level during the next few years.”

No doubt, Kohout-Button’s words ring as true as ever as these two determined young athletes continue to move forward on this golden path.

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