Greenwich natives Shibutanis’ finish fourth at ISUGP Finals

Greenwich natives Maia and Alex Shibutani perform their short dance program at the 2014 Skate America in Chicago. — photo by Jay Adeff/US Figure Skating

Greenwich natives Maia and Alex Shibutani perform their short dance program at the 2014 Skate America in Chicago. — photo by Jay Adeff/US Figure Skating

Two weeks ago, Maia and Alex Shibutani, the two former Greenwich residents who were ninth at the 2014 Sochi Olympics in ice dance last February, finished fourth at the International Skating Union (ISU) Grand Prix Finals in Barcelona, Spain, proving they are right on track toward reaching the pinnacle of the sport.

This finish is paramount, as this event represents an early-season showdown for the premier international contenders in ice dance, pairs and the men’s and ladies disciplines and provides a vital seeding reference for the 2015 World Championships, to be held in Shanghai, China, this March.

This also turned out to be a benchmark competition for the duo, the 2011 World bronze and four-time U.S. championship dance medalists, as it is the highest placement they have clinched at any Grand Prix Final (they were fifth in 2011), designating them the fourth-best dance team in the sport.

Meanwhile, it is also the first time since 2011 the two have qualified for this event, earning an invitation for two silver-medal finishes at the ISU Grand Prix competitions held this fall, Skate America and the Cup of China.

“We feel really good,” said Alex Shibutani, 23, a former Brunswick School student who trains with his sister, 20, with Marina Zoueva, the coach of 2014 Olympic champions Meryl Davis and Charlie White, at the Arctic Ice Palace in Ann Arbor, Mich. “This competition has been one of the best we’ve ever experienced.”

Last Friday, the duo, who grew up skating at the Dorothy Hamill Skating Rink, as well as the Stamford Twin Rinks, kicked off the competition with their paso doble short dance, for which they earned third place.

They dropped to fourth overall in the free dance with a 158.94 total score, coming up just 3.45 points short of a medal finish.

Although their program to the Johann Strauss waltzes Rosen aus dem Suden and The Blue Danube was exceptional, the rest of the competition was also on their game, which, in turn, caused them to drop in the standings.

Shibutanis performing free dance at 2014 Skate America in Chicago. — photo by Jay Adeff/US Figure Skating

Shibutanis performing free dance at 2014 Skate America in Chicago. — photo by Jay Adeff/US Figure Skating

In the end, Kaitlyn Weaver and Andrew Poje of Canada skated away with gold, tallying up a 181.14 total, while Madison Chock and Evan Bates of Novi, Mich., the 2014 U.S. silver medalists, wound up second with 167.09 and Gabriella Papdakis and Guillaume Cizeron of France jumped up from fourth in the short dance to third overall with 162.39.

“We put together two good performances here and connected with the audience,” said Alex Shibutani. “At the end of the day, we’re looking to build for the season so we can put out our best performances at the World Championships.”

No doubt, the Shibutanis stepped up and did just that.

In both of their programs, they performed dizzying lifts, perfectly synchronized twizzles and difficult turns and steps in right and left directions with superb flow, edge quality and body alignment.

“We’re happy about the direction we’re taking our skating,” said Alex, who has been training with his sister in Ann Arbor since 2007.

Maia agreed.

“Now we have clear goals, we know who we are as a team and we have that confidence now to show in our skating,” said Maia, a former Greenwich Academy student who was awarded the Alis McCurdy Award for showing promise and talent at the Hamill Town competition back in the early 2000s. “The biggest change is who we are as a team.”

Shibutanis hit a new level 

This year, the Shibutanis seem to have a whole new outlook on the sport, a change that has not been lost on many members of the skating community, including their peers, officials, fans, and coaches.

“They look like they really love what they’re doing,” said Slavka Kohout-Button of Greenwich, one of the Shibutanis’ first coaches and a U.S. Figure Skating Hall of Fame member. “They were always extremely committed to being their best in every way, and it’s exciting to watch them at this stage.”

Somehow, the two, who began competing together in 2004, have always known how to make magic happen with their skating, that’s for sure.

Right from the outset, they clinched a host of U.S. medals and titles from the juvenile (youngest) through the championship (senior) level due to their skill, drive and natural aptitude for the ice.

“Maia and Alex are very talented,” said Kohout-Button, coach of Janet Lynn, the five-time U.S. titlist and 1972 Olympic bronze medalist. “They are also driven and determined, and in this sport, that is everything.”

Certainly, drive, talent and hard work have played a major role in the team’s success, but in recent years, the two also seem to have found new meaning in their skating, which has brought their performance level to a whole new level, especially this season.

This visible renewed enthusiasm for their skating, no doubt, seemed to be largely fueled by their experience at the Sochi Olympics last winter.

Aside from the thrill and honor of representing the U.S. on Olympic ice, the two also became huge social media sensations, tweeting, messaging and posting photos and information documenting their lives as Olympians on sites like Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and Instagram.

These efforts, in turn, were not only very much appreciated by their thousands of followers but also helped elevate them to the status of athlete ambassadors, which put a whole new twist on their role as competitive skaters.

“An experience like the Olympics really inspired us,” said Alex in a pre-Skate America press conference in October. “We have a lot of room to grow and we’re really enjoying ourselves in our skating right now.”

Training with the finest

After wrapping up the Olympic season with a sixth-place finish at the 2014 World Championships in Japan in March, the Shibutanis went home and resumed training with Zoueva, focusing on their skills and new programs.

“Maia and I are very committed people, so no matter what we are trying to accomplish with our lives, it’s going to be 100 percent,” said Alex Shibutani, who also worked with Special Olympics skaters as a young teenager when he grew up in town. “We care so much about this sport.”

In addition to training with Zoueva, who was named the 2014 Professional Skaters Association coach and choreographer of the year, the Shibutanis have been spent much of this past year getting assistance from their famous former training mates, Davis and White, who often stop by to see how they’re doing.

“If we’re in a lesson with Marina, Meryl and Charlie will skate up alongside of us after a [program] run-through and say this or that,” said Alex Shibutani. “[They] really know our skating, and anytime [we] can get feedback from Olympic champions, we’ll take it.”

Ultimately, however, the magic of this team lies in the strength of their family dynamic.

“At the end of the day, being brother and sister is a real strength in our relationship,” said Maia.

Her brother agreed.

“That family connection is everything,” said Alex, who along with his sister still refers to Greenwich as their hometown. “We’ve been through it all together.”

Somehow, it seems as if these former town residents are at a whole new beginning, especially with their skating. Now it’s just a matter of enjoying the ride.

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