Every skater dreams about achieving the level of success that ice dancers Maia Shibutani and Alex Shibutani have enjoyed this season. With podium finishes at all but one of their competitions heading into Worlds, the siblings made quite a splash in their debut at the senior level.
The 2010 U.S. junior champions have meta-morphosed from a hope for the future into bona fide contenders in just one season.
“With Maia turning 16 last July, this was the first season we were eligible to compete internationally at the senior championship level,” said Alex, who turned 20 on April 25. “Maia grew over three inches in the past year, and it definitely helped to improve our overall look.
“We worked to improve on every aspect of our skating every season and tried to ensure that we developed all of our skills simultaneously.”
The Shibutanis opened their 2010-11 season at the Nebelhorn Trophy in Germany, where they finished fifth. “It was our first senior competition, and it gave us an opportunity to perform our programs before our Grand Prix assignments,” Maia said.
“It was so exciting for us to compete against teams that we have admired for years, and although we did not have our best performance in the short dance, it was a good experience. We learned how to come back from a rough short and put out a strong free dance.”
The team returned to their training base in Canton, Mich. to make some adjustments to their programs before heading to their Grand Prix assignments — NHK Trophy and Skate America. They captured bronze medals at both events.
“It was almost surreal for us to be standing on the podium,” Alex recalled. “We’ve been told that no other team has ever medaled at both of their events in their first year on the senior Grand Prix circuit. We were so thrilled to learn this and are very proud of our accomplishment.”
Both also enjoyed the social life on the senior Grand Prix. “Some of my best memories are from the final nights when we would hang out with friends from all over,” Maia said. “That included finding food, generally a 24-hour McDonald’s, and playing various board games.
“When we were at Skate America, a bunch of U.S. and some Canadian skaters played a hilarious game of Cranium that lasted so long that we were all extremely slaphappy. I am pleased to report that Adam Rippon and I ended up victorious.”
The duo went to the 2011 U.S. Champion-ships as potential medalists, a goal that they had set for themselves at the end of last season.
“From the moment we returned from Junior Worlds last year, we set goals for this season,” Alex explained. “We were determined to show improvement, and we knew how important it was to skate well and make a strong impact right from the beginning. Our goal from the outset was to make the World team.”
Maia agreed, adding, “I think there was a lot less pressure on us considering that it was our senior debut, though there is always pressure when you compete at any event of this caliber,” she said. “It is impossible to escape how important the event is to the competitive season.”
The Shibutanis danced into second at nationals behind training mates Meryl Davis and Charlie White. Though unable to keep pace with the Olympic silver medalists’ component scores, Maia and Alex outscored their teammates on the technical mark in the free dance.
They were quick to give credit to Davis and White, whom they also competed against at both of their Grand Prix events. “We were very happy to have the opportunity to spend the entire season traveling with Meryl and Charlie. Being newcomers to the senior scene and facing new competitive challenges, their presence at the same events was comforting for us,” Alex said with obvious appreciation.
The Shibutanis continued their medal-winning streak at Four Continents in February, capturing silver. “I don’t think it really hit us until we got home,” Maia said of their podium finish. “We felt pretty tired after the high from nationals, and it took a lot of discipline for us to stay focused. While it was an extremely competitive field, it was helpful that we had skated against most of the teams
earlier in the season.”
Like everyone else, the Shibutanis were devastated by the events in Japan, which put their Worlds debut in jeopardy.
“When we found out about the move to Moscow, we were very appreciative of all the hard work that went into making the decision to relocate the event. We have never been to Russia before and are excited for the opportunity to skate in our first Worlds there,” Alex told IFS in late March.
“We have had an amazing season, and we are really looking forward to giving it our all in Moscow,” Maia added. “That being said, our thoughts continue to be with the Japanese people, who have always shown such kindness and support to us.”
Originally published in June 2011