|Maia Shibutani and Alex Shibutani perform their exhibition routine at the 2014 Cup of China on Dec. 8, 2014 in Shanghai.
Back in their training rink in Canton, Michigan, after making an Olympic debut in Sochi, Russia, Maia and Alex Shibutani have a secret weapon that many other ice dancers around the globe would give anything for: Meryl Davis and Charlie White as training partners.
It’s not a new relationship by any means, but the quartet of Americans now operate under a different set of rules after Davis and White won Olympic gold in Russia in February and chose to sit out the 2014-15 season, which marks the start of a new Olympic cycle.
“We trust them a lot,” Alex Shibutani told reporters in a call last week. “They’re taking the year off, and with our friendship being what it is we’ve been able to go to them for advice and feedback specifically this year. There is no worry of ruffling feathers.
“When we’re on the ice together, they’ll skate up beside us and point out little things and make suggestions. Any time you can get feedback from Olympic champions, you’ll take it.”
The feedback has obviously helped. The brother-and-sister team will return to the ISU Grand Prix of Figure Skating Final, held in Barcelona, Spain, Dec. 11-14, for the first time since 2011. Only the top six teams in the world from the Grand Prix Series qualify; the Shibutanis join fellow Americans Madison Chock and Evan Bates, who are the top seeds.
“We’ve been close in the past, so it feels good to get back there,” continued Alex, who is three years Maia’s senior at 23. “We just want to completely focus on ourselves, and it’s a great start to our plan to start our next four years. It’s definitely gratifying to be back at the final.”
The Shibutanis have spent much of their careers in the shadow of Davis and White as well as Canadian ice dancers Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir, the two teams who split the last two Olympic gold and silver medals (the Canadians won in Vancouver). Virtue and Moir are also taking this season off, meaning Maia and Alex have more focused attention from the mastermind coach they all share, Marina Zueva.
Silver medals at both Skate America and Cup of China this fall helped set up the Shibutanis for the Grand Prix Final in a season that Maia says feels like a fresh start toward 2018 as they continue to solidify themselves in the sport.
“The biggest change for us this season is who we are as a team,” she said. “We learned a lot going through that Olympic cycle, and now we know who we are. We’ve always been a hard-working team, and now we have the experience to use to our advantage as well.”
American crowds got to know the social media-savvy pair (their original YouTube videos — edited by Alex — get upwards of 20,000 views regularly) in Sochi both on and off the ice. Their Michael Jackson medley free dance at the Winter Games was a hit, and a ninth-place finish there measured respectable.
But the Michigan residents want to move up again in the sport: they were bronze medalists at the world championships in 2011. They have gone more classic with their music choices this season (including Johann Strauss in the free dance) and continue to measure what makes them strongest as a team, as they are a rare brother-sister duo in a sport that oozes romanticism.
“Having been skating at the senior level for four years, sometimes we have to pinch ourselves a little bit because we’re still young and still developing,” Alex explained. “But we do have a lot of experience, and we’re trying to take that into this new cycle and apply it on the ice.”
If any lesson is to be learned from Davis and White, it’s that of patience. The Olympic champions re-tuned and toiled away for four years after their Vancouver silver, a work ethic that the Shibutanis witnessed firsthand — and aren’t afraid to apply to their own skating.
“We have a lot of confidence right now. We’re very happy with how things have been progressing,” Alex said. “Over the next three years, we’re excited for what we can bring to this sport.”
Nick McCarvel is a freelance writer based in New York. He has covered all four of tennis' Grand Slams, as well as the Sochi 2014 Olympic Winter Games for NBCOlympics.com. McCarvel is a freelance writer for TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.