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Sibling Strength And Shared Vision Make Shibutanis The Ultimate Team

By Lynn Rutherford | Dec. 07, 2016, 1:35 p.m. (ET)

Maia and Alex Shibutani celebrate after completing their free dance at the ISU World Figure Skating Championships 2016 at TD Garden on March 31, 2016 in Boston.

Competing on three different continents in less than eight weeks takes a toll, in more ways than just jet lag.

Where’s that iPod? Clean workout gear? The nice outfit set aside for official functions?

“My apartment is kind of a mess, but everything is here, someplace,” U.S. ice dancer Alex Shibutani said, a few days before flying to Marseille, France, where he and sister Maia will compete in their fourth ISU Grand Prix Final Dec. 8-11.

Maia feels her big brother’s pain, to a point.

“I try to stay organized, and sometimes it’s tough,” she said. “But I would say I’m usually a step ahead of Alex when it comes to preparing for our trips.”

With wins at Skate America and Cup of China this fall, the Shibutanis rarely miss a step on the ice. Off of the ice, they’re almost equally in synch. Any small differences just seem to strengthen their working relationship.

“Maia and I are evenly matched on the ice and off the ice, and that’s what makes us such a strong team,” Alex said. “There are some things that Maia does better than me, and there are some things I might do better than her. Because we have such a strong relationship, we are able to identify those things, and … Maia is definitely more organized than I am.”

The Shibutanis started ice dancing together when they were 9 and 12, for a simple reason: it was fun. Even after competing in the Sochi 2014 Olympic Winter Games and winning 12 U.S. medals and four U.S. titles, including the 2016 senior ice dance crown, they’re still having fun. And doing it all as siblings — with shared history, goals and creative visions — make them the ultimate team.

“We enjoyed working together from the beginning, and since we were having a good time, we progressed quickly,” Maia, 22, said. “With a lot of new teams, you’re just starting to get to know the other person. With us, we already had a great relationship, so communication was easy.”

“We could focus on the work, without the distractions of two young kids starting to learn more about each other’s personalities,” Alex, 25, said. “We’ve always been very close, and I think that was a definite edge we had, especially when we were younger.”

There were also practical advantages. From the early days when Maia and Alex were single skaters growing up in Greenwich, Connecticut, parents Naomi and Chris could coordinate schedules and ferry their precocious kids to and from the rink together. As the siblings progressed in ice dance, and moved to train with coaches in New Jersey, Colorado and finally, in 2007, to Canton, Michigan, only one family had to sign off. But it went deeper than logistics.

“We have competed against teams that have split up, because both partners didn’t have the same vision for the future of the team,” Alex said. “Maia and I luckily have had that same vision, and we were able to identify that early on because of our close relationship.”

Ice dance often emphasizes what coaches and choreographers call “the man-woman relationship” or, simply put, romance. The Shibutanis and their primary coach, Marina Zoueva, explored other creative options for Maia and Alex’s programs: a selection of big band-era hits, music from the Leo Delibes’ ballet “Coppelia” and a Michael Jackson medley, among many others.

Last season, the siblings’ free-flowing, emotional free dance to Coldplay’s “Fix You” captivated audiences and judges alike, lifting them to their first U.S. senior title and helping them win a world silver medal. It was their first world podium finish since they won bronze in 2011, when Maia was just 16.

“We don’t feel like we’ve been following a blueprint, we’ve been following our guts,” Alex said. “That, along with the faith Marina has in us, has led us to a lot of reflection and a lot of going to sources we feel will inspire us the most, inside or outside the skating world.”

This season, that’s meant working with figure skating luminaries like Stephane Lambiel and Jeff Buttle, both world champions, and five-time U.S. ice dance champion Peter Tchernyshev. It’s also meant embracing hip-hop, a rhythm option for the short dance for the first time. 

Maia and Alex traveled to Los Angeles this spring and summer to work with Hokuto “Hok” Konishi, a finalist on “So You Think You Can Dance” and member of the Emmy-winning hip-hop dance crew Quest Crew. They chose Frank Sinatra’s “That’s Life” for the blues’ portion of their program, and Quest Crew member Ryan “Ryanimay” Conferido created a mash-up of Sinatra and Jay Z for the hip-hop section.

“(‘That’s Life’) reflects who we are, what we’ve been through,” Alex said. “It took a certain life experience we’ve had in our career to really relate to it.”

The skaters themselves, along with coaches Zoueva, Oleg Epstein and Massimo Scali, choreographed their cerebral yet stirring free dance, which they call “Evolution.” The first half of the program is set to “Spiegel im Spiegel” (“Mirror in the Mirror”), the second half to a composition arranged by Alex.

“We both agreed on the title ‘Evolution,’ because the word expresses the feeling we both share. We believe we’ve really grown,” Maia said.

“It’s not like Maia or I say, ‘I like this piece of music,’” Alex said. “When we make our suggestions, we are very thoughtful, considerate and aware of what we think is best for us and what we want to do.”

Some differences do emerge. Alex likens his creative process to “splatter painting” and calls Maia good at fine-tuning his concepts, while also contributing her own thoughts.

“I try to get so many ideas out there and Maia is really good at focusing and communicating, because it can be overwhelming for our coaches sometimes,” Alex said. “That’s a great ability Maia brings to our dynamic.”

“I feel like Alex has so many great ideas,” Maia said. “I am able to hone in on what will work and how to get everyone on the same page to understand where we are coming from. We work with a lot of talented people, and we’re very lucky to have that, because we take from everyone. It still takes putting together.”

If the siblings put it all together in Marseille, they could cap their most successful grand prix season ever with their first Grand Prix Final medal. Big competition will come from Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir, Canada’s 2010 Olympic champions who recently set world record scores at NHK Trophy, as well as two-time world champions Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron of France.

With three U.S. ice dance teams qualifying for the Final for the second season in a row, the Shibutanis will also square off against reigning world bronze medalists Madison Chock and Evan Bates, and U.S. bronze medalists Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue.

“The field is extremely competitive, and it’s been that way pretty much since we first competed as seniors in 2011,” Alex said. “Peripherally, we are aware of what’s going on and what other teams are doing, but based on what we’re tackling this season, we need to commit all of our energy to ourselves.”

“Because we’ve spent the time working with people we really think can help us, I just know in every single way our skating has improved,” Maia said. “It’s not like I can pinpoint one thing. We’ve been getting stronger as individuals and that’s made us a stronger team, so we’re just really excited to go and attack our programs in Marseille.”

Lynn Rutherford is a sportswriter based out of New York. She is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.

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