BOSTON – Maia Shibutani and Alex Shibutani’s ice dance career path has been anything but typical. The world was reminded of that Thursday night at TD Garden in Boston, where the siblings returned to the figure skating world championships podium for the first time in five years.
On a night filled with record-high scores, the Shibutanis earned silver at the 2016 World Figure Skating Championships, racking up a personal-best score of 113.73 in their free dance for a total of 188.43. Fellow 2014 U.S. Olympians Madison Chock and Evan Bates were close behind, taking the bronze medal after scoring 113.31, also a personal best, for a total of 185.77.
Frenchmen Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron achieved a world-record score of 118.17, breaking the previous record of 116.63 set by Meryl Davis and Charlie White at the Sochi 2014 Olympic Winter Games. Papadakis and Cizeron’s total of 194.46 earned them their second consecutive world title.
The Shibutanis’ long-awaited return to the worlds podium is believed to be the first time a skater went five years between world medals. But that stat doesn’t mean the team was taking it easy for five years. After earning bronze at the 2011 world championships – a rarity for first-year senior skaters – the Shibutanis won nine grand prix medals and appeared on the podium at the U.S. championships every year, but failed to reach the world championships podium. They instead finished eighth in their second and third years as seniors, followed by sixth and, finally, fifth in 2015.
“Our career has definitely been unique, starting off in the senior ranks the way we did,” said Alex, who was born in Boston. “It was very exciting and I wouldn’t change anything about that experience. It definitely took us to this moment tonight and we’re very proud of what we accomplished.
“We never thought about there being such a gap in between medals; it’s always been one foot in front of the next, making steady progress, knowing that we want to be the very best team we possibly can, and doing everything that we can to make it happen.”
The Shib Sibs, as they’re called, worked particularly hard heading into the 2015-16 skating season and that resulted in unprecedented success. In the first half of the season, they earned gold and silver at their two grand prix assignments to qualify for the Grand Prix Final, where they finished fourth (their best finish at the event). In January, they won their first national title and, last month, scored their first Four Continents Championships win.
“We’ve had an interesting journey, but at the same time we know that we’ve grown so much each season that we’ve been competing,” Maia said. “Really, this season was the culmination of a lot of hard work and we’re very lucky to have such a strong support system, so it’s very exciting to be back on the podium.”
While Boston marked a return to the podium for the Shibutanis, Chock and Bates took it as an opportunity to prove they’re becoming podium regulars leading into the PyeongChang 2018 Olympic Winter Games. They won silver last year and, after a less-than-ideal season that saw them dethroned by the Shibutanis as national champions, were able to put out their strongest performances of the year at worlds and earn a medal once more.
“It’s been a long, hard season for us, and we’re so happy that we could put out our best free dance at the world championships, and we’re so thrilled it could be on home soil here in Boston,” Chock said.
“In the last year we’ve grown a ton, and we still feel like there’s a lot of room for us to grow,” added Bates. “This summer will be five years since we’ve started skating together, and in that time I think we’ve accomplished a great deal: two world medals, a national title, making an Olympic team. But with that said, there’s still a lot yet to be written in our story and we plan to explore all of our potential.”
Boston marked the third time in figure skating history that two U.S. ice dance teams were on the podium after Kristin Fortune and Dennis Sveum, and Lorna Dyer and John Carrell achieved the feat in 1966 before Davis and White and the Shibutanis did the same in 2011.
It also marked the first time since 1955 that three U.S. ice dance teams finished in the top six.
Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue sealed their career-high world championships placement with a personal-best free dance score of 108.37, nearly 5.5 points ahead of their previous best.
Hubbell and Donohue, who earned bronze at three of their five U.S. championships together, attribute much of their success to their coaching change and move to Montreal after last season.
“This is reaffirmation of the incredible decision that we made,” Donohue said. “We really feel like we’re on the right path now and we really see what we’re capable of, and our resolve to get that title next year has never been stronger.”