HOFFMAN ESTATES, Ill. -- Maia and Alex Shibutani have their sights set on the ultimate prize: an Olympic medal. And they are taking all the right steps to get there.
The brother-sister ice dance duo came out blazing this weekend at Skate America and won their first competition of the season handily with a 10-point margin. Their total score of 185.95 was followed by fellow Americans Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue, who earned 175.77 points for silver, and Russians Ekaterina Bobrova and Dmitri Soloviev, who took bronze with 174.77.
Ice dance closed out the three-day event, in which Team USA won seven medals, more than triple that of any other nation. The haul marked the most medals the U.S. has won at Skate America since 1988 (also seven).
While the Shibutanis have medaled at each of their three past Skate America appearances, Sunday’s win marked their first gold at the event. They join the ranks of several other American ice dance teams who have won the grand prix event, such as Meryl Davis and Charlie White, Tanith Belbin and Ben Agosto, and Elizabeth Punsalan and Jerod Swallow.
“This is our first competition of the season, so Alex and I are thrilled with how it went,” Maia said. “Both of our programs are so different but the performance today felt really strong and we’re looking forward to building to Cup of China.”
Maia, 22, and Alex, 25, took a measured approach to this season. Though they have been working on their programs since just after last April’s world championships, they chose to wait until the grand prix season to debut them. Intentionally missing the earlier Challenger Series events they traditionally compete in allowed them the time to fully explore and prepare their programs.
The win validated their decision to wait.
“Right after the world championships, we got to work right away on both of our programs, and the reason why we decided to have this competition be our debut is because we really wanted to spend enough time creating, and so we’re really happy with where we’re at right now,” Maia said after the free dance.
Creating their programs so early in the offseason meant taking advantage of the off-the-charts success the Shibutanis experienced last season. Having finished second or third for four years in a row at the U.S. championships, they broke through to win their first title over defending champs Madison Chock and Evan Bates. The Shib Sibs then struck gold at Four Continents for the first time and ended their season with a career-high silver medal at the world championships.
It was a season so monumental that their free dance, titled “Evolution,” was designed around it.
“It was kind of formulated during the course of last season. It was a defining year for us,” Alex said. “We took steady steps forward at each competition last season and it ended in a great way at the world championships with a return to the world podium for us, and so our thought was, ‘How do we take our next step forward? How do we progress? How do we grow?’
“And so, emotionally, Maia and I have always been so connected on the ice, and I think as we’ve grown as performers and as artists, in the collaboration we’ve done with our coaching team and the people that we work with off the ice, this felt like the next step for us.”
Hubbell and Donohue also took the next step for their career at Skate America. The silver medal marked their first medal at Skate America and their best finish at a completed grand prix event (they won gold at Trophee Bompard last season, which was based only on the short dance after the attacks on Paris canceled the remainder of the event).
“We said let’s just give it our all, skate for each other and whatever happens, happens,” Hubbell said.
Their strong free dance to a medley of love songs allowed them to surpass the Russians, who were second after the short dance.
Donohue proved to himself and his partner that he is able to perform the program in a less than ideal condition. He was battling a persistent cough and congestion all weekend, which he said affected his fitness.
The illness started over two weeks ago wile they were competing at Finlandia Trophy. Donohue said it started out as a cold, turned into the flu and now he is waiting for the cough to leave his system.
“It was definitely a harder run for me,” Donohue said. “It’s good knowing I can do it in any circumstance. I didn’t really get lost in the music as much as I would have liked. I was very thoughtful of my breath; my biggest issue right now is breathing. …
“If that’s what we can put out in very less-than-perfect circumstances, then well-trained and in our element I think this program has incredible potential. I’m very happy with what it leads up to in the future.”
Both teams are hoping their futures lead to the PyeongChang 2018 Olympic Winter Games, which are less than 16 months away. It would be a return trip to the Games for the Shibutanis and an Olympic debut for Hubbell and Donohue.
“I think that it’s safe to say that for everyone (on this podium) with us, the Olympics are always on our mind,” Alex said. “It’s the pinnacle of our sport, it’s the competition we all grow up dreaming about, and so within this four-year cycle, we’re a little bit past halfway through, so definitely all of our eyes are squarely set on the Olympics.
“Obviously it’s a season away, but we’re very excited about how we started this season off.”