LAKE PLACID, N.Y. -- Maia and Alex Shibutani had been there before.
The brother-sister ice dance team first competed at the famed Herb Brooks Arena in 2004 at the Lake Placid Ice Dance Championships, when they were competing at the juvenile level. They went on to medal at the event for the next four years.
That’s why when they won gold at the 2017 Bridgestone Skate America on Sunday afternoon – 13 years after their first, and at the time biggest, competition in that venue – it felt familiar.
“As we were warming up off the ice, we felt a little emotional… ” Alex said after their free dance, which scored 115.07. “Just running around in the hallways backstage, those are the hallways that we warmed up in 13 years ago. This was the first big arena that we ever skated in in our lives, and so it was a special weekend.”
The Shibutanis won the event with a total score of 194.25, which was a new personal best. Italy’s Anna Cappellini and Luca Lanotte earned silver with a 181.63, while Russia’s Victoria Sinitsina and Nikita Katsalapov rounded out with podium, scoring 176.53 total. Team USA’s Kaitlin Hawayek and Jean-Luc Baker placed fifth, while siblings Rachel and Michael Parsons were ninth.
The gold-medal finish, which comes on the heels of their gold medal at last month’s Rostelecom Cup in Russia, qualified them for the Grand Prix Final, set for Dec. 7-10 in Nagoya, Japan. It will mark the fourth straight Grand Prix Final appearance for the Shibutanis, who finally medaled at last season’s event with a bronze.
Since they last competed in Lake Placid in 2008, several things have changed for Maia and Alex, now 23 and 26, respectively. Aside from their age, height and performance ability, the biggest would be the fact that they have competed at an Olympic Winter Games and are strong contenders to not only make, but medal at, their second Olympics this February.
It gives competing in the city that hosted both the 1932 and 1980 Olympic Winter Games – two of the four the U.S. has ever held – a whole new meaning for them this time around.
“Lake Placid has hosted two Olympics, so it’s really special that in an Olympic season Skate America is being hosted here,” Maia said. “You see it all over the town, just the history, and even at this rink.”
The signs of Olympic history and glory at the rink are what helped spark the Olympic dream for a young Maia and Alex Shibutani back in 2004.
“Maia was 9 and I was 12. The Olympic rings were on the board, and we just thought that was the coolest thing ever that we were getting to skate and perform our cha cha compulsory dance and our willow waltz in an Olympic venue,” Alex recalled.
“It’s really special for us to return and reflect on how much we’ve accomplished,” Maia said. “From those early beginnings to now, it’s been an amazing journey.”
The Shibutanis have been doing a lot of reflecting in the final season of their second Olympic quadrennial. To be fair, they have been reflecting – and more importantly, strategizing – for the past few years to lead up to what they can only hope is a career-defining moment in PyeongChang, South Korea.
Their free dance for the season is set to Coldplay’s “Paradise,” and unlike the case with most skaters, it is not a standalone program completely unique to this season. “Paradise” is the final part in what the Shibutanis planned out as a trilogy, a series of three free dance programs that began in 2015-16, when they had a breakout season. Five years after making their senior debut – when they won bronze at the world championships – they finally won their first national title that season and, for the first time since 2011, returned to the world podium.
The first part in their trilogy was performed to Coldplay’s “Fix You” and led to silver at the Boston-hosted world championships, while last year’s installment was titled “Evolution.”
“The first year, we were coming from a place of being discouraged and unsure of our identity,” Maia wrote in her TeamUSA.org blog last month. “We dug deep and, together, Alex and I fixed ourselves. The second year, with ‘Evolution,’ we grew and progressed. This year, with ‘Paradise,’ we are becoming the skaters we always hoped we could be – reaching our Paradise together.”
The trilogy has also marked a drastic change in the way the Shibutanis approach their programs – choosing a style unique to them and taking an extremely hands-on approach in creating every detail of each program to ensure it fits them to a T.
“Our process has changed so much, and so with both of our programs in the short and the free we really have so much more confidence when we’re out there because we’re a part of every single second of the program,” Maia said. “And when it comes to this free dance and the third part of the trilogy, there’s so much personal history and emotion that’s built into it so that when we perform it for an audience it’s a really special feeling to be able to share all those emotions.”
“For us, we’re telling our story, we’re able to reflect each time we go out and perform and recall all the interwoven connected memories that have helped us create this particular piece,” Alex added. “And so, with both programs actually, every competition is a stepping stone, and the obvious goal is making sure that the programs and we are at our very best in February.”