By Brandon Penney | Jan. 05, 2018, 8:30 p.m. (ET)

Maia and Alex Shibutani compete in their short dance at the 2018 Prudential U.S. Figure Skating Championships on Jan. 5, 2018 in San Jose, Calif.

 

SAN JOSE, Calif. — It was a stroke of genius that hit Alex Shibutani during the offseason: sync the twizzles with the music.

When your music includes literal counting in the lyrics – uno, dos, tres, cuatro, cinco, seis, siete, ocho – and your sport requires a series of four multi-rotational, one-foot turns that move across the ice, why wouldn’t you combine the two?

Only Alex and his sister and longtime skating partner Maia Shibutani do twice as much work, continuing their twizzles through the count of eight in their short dance.

“We we were listening to Perez Prado’s library of music and I heard Mambo No. 8, and we’re always trying to push the boundaries of what we’re doing,” Alex said. “Obviously you’re only required to do four rotations per set per the Level 4 on the twizzles, but we just thought it would be kind of clever and kind of fun and it would entertain ourselves and the audience throughout this season.

“And Olympics is all about pushing yourself, it’s not about being careful; it’s pushing yourself to be the best you can be.”

The Shibutanis were close to the best they have been Friday afternoon at he 2018 U.S. Figure Skating Championships. Their short dance, performed to a Prado medley, scored 82.33 at the SAP Center and came within 0.09 of the U.S. record they set at last year’s national championships.

While the Shib Sibs lead the field, the second-place team of Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue have just as much reason to celebrate. For the first time in their seven U.S. championships together, they are not third or fourth after the short. After six straight years of finishing either third or fourth in each segment and overall, Hubbell and Donohue are in position to take silver at nationals with a short dance score of 79.10, which also approached their personal best of 79.72.

Rounding out the podium is 2015 U.S. champions and two-time world medalists Madison Chock and Evan Bates, who are within striking distance at 77.61.

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The Shibutanis gave themselves a lead of more than three points, setting themselves up in a strong position to win their third straight title.

“It was our strongest short dance performance of the season so far, which is I think only natural as we progress and we get more comfortable with the program,” Alex said. “We’ve made a lot of progress throughout the year, even though we started off the season really strong in Russia (at Rostelecom Cup), so it’s just a great feeling being back here at U.S. nationals.”

“Considering this is the last competition before the Olympics, this is where we want to be right now,” Maia added.

In addition to continuing to improve their performance throughout the season, the Shibutanis also found a new way to shake things up in San Jose: with a costume change.

They debuted costumes different from what they had worn at both of their grand prix assignments in October and November.

“Going into the new year and obviously with the Olympic Games coming up, we just thought that it was something nice we could do to keep the program fresh for us and for the audience,” Alex said. “They’re not dramatically different from what we had before, but we were looking to make a couple of adjustments and we’re very happy with the costumes we have now.”

The Shibutanis, Chock and Bates, and Hubbell and Donohue separated themselves from the rest of the field – by 4.43 points to be exact – just as they have all of the four seasons leading into the Olympic Winter Games PyeongChang 2018.

Since 2014, the three teams have been on every podium at nationals and have competed at every world championships together. In that time, the Shibutanis have won two world medals – as have Chock and Bates. Hubbell and Donohue, the perennial third-best U.S. team, came close last year when they were third in the world after the short dance. A fall by Donohue dropped them to ninth overall.

While the Olympic gold and silver medals appear to be going to the Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir of Canada, and Gabrielle Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron of France – in which order no one knows – it is thought that any one of the top three U.S. teams could grab the bronze.

“We made a big statement by skating the way that we did,” Alex said when asked if taking the lead at nationals puts them in position to earn that Olympic medal. “It’s not in our control what the judges give us – if it was then we’d get amazing scores every single time – but I think that we did make a statement with our performance today, and obviously there’s room for growth but we’re very happy with what we did.”