Articles, Articles by Barry Mittan

Skyrocketing Shibutanis

Maia and Alex Shibutani

Maia and Alex Shibutani, just 13 and 16 respectively, have been generating a lot of interest in the ice dancing community. The siblings have won medals at the juvenile, intermediate and novice levels in ice dancing in just three years of skating together. “We’re both motivated and both working for the same goals,” Alex stated. “It’s brought us closer together.”

The siblings began skating when they were four and seven, respectively. “Our parents wanted us to do Learn to Skate because other kids were always going to the rink for birthday parties,” Alex related. “I wanted to be a basketball player, but then reality struck. I wasn’t going to be tall enough. As I learned more in skating, I caught on to it.”

Alex competed up to juvenile men, but said, “Jumps were not really my thing.” Maia tested through juvenile ladies and had all of her double jumps through the lutz. “I had a double lutz one day,” Alex admitted. “We first tried dance to improve our skating skills over three years ago. It was fun to skate together. Figure skating is about yourself, but ice dancing is more about how you skate with your partner. We already knew each other so we didn’t have to go through the partner search thing.”

An important source of inspiration for them to begin ice dance was when they were spectators at the 2003 World Figure Skating Championships in Washington D.C. With seats in the second row, right up close to the ice, they were both “wowed” by the speed, creativity, and skating skills of the ice dancers and began thinking about the discipline of ice dance in an entirely new way.

Slavka Button and Kathy Bird were coaching both Maia and Alex in singles. Bird helped put them together with their first ice dance coaches, Andy Stroukoff and Susie Kelley, members of the 1976 U.S. Olympic team. The skaters worked with Stroukoff and Kelley during the weekends in New Jersey, and with Mary Marchiselli during the week in New York and Connecticut. Bird also helped connect them with Josh Babb, who choreographed their juvenile free dance program.

They began by competing in many non-qualifying events such as the Princeton Open, Morris Open, and Skate Hickory. Their first major event was the Lake Placid Dance Championships, where as juveniles they came in first place for all three of their compulsory dance events and were fourth in the free dance (with 3 first place votes).

“We went to North Atlantic Regionals in juvenile in 2004,” Alex continued. “We just wanted to go and have fun, but we won so we went to Junior Nationals. I always wanted to go there in singles so that was pretty special. We moved up from fourth after the compulsories to finish second overall in juvenile dance.”

The skaters’ father, Chris Shibutani, explained their decision to move to Colorado Springs to train. “After being told repeatedly how cute they were as juveniles, Maia and Alex realized that as they planned to move up intermediate, they really wanted to try to get people to recognize more about them – not just for being cute but by showing that they really could skate,” Chris stated. “As such, we sought out a choreographer who could help them develop a program which would show more maturity and growth. We had always admired the work that Tom Dickson was doing with both singles skaters and ice dancers; contacted him and went out to Colorado Springs for a week at a time for three consecutive months, to have the intermediate free dance choreographed. During that spring, when they were in New York and Connecticut, they worked closely with Judy Blumberg, who was tremendously supportive and provided them with the confidence to commit to ice dancing, over singles skating, as their primary focus in the sport.”

“After training in Colorado Springs over the summer as well, they had an unexpectedly stellar Lake Placid competition,” Chris continued. “They won all four of the compulsory dances that they entered, and the free dance as well. It was literally over the course of that week of competition, that we came to the realization that Maia and Alex could not expect to continue improving if they were not in a training center environment – and chose to relocate their training to Colorado Springs year-round. Importantly, though this would have meant not being able to work continuously with Judy, she was extremely supportive of this decision.”

“We didn’t have as much ice time in Connecticut and wasted too much time driving between rinks for ice,” Alex added. “Plus in Colorado Springs, the workout place is right across the street. It was really tough to move, especially for our parents. They had to make a lot of sacrifices and we had to split up our family so we could move.”

“Then before Junior Nationals, Maia tore her left hip flexor and was off ice for two weeks. She could skate but it hurt so I trained by myself until a week before the competition. We would have been disappointed if we didn’t skate at Nationals, but we didn’t expect anything when we competed. We were very surprised and happy to win intermediates. It was a special thing because a lot of our friends from Colorado Springs could come and watch. Afterwards, Maia had to take a month off to heal.”

“When we went to Lake Placid in 2006 competing at the Novice level for the first time, we did our free dance first and won, but then we had to get back level for the compulsory dances. Usually once you do the free dance, you’re done but in Lake Placid, the free dance is first. We ended up fourth in the championship round so we were pretty excited. Then we did the North American Challenge Cup in Vancouver, like a mini-international. We got to compete against skaters from outside the U.S. and do the whole Team USA thing.”

“We were fifth in the CD in novice but we weren’t used to skating in the first group for the free dance. The zamboni kept missing some spots so we had to change our program to avoid them but we skated a great free dance. It was out first time with open scoring so we tried not to freak out while we waited for the scores to come up. We were used to waiting for an hour and then looking at the scores on the wall. We came in second, so we were happy with our results.”

“For Sectionals, we were just happy to make it through and win, but we had a lot of work to do before Nationals. We wanted to make sure we were in prime condition. We made a lot of changes in our free dance and got our straight-line lift up from a level 1 to a level 2. It was a whole other stage for us. We were excited to see the big logo on the ice. We weren’t expecting a big energetic crowd for the novice compulsory dance. The arena was packed and it was really loud. Everyone was so excited. It was like my first school play. We were second after the second compulsory by less than a point.”

“We really enjoyed performing our free dance in the giant arena with all the bright lights and really loud music. When you know the entire skating community is there to watch you, you want to put on a good show. It was like a big party and we were excited to take part. The final was late at night. We’re normally up at 4:30 so we can go to practice, so after 10:00 at night was pretty late for our body clocks. We had our warm up practice two hours beforehand, then tried to stay ready. We were lucky to skate first in the final group because we didn’t have to wait again after the warm up. Our free dance wasn’t perfect, but we did what we had to do and won. That was the icing on the cake, to have come so far in three years. We’re still floating on a cloud.”

From the summer of 2005 through the 2006-2007 season, Maia and Alex trained at the World Arena in Colorado Springs, where they usually skated four or five 45-minute sessions a day, five days a week, plus three sessions on Saturday. Patti Gottwein was their head coach, and they worked with several other coaches including Rich Griffin, Damon Allen and Eric Schulz. Off ice, they worked with Kathy Johnson (modern dance), Colleen Royal (ballroom) and Corinne Kuhl-Reed (ballet). They worked closely with their choreographer Tom Dickson, and Catarina Lindgren “helped us with positioning our hands and polishing our movements. It was nice to have a big support group,” said Alex. “Christopher Dean helped us tremendously with our compulsories,” Alex said. “Being on the ice with him is such a thrill. He’s the god of ice dancing.”

The Shibutani’s credit Gottwein with having been instrumental in helping Maia and Alex with their progress, but the coaching relationship was mutually ended after Nationals in Spokane. They remained in Colorado Springs throughout the spring with all of the other members of their Colorado Springs coaching team continuing to support them.

Starting in March, they made several visits to Canton, Michigan to work with Igor Shpilband and Marina Zoueva. They decided to relocate their training base to Michigan, and have been with Shpilband and Zoueva full time since early June. The opportunity to train alongside many of the top ice dance teams in the world has been very inspiring. Maia and Alex feel confident that the positive attitudes and highly productive approach of Shpilband and Zoueva, coupled with the disciplined work ethic shared by the impressive number of junior and senior ice dance teams training in Canton, will provide them with an exceptional opportunity to continue learning and developing.

Last season, Tom Dickson choreographed their 2006-07 free dance to selections from “Memoirs of a Geisha”. “We wanted to connect with out culture and heritage and share it with the audience,” Alex said. “We tossed the idea back and forth a bit before we decided. We had wanted to do something really different.” While under the coaching of Shpilband and Zoueva, Maia and Alex are very excited to continue working together with their choreographer Tom Dickson and off-ice with Kathy Johnson. Dickson has choreographed both their original dance and free dance programs for the coming season.

Starting in the fall, Maia is looking forward to attending Clague Middle School in Ann Arbor, MI where she will be in the eighth grade. She does well in history and math. “I like architecture, arts and photography,” she said. “I want to go to culinary school because I love to cook.”

Alex just completed his sophomore year at Cheyenne Mountain High School in Colorado Springs, and looks forward to starting his junior year in the fall at Huron High School in Ann Arbor, MI. “I’m more of an English literature kind of guy than a math guy,” he said. “I’m interested in writing and sports journalism. I’d love to be involved with skating as a journalist.”

Off ice, Alex likes to listen to music, especially alternative music, but he’ll listen to anything. He also enjoys playing video games, watching baseball games, going to movies, and reading. He mainly reads books on politics and economics and a lot of sports books. Maia likes to watch television, read the classics and fantasy books, and got to movies. She also likes to knit and make things out of paper and fabrics.

Unfortunately, Maia and Alex will not be eligible to compete on the Junior Grand Prix circuit in 2007-2008 because Maia is too young – missing the minimum age requirement (13 by July 1st) by 20 days. She turned 13 on July 20th. They are looking forward to competing for the first time at the Junior level at the Lake Placid Ice Dance Competition this week.

“Each year we try to achieve different goals and learn something new,” Alex said. “Of course, everyone would like to go to the Olympics, but we are just trying to go year by year. We hope to continue as long as we can skate to the best of our ability and are happy doing it.”

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