Ice Network

Shibutanis grow into role as top U.S. dance team

'Solid and stable' Maia provides perfect complement for 'passionate' Alex
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Maia Shibutani and Alex Shibutani's coach, Marina Zoueva, believes that the team's improved performance quality is a result of the growth the skaters have undergone as people over the past few years. -Jay Adeff

Winning the U.S. title in Saint Paul, Minnesota, last month brought Maia Shibutani and Alex Shibutani many things.

Joy, of course. Gratitude for the coaches and specialists who helped them along the way. Validation, since their performances earned not only standing ovations from the audience but also recognition from the technical and judging panels.

Mostly, it left them inspired and ready for more. Saint Paul wasn't a pinnacle, just as a world bronze medal in 2011 wasn't their peak. The latter marked them as a young team on the rise; now, both skaters think they are entering a new, more mature phase.

"The work we've been putting in has taken us to another place in our skating career," Alex said. "It's an exciting beginning to a new chapter for us."

"It was a very special moment," Maia said. "That being said, I know we can perform even stronger as we go along in the season."

For Marina Zoueva, who has coached the siblings in Canton, Michigan, since 2007, this season's programs are the latest building blocks in a plan leading up to the 2018 Olympic Winter Games.

"They (have) grown as people; Alex is 24, Maia is 21 years old," Zoueva said. "Every year, they learned different types of movement: the Michael Jackson program (in the 2013-14 season), last year their (paso doble) short dance, and so on.

"What helped them this year is they showed two totally different programs," she continued. "The short dance from a ballet (Delibes' Coppélia) and a totally modern, flowing free dance (Coldplay's "Fix You"). As much as they showed 'doll and master' in the short dance, they showed open beauty in the free dance. One program complements the other program."

Icenetwork caught up with Maia and Alex a few days before they left for Taipei City to compete at the 2016 Four Continents Figure Skating Championships.

Icenetwork: After five silver and bronze medals (2011-15), winning gold must feel good.

Alex: I think we were very ready for that moment to happen. With the work we put in after sort of a challenging competition in Barcelona (they finished fourth at the Grand Prix Final), it was very special to feel that emotional energy of knowing that it all paid off. Bottom line, regardless of what happened (results-wise), we were very happy with the level our skating reached in Saint Paul. Our confidence is boosted, and we're energized by that experience.

Icenetwork: Four Continents is another opportunity to get your programs out there, to compete with Madison Chock and Evan Bates, and Kaitlyn Weaver and Andrew Poje. What are your goals for this event?

Maia: We are going to stick to our same plan. Every time we go out there to compete, we look to put out stronger performances. We've accomplished that goal at every competition this season. We've had time since nationals to continue to work on the strength of our programs, and we're even more confident (now), so I think that will come across in Taipei.

Alex: Saint Paul was exciting for us, because the protocols we received had all Level 4's. Notably, earlier this season we had struggled to see some of the levels we were hoping for. We were confident in our technique, but they just weren't showing up on the page at the competition. So going into Four Continents, it's definitely a confidence booster knowing both programs have continued to grow.

Icenetwork: You've talked about how you've "put in the work." You've always worked hard. What makes this season different?

Maia: I think what's really changed with our experience and maturity as a team is we're now fully present for every minute on the ice. We know we're moving forward. We have great people inspiring us to be our best and push ourselves.

Alex: We took a semester off from school (University of Michigan), but I don't think that is a big reason for our improved skating or improved results. We've always put the same amount of thought and effort into this process. I think the difference is we have a better perspective on ourselves and what we can accomplish, and that positive energy is translating into more effective, more efficient, happier training sessions that get more done.

Icenetwork: What are a few key things that have brought you to where you are this season, and where you're going in the future?

Alex: We're a very strong unit, we are the best versions of ourselves together, and there is no way we would be as good (apart) as we are together. The components we bring are different, and that is what also gives us that strength.

I see Maia as being the best female ice dancer in the world right now. She is such a rock. I see her being an athlete, a skater, an artist, a great partner. She is so solid and stable, and I can tend to be a little bit more prone to emotion. ... It was tough when we started senior (in 2011) because we were kids; Maia was 16 when she won a world bronze medal. You are sort of thrust into the spotlight at an early age, and people are extra critical of your success and looking to figure out your weaknesses, and I think Maia has flourished and taken that all in stride.

Maia: We have the same goal: We want to be the best team we can be. We also have different ways of approaching every situation and how we want to grow. I think we're extremely evenly matched. It's a strength in an ice dance team to have two skaters with strong skating skills who can also emote.

Alex is so passionate about everything he puts his mind to, and I think that maybe that's some of the energy we're discussing. That's really led to some incredible creativity, and special moments. He also has a great sense of humor, which makes every day exciting. We're always extremely motivated, and we're very lucky to have that to continue on the next few years.

Icenetwork: You collaborated with Peter Tchernyshev on an exhibition program last season, and this season he choreographed your "Fix You" free skate. You've said that in the past you might not have been ready for this program.

Alex: What has changed so much about our development is how much of ourselves we are putting into our programs. We've been very hands-on in the creative process. We're so grateful to people like Peter, and there have been so many people over the past four years building up to this point. ... The experiences we've had, whether or not the program worked in the eyes of everyone who saw it, brought us to the point we're at right now.

Maia: We are putting more of ourselves into our skating, and that's something that comes with time and experience. So I think when we say this is the right time (for "Fix You"), we have really figured out what our identity is. That's something that won't just be for this year -- it's really going to continue up until 2018, because I think we have a great idea of who we are as a team, what we want to show on the ice and what we want the audience to feel.