Ice Network

Shibutanis reinvent themselves with 'Fix You' free

Über-popular program helps to return sibling ice dancers to world podium
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Maia Shibutani and Alex Shibutani's decision to use Coldplay's "Fix You" as their free dance music for the 2015-16 season was a seminal moment in the siblings' career. -Getty Images

Icenetwork will announce its choice for 2015-16 Person(s) of the Year later this month. Here's icenetwork contributor Lynn Rutherford's nomination.

The spark that fueled Maia Shibutani and Alex Shibutani's spectacular 2015-16 season was ignited one day in December 2014, on an otherwise mundane car ride between their home and training rink in Canton, Michigan.

They had just returned from the Grand Prix Final in Barcelona, where they finished a disheartening fourth. Adding to the team's frustration, they had sat in third place after the short dance before falling to sixth in the free.

"That had been a kind of difficult competition, where we felt like we skated well and the results still weren't coming yet," Alex said. "Right around December, your eye kind of looks to the next season. You're always looking for inspiration. And then the iPhone shuffle came on, and it kind of struck us."

"It" was Coldplay's "Fix You," an acclaimed 2005 track with moving lyrics and a distinct guitar solo perfectly fitted for a memorable free dance. The decision for the following season was made that day in the car.

"That was definitely a moment," Maia said. "We've changed so much over the course of our career, it really just felt like we were ready to take that step."

After a fifth-place finish at the 2015 World Figure Skating Championships, the siblings turned to Peter Tchernyshev, a five-time U.S. ice dance champion with Naomi Lang, for choreography. They knew the Russia native, who had previously created an exhibition program for the team, would help them stretch their talents in a more open, contemporary way.

"He came into our lives at the perfect time," Maia said. "I don't know if we would have been ready to work with him in a previous season."

"Our free dance shows a much more emotional and personal side of us," Alex said. "'Fix You' is very special because it means so much to different people with their respective life experiences."

It ended up meaning near reinvention for Maia and Alex, whose 12-year career included five U.S. silver and bronze medals and the 2011 world bronze medal, won in their very first senior international season.

No ice dance team had ever regained the world podium after a five-year drought, but the siblings knew they had the tenacity, ability and work ethic for even better results.

"It's always been kind of one foot in front of the next, making steady progress knowing we want to be the best team we can be and doing everything we can to make it happen," Alex said.

"That was exactly what ['Fix You'] was about," said Marina Zoueva, their coach since 2006. "You fall down, you work, you believe, and you will be there again."

It's easy to forget that "Fix You" wasn't an immediate hit with judges. Its debut at the Ondrej Nepela Trophy in Bratislava, Slovakia, last October resulted in a third-place finish behind Canadians Piper Gilles and Paul Poirier and Brits Penny Coomes and Nicholas Buckland. 

Choreographic and musical tweaks by Zoueva, and technical adjustments by Zoueva and her colleague Massimo Scali, enabled the siblings to peak during the second half of the season, when the Shibutanis claimed their first U.S. and Four Continents titles. They went on to captivate the crowd and judges at the 2016 World Figure Skating Championships and win silver behind Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron of France.

"The program is so great, and they skate it with such gut emotion, audiences couldn't help but respond," said NBC ice dance commentator Tanith Belbin White, the 2006 Olympic silver medalist (with Ben Agosto) who trained with the Shibutanis for several seasons. "They were always great technical skaters. ['Fix You'] shows their ability in a totally natural way, and they skated with freedom this season."

Some of the song's lyrics -- "When you're too in love to let it go, but if you never try you'll never know" -- resonate with Maia and Alex. But contrary to the words of Coldplay lead singer Chris Martin, they never felt they were "stuck in reverse."

The siblings resist the notion that all they needed was the right vehicle to climb back on top. To them, every day training in Canton, or with the many specialists they've reached out to during their career, builds their skills and leads them to the next step.

"Every season with our team, we focus on all aspects of our skating to be the best version of ourselves for the 2018 Olympics," Maia said. "We're on a great track."

They are already working on their next free dance, a vehicle to cement their position atop the highly competitive U.S. ice dance field.

"It's not a question of whether or not we will have a program next year, or some future year, that will be better than 'Fix You,'" Alex said. "This was a great program for the moment that we were in. We are not the same people we were when this program was worked on. We're ready for more."