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Shibutani blog: That's a wrap from Taipei

Alex finally unites with the 'Mos Burger' of his dreams

Alex Shibutani and Maia Shibutani have momentum heading into worlds in March.
Alex Shibutani and Maia Shibutani have momentum heading into worlds in March. (courtesy of Alex Shibutani)

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By Alex Shibutani, special to icenetwork.com
(02/22/2011) - Read the latest blog from the Four Continents Championships from Alex Shibutani.

I probably should have set better expectations from the outset about what the shape of this particular series of blog entries was going to be like. After focusing as much as I did on our thrilling journey and arrival days at this competition, my apologies for the "quiet period" -- my excuse for which is, "sorry, couldn't really blog...was busy competing."

Well, it is Saturday morning, and I am resuming the writing of this final blog entry with a brain powered by less than five hours of sleep. Looking back upon the last 24 hours, as we concluded the competition portion of our first Four Continents Championship, Friday night was terrific, but it was a late one.

Maia and I are proud of how we prepared for and approached the competition, especially as it comes relatively quickly after nationals. While we were pleased with the short dance overall, we are especially proud of how we handled ourselves in the free dance. Nervousness and excitement over realizing that we were skating in the final group at our first senior ISU championship, was comfortingly balanced with a unique sense of familiarity. Having the reigning world and Olympic gold and silver Medalists in the group with us actually made the six-minute warm-up feel a lot like training every day at home.

A shout-out to Canadian pair skater Rudi Swiegers -- not just for the exemplary quick thinking and sportsmanship which has earned him heartfelt admiration from his peers, but more personally, for his literal shout-out before Maia and I began our free dance.

Yeah, we've all been at skating events when someone in the stands shouts a line like, "Yeah, you're hot!" which then ironically seems, more often than not, to lead to "not so hot" skating. Now, the very last words of encouragement that I remember Marina and Igor telling Maia and me as we stepped out to skate our free dance were, "Okay, guys -- have FUN!" Concise, positive, and stated with the kind of conviction that makes it possible for you to have absolute belief in their every word, their send-off from the boards was right on target for Maia and me as we were about to make our senior ISU championship debut with a free dance we love that is so much fun to perform.

Rudi's shout-out, on the other hand, which pierced the air just before we struck our opening pose, went along the lines of, "YOU'RE A NINJA!" As I slowly extended my arms to hold Maia's hands for our opening pose, his words commanded within me a powerful belief: "You ARE a ninja. Be a ninja!"

Now, I don't know for sure if ninjas have ever, or will ever foxtrot or quickstep to Nat King Cole -- but in this particular instance, the spirited humor and support in the form of Rudi's shouted encouragement made me chuckle and helped get us off to a great start. The fact that I think Rudi really does believe that I am a ninja is what made the whole experience that much more real for me.

SATURDAY:
I feel obligated to update you all on the electrical outlet dilemma we have faced this week. As of today, the standoff has ended peacefully. "POOAOD" has disbanded and strangely enough, everyone seems happy with the end result. Adam [Rippon] leaves Taipei with a lifetime supply of extension cords and electrical converters (see picture in accompanying gallery), and I am still breathing.

On Saturday morning, Adam and I ate breakfast together before his official warm-up session for his free skate. Adam, fork in hand, explained his breakfast routine (for the week) to me: "It's a lot of watermelon. I grab a plate from the buffet line and assemble it with watermelon, watermelon, watermelon, watermelon, more watermelon...and bacon." There you go, folks -- Adam Rippon's breakfast of champions.

After breakfast and a quick workout, Maia and I had the somewhat disorienting experience of being done with our event by the Saturday of a competition week and decided that it was time to see some of the sights beyond the path between the hotel and the arena.

It has been rainy all week in Taipei, and Saturday was no exception. We ended up deciding that rather than getting drenched on the observation deck at Taipei 101 (the world's second-tallest building), it would be drier and more culturally stimulating to go to the National Palace Museum.

As we hop into a taxi, the day's first dose of cultural stimulation comes in the form of the eye-popping panorama on display -- not the view outside the window, but on the dashboard of the taxi. Not counting the life-sized king crab ornament swaying suggestively from above its suction cup base, the driver literally has the contents of a Radio Shack on his dashboard. This arrangement comes complete with three cell phones, a GPS tracker, rear-view window cam, and three pairs of glasses (let's just pretend for a moment that "The Shack" sells glasses).

As we approach the entrance to the National Palace Museum, we are impressed by the size of the crowds. THIS must be where everyone was during the short dance...

Once inside the museum, the usual debate ensues over whether to purchase the guided audio-tour. I end up taking a pass as I find the "famous jade cabbage" needing no further explanation. The other usual strategy is to start on a high floor and work our way down, figuring gravity will help offset the fatigue from wending our way through yet another darkly lit cultural institution that inexplicably does not believe in lining the corridors with comfortable couches and pit-stop lounges.

As we walk through the first gallery, a video screen displays the evolution of the letters or characters that form the Chinese and Japanese alphabet. There is a stick figure of a man on the display and the image goes through several transformations until it is barely recognizable. Now I understand why I'm having such a difficult time learning Japanese. I explain this to my Mom, and she responds by saying, "You just have no imagination." Thanks, Mom. Thanks a lot.

Taipei is known for its craftsmanship using jade. Among the many highlights of the featured exhibit at the museum is the collection of Agate Tobacco Powder Snuff Bottles. After viewing at least five of these elaborate bottles, it became evident that the artisans who crafted these works were uniquely skilled. I commented aloud that the love of art and jade, by those who commissioned these pieces, seemed only rivaled by an apparent enthusiasm for snorting things. Expecting the usual raised eyebrow and mumbled reprimand from my parents, the silence that followed was at first only somewhat disconcerting. The next moment, however, I was looking at Maia in a panic as it became evident that somewhere along the exhibit we had actually begun to follow the wrong family. Probably had something to do with that endless sea of dark hair and eyeglasses.

After the museum, it was time to find something to eat. While wandering around the perimeter of the hotel, I came across a Mos Burger. Mos Burger is a Japanese burger chain, which blends aspects of Japanese homestyle cooking with the service and setting of your typical fast food outlet. Let me tell you -- Mos Burger has "da mos" flavor. I had originally promised myself I would try one of their delectable burgers last year when we were in Tokyo for the Final, and again this year when we were in Nagoya for NHK, but somehow there was never the right time for me to stop by.

As I literally inhaled two teriyaki burgers, I knew it had been worth the wait. My quest for a Mos Burger actually could be compared to Harold and Kumar's quest for White Castle burgers. (A key difference being that narcotics were not a part of my quest and -- movie spoiler alert -- I did not ride any cheetahs).

As for Sunday, we have the gala and the closing banquet. It will be too late to write, so be sure to check out photos in the blog gallery. Then it's back home to Ann Arbor for a few weeks of training before we're once again back in Asia for the World Championships.

Thank you so much for sharing with me your kind comments and feedback on this blog. I hope you've enjoyed reading it as much as I've enjoyed writing it! It's been a pleasure.

Let me close by saying that for Maia and me, this has been such a fun, satisfying, and inspiring week. I don't think I can adequately express in words how honored we both felt to have the opportunity to represent the United States at our first major ISU championship senior event. After nationals, we felt very inspired to continue working hard with the aim of putting forth two strong programs. From our performances at Four Continents, we take forward heightened confidence and an even greater determination to do our very best at our first World Championships in Tokyo in March.

Alex Shibutani

Tuesday -- Maia and Alex venture out of the hotel to check out the immediate surroundings and do all the customarily mundane "day one" things that make for shorter blog entries.

Note: Nothing really happened on Tuesday. Given this is normally the sought after outcome for our first day acclimating to a foreign country during a competition week, our execution was actually pretty flawless. In terms of this blog entry, however, unless you're struggling to justify some online procrastination, this is probably not the blog entry for you. So get back to work. Now.

If you've ever been abducted by aliens and woke up the next morning not knowing where you were, you'll know exactly how we felt when we awoke Tuesday morning. If you haven't, then forget about it...you wouldn't understand.

After getting a quick breakfast, we headed over to the arena. The Taipei Arena is very new (built in 2005) and is only a five to 10 minute walk from our hotel, the Sunworld Dynasty Hotel. As we approached the crosswalk, Maia and I could only think that this must be what it would be like if there was "Human Frogger." Thankfully, we safely navigated the crosswalks and managed to avoid being smushed by the throngs of speeding mopeds.

It's always exciting to walk into the event arena for the first time. The outside of the Taipei Arena has a curved design on the façade near the roof with a giant video screen projecting scrolling ads. Inside, the seating area is quite impressive, with one part of the seats on the narrow end of the rink sweeping up into a balcony area that looks impossibly far and high. Row ZZZ anyone?

The last time Taipei hosted an ISU figure skating event, was in October 2006 when the city hosted a Junior Grand Prix event. All of the volunteers that we met at the rink were very friendly and helpful, and although we initially had some problems locating the practice rink, we were eventually pointed in the right direction.

As we walked back to the hotel, I will admit that it was comforting to see some familiar logos and signs, especially from the multinational players of the restaurant and retail worlds. A particularly clever set up is the pairing of a McDonald's and IKEA right next to our hotel. Imagine being hungry. You walk into the McDonalds and order yourself the nine-piece Chicken McNuggets. (Exactly what happened to the 10th McNugget here in Taipei remains an unsolved mystery.) After eating, as postprandial drowsiness sets in, you shuffle your way into the sofa section at the IKEA and nestle yourself down on a KIVIK, TYLÖSAND, or HOVÅS for a well-earned power nap. Genius!

Back at the hotel, we resumed more of our typical "day one" rituals -- a trip to the hotel gym to whine about how the elliptical is not quite like the one we use at home, followed by the quest for a relaxing dinner at a local restaurant (Maia's general rule of thumb for competitions: "The less raw the food, the wiser the choice"). Then it's off to bed as official practices get underway on Wednesday.

Before I wrap up Wednesday's blog, Maia suggested that I clear up one of the things that I wrote about yesterday. The comment I made about holding my room's electrical outlet hostage was a JOKE. Seriously people?!

I am mostly clarifying this so that Adam's fans don't begin staging rallies that protest my entirely appropriate electrical outlet mongering. I have since heard rumors that people have begun uniting on the internet, forming "People Outraged Over Adam's Outlet Deprivation." Those in the know are referring to this coalition as POOAOD (pronounced POO'D... the "A" is silent).

It has also been brought to my attention (through an anonymous source) that after Adam's practice, fans showered the ice with dozens of extension cords and electrical converters, an unprecedented and unfettered display of solidarity.

This could be trouble...

Relax people...relax! Adam and I go waaaaaaaaay back. We used to compete against each other...in juvenile boys. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that we "competed" against each other...once. Adam was the only kid in the entire competition with a double Axel. Needless to say, he crushed us all. Two years ago, when we were all hanging out together at junior worlds in Sofia, Bulgaria, Maia thought it would be fun to "remind" Adam of this traumatizing moment (for me) in our shared histories.

Unfortunately, he remembered me...and the Hawaii Five-O program I did at that competition when we were "just kids." Aside from my "double flop" being something of legend, it is quite something that we are both here in Taipei (rooming together) after such a long time. Book 'em, Danno.

Finally, I would also like to apologize to the grammar police (won't name names) for my misuse of "I" and "me" in my previous blog.

Me very sorry. Me will make sure it won't happen again.

Alex Shibutani

Tuesday, Feb. 15
This week, we'll be chronicling our experiences in Taipei at the Four Continents Championships -- blog style. It is our first trip to Taiwan, as well as our first time competing at Four Continents.

In some ways, for Maia and I, our journey to Four Continents began five years ago. When we lived and trained in Colorado Springs, Maia and I were able to watch Four Continents live in 2006 and 2007. In between helping out backstage in the media room and on the ice with the medal ceremonies, we began dreaming about someday being able to compete in the competition. Although we didn't know it yet, we were watching some of our future training mates and friends -- Tanith Belbin and Ben Agosto, Meryl Davis and Charlie White, and Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir. It was incredibly inspiring.

Fast forward five years, and we are thrilled to find ourselves traveling alongside Meryl and Charlie and Tessa and Scott to our first Four Continents and are looking forward to what should be an exciting and memorable experience.

Before I sweep you away into the glamorous world that is airline travel, I'd like to take a moment to thank all of the people who have supported us so far this season and for all of the kind messages and letters we have received since nationals in Greensboro. The support means a lot to us, and we are honored and thrilled to be representing the United States in Taipei, as well as in Tokyo at the World Championships in March.

Sunday, Feb. 13 - Monday, Feb. 14:
Maia and Alex get on a plane, sleep, eat, scope celebrities, get on another plane, sleep and eat some more, get on another plane, and COLLAPSE.

Our flight itinerary: Detroit -> Los Angeles -> Tokyo -> Taipei. That makes for over twenty hours in the air and is now the longest and farthest we have ever traveled.

One of the nice things about flying on a Sunday morning is that you don't encounter the insane lines at check-in and security, so we were able to make our way to the gate without much fuss.

As we approached our gate, I caught a glimpse of a man who looked familiar somehow. A quick search on my blackberry informed me that it was in fact, Patton Oswalt. If you are not immediately familiar with him, it's okay...I wasn't either. He is a stand-up comedian and actor who notably voiced the role of the main character "Remy" in the 2007 Pixar film Ratatouille.

Getting on a plane is always an interesting proposition for us -- particularly when we are carrying our skates and costumes on board. With larger carry-on luggage than the average passenger, we often find ourselves battling for overhead space. The approach that I have found generates the best results involves me emulating NBA superstar Shaquille O'Neal. I begin by "boxing out" any defenders and once I have cleared space I wildly swing my elbows as I lift our bags into the overhead compartment. This time, my aggressive, calculated approach worked flawlessly, and we subsequently settled into our seats without incident.

Once seated, Maia pointed out a twenty-something-year-old guy wearing a Yankees hat, sitting a couple rows in front of us. She said that it was none other than Rob Kardashian. I am generally "pop-culturally" unaware, so I didn't know enough to disagree with her claim. His moment of peaceful anonymity was short-lived however when a twenty-something girl (Star magazine in hand) sat down in the aisle across from him and began shamelessly chatting him up. His cover blown, the girl essentially forced him into a game of twenty questions.

The cabin was relatively quiet so Maia and I were able to hear most of the dialogue: "What do you like to do?" "What were you doing in Michigan?" "Do you watch yourself on television?" and "How much time on average can you spend with your sisters and mother without committing yourself to a mental institution?" Okay, okay, I made that last one up.

The almost 12-hour flight from Los Angeles to Tokyo was pleasantly uneventful. We were both able to sleep for a while and then turned to the in-flight entertainment. I ended up watching The Town, a heist drama directed by Ben Affleck. Inception was also available, but I figured that choosing that film while traveling across the international time zone on a plane would be too heavily laden with irony. My now pervasive fear of being sedated and having ideas planted in my brain also factored into the decision.

The final segment of our journey -- a four-hour flight from Tokyo to Taipei -- was pretty brutal. Having drained the batteries of our laptops and iPods, we were left to peruse the Sky Mall magazine, which capitalizes on passengers at their wits' end, preying on the weak and enticing them to buy things that they don't need. I can't wait till my coach Marina [Zoueva] sees the new "Easter Island Monolith Statue" that we selected for her...I know she absolutely needs this for her front yard. Also, Igor [Shpilband] will really take a shine to the new "16th-Century Italian Armored Statue with Halberd" that will be arriving at his home in just five to seven business days. It's gonna' look awesome next to the 15-foot, water repellent T-Rex replica we got him on our flight back from Nagoya earlier this year.

We finished our epic journey across the planet late Monday evening. Tired, but happy to have reached our destinations, we checked into our rooms, and ate a quick dinner. Registration went very smoothly thanks to the assistance of our team leader, Jenny Mast. She was waiting for us when we got into the hotel with heart-shaped boxes of chocolate (Happy Valentine's Day) and her trademark "Jenny smile." Somewhere over the Pacific Ocean it had been Yuka Sato's birthday. There was a cake to celebrate the occasion before we all trudged off to our rooms.

Maia is rooming with Rachael Flatt, and I am rooming with Adam Rippon. They won't be arriving until later in the week so we have the "luxury" of picking our beds and commandeering each of our room's sole electrical outlet. Maia thoughtfully messaged Rachael and recommended that she bring an electrical strip. As far as my room is concerned, the outlet is mine, Rippon...don't even think about it.

As many of you may already know, Caydee Denney and Jeremy Barrett were forced to withdraw this week after Jeremy received forty-two stitches in his leg in a training related accident. We traveled with Caydee and Jeremy twice this year (NHK Trophy, Skate America), and we are so disappointed for them that they cannot be here. They will both be missed, and we are all wishing Jeremy the speediest of recoveries.

It's been a long day, but there was one final thing that I wanted to mention about our travels before I wrapped up today's bloggghjjhjhjhhj *face hits keyboard as I pass out*

Until next time!
Alex Shibutani