Ann Arbor — Disappointment unlit the faces of ice dancers Maia and Alex Shibutani as they skated off after their free dance at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships two weeks ago.
Their great coach Marina Zueva awaited them. There were the customary flowers, in San Jose.
Hundreds of hours of skating and training in Canton and more than a decade of lives instilled with discipline had failed to prevent a glitch in their performance.
As the sister and brother from Ann Arbor turned up the ice in a step sequence, Maia’s right leg gave slightly as she imbedded the blade.
In the rigorously exacting sport, slightly more force toward the heel her skate than perfect balance required caused the reflexive reaction. Despite a supple recovery, the mistake cost the Shibutanis about 1.5 points, erasing almost half their lead after the short dance.
Favored for a third consecutive national title, they lost it by .19 points, to the Okemos-native Madison Hubbell and her partner Zachary Donohue.
But the trials of early January have yielded quickly to the Shibutanis’ characteristic resolve, and when they compete next, at the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Olympics they will likely be favored for a medal, behind World Champions Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir of Canada, and Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron of France.
“In the past, I think Maia and I have proven the ability to be comeback kids,” Alex said. “We have great resolve and fortitude.”
After they became the first team with two senior Grand Prix medals in their first senior season. in 2010-11, establishing Maia, at 16, as the youngest medalist in the history of the ice dancing competitions, their first gold came the following season.
But then, a career lull, two seasons yielded just five medals, all bronzes, in 10 events. And after a bronze in the 2011 World Championships, they had to wait until 2016 to return as silver medalists and bronze, again, in 2017.
‘Growing pains patch’
“We had sort of a growing pains patch, where that early success created a lot of expectations,” said Alex, 26. “But we stuck with it. We believed in ourselves and we worked through it.
“And despite there being a five-year gap in between our world podium appearances, I don’t think any team has ever taken that much time off of being at the very top and then returned,” he said.
“So, we felt reassured and we grew, and we got back on the podium in 2016 and we’ve been there for the past two years.”
Maia said training with Zueva since the nationals helps assure they will skate with confidence in the Olympics.
“The work that we’ve done the past couple of weeks since nationals has really almost exceeded our expectation,” said Maia, 23.
“I mean, obviously, we were disappointed not to win the U.S. title, because we feel that we are the best team. But, at the same time, it’s a lesson learned.”
An Olympic medal is well within their reach.
Their confidence is brimming, for many solid reasons.
“Our career, we’ve had so much success and we are very proud of all the work we’ve been putting in,” Maia said. “Especially in the last few years, we really have turned into one of the top teams in our sport.”
Alex likes the pattern of development and their momentum.
“We have two great programs this year, and we’ve had a very successful season so far,” Alex said, speaking of the short dance and free skate programs that complete the ice dancing competition, and their gold medals at both the Skate America and Rostelecom Grand Prixes, this season.
“Obviously, as the season develops, so do our programs and our confidence.
“The goal is peaking at the Olympics.”
Maia said what many Olympics veterans say, the second time back to the games arrives with more wisdom.
“The Olympics is the biggest stage that figure skating has and we realize that from having experienced it in 2014,” she said. “Really, the way that we feel now is proud of all of the work we have done and just excited for the opportunity to be skating on Olympic ice again.”
They are in the figure skating line of defending Olympic gold medalists Charlie White and Meryl Davis, the Metro Detroit and Ann Arbor duo who also trained with Zueva at the Arctic Edge in Canton.
Davis and White announced have not competed since the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics and announced last year they will not defend their medal.
Zueva also coached the 2010 gold medalists, Scott Moir and Tessa Virtue of Canada, in Canton, although the world champions switched coaches when they returned to competition in 2015 and now train in Montreal.
The Shibutanis moved to Michigan from Boston specifically to take advantage of the world-class training in figure skating long available in the area and educational opportunities.
Ann Arbor Huron grads
Both are graduates of Ann Arbor Huron, and they enrolled and studied at Michigan until 2014 when they both broke off their studies to begin concentrating on ice dancing.
“We’ve been here in Ann Arbor for about 10 years, now. It’s really turned into our home,” Maia said.
“We moved here initially because we wanted to seek out the best training environment for ourselves at that developmental point of our career and we definitely made the right choice.
“Our coach, Marina Zueva, is definitely an icon in our sport.”
Both say they are on the eve of the most important performances of their careers.
When Davis and White won gold four years ago, they wowed the world with a shimmering free dance in Sochi, skating to the Russian composer Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Scheherazade.” The music meant a lot personally, both skaters said.
The Russian audience adored it.
Creating a moment like that can sharply boost chances for a medal, and the Shibutanis both say they believe they have something compelling and beautiful for Korea, skating to “Passion,” by the hugely successful pop group Coldplay.
“The free dance is about dreams, and reaching for your dreams,” Alex said. “When we really do it on a personal level I think that audiences have been relating to it.
“Coldplay is obviously one of the most well-known recording groups or artists out there, and we feel like in this Olympic season, when figure skating gets more attention as opposed to non-Olympic years, we wanted to do something that not only we would be very proud of but that a lot of people could relate to, as well.
“And we think it is uniquely ours.
“No one, to our knowledge, has ever skated to this song, before,” he said. “And the way that we have arranged it, through our creative process, that’s what make it personal. And that’s what makes us confident, because we really feel ownership of our program.”
“We’re confident that PyeongChang will be our paradise.”
Consistent with the record of competitions have gone since Sochi and reports from around the world, it would seem Virtue and Moir are likely favorites for a gold medal in PyeongChang, with Papadakis and Cizeron right behind the Canadians.
The Shibutanis tend to trail the top two teams, and strive to stay ahead of both other United States teams, Hubbell and Donahue, who train in Montreal, and Madison Chock of Novi and Evan Bates of Northville, who train in Novi under another fine Russian coach, Igor Shpilband.
At the nationals, the three ice dancing teams finished within .52 points. It is the equivalent of half a glitch.
“We were giving it our all in that performance,” Maia said of her bobble in the U.S. Championships. “And the way we’ve been thinking about it is that every time we go out there, we’re pushing ourselves to be our very best and that was just a little slip. So, it’s easy to put behind us because we’ve learned so much from it and we realize the program has gotten so much stronger since San Jose.”
Her big brother thinks they are ready, too.
“We’re definitely the strongest we have ever been,” Alex said. “It’s really kind of a good feeling to be reaching the level that we always dreamed we could be at, especially right now, before the games.”