Michigan ice dance ties continue to captivate eyes

Gregg Krupa
The Detroit News
Ann Arbor's Maia Shibutani and Alex Shibutani took home the bronze medal in the ice dance.

Detroit — Figure skaters are not Lions, Red Wings, Tigers, Pistons, Wolverines, Spartans, Brad Keselowski or the even the Detroit City Football Club.

But they are among the athletes from Metro Detroit who plant a stake in the attention of the world.

In terms of notice across the globe, the figure skaters may rank above them all, other than perhaps the Wings, with their Swedes, Russians, Czechs, Slovaks and Danes.

These athletes live among us, as they draw our attention.

Like the Lions, Red Wings, Tigers, Pistons and others, the figure skaters around town train routinely, in perpetual cycles of discipline.

But the skaters participate in a sport that most folks watch every four years, not every Sunday in the late summer, autumn and early winter, not 162 times or 82 times a season.

More: Virtue, Moir win ice dance for third career Olympic gold

Monday, for a third consecutive Winter Games, Metro Detroit played a dominant role in Olympic competition, early Tuesday in Pyeongchang, South Korea.

The ice dance.

Former Olympians, and training partners in Canton, Ben Agosto and Charlie White were in the NBC studio, in New York.

Tanith Belbin White, Agosto’s former partner and White’s wife, analyzed each skate for the network, that paid dearly for the broadcast rights, from Pyeongchang.

Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir, of Canada, won the gold medal, and became the most decorated couple in the history of Olympic figure skating, after winning gold in Vancouver, silver in Sochi  where their training partners in Canton, Meryl Davis and White, beat them for the gold.

Sure, Virtue and Moir decamped to Montreal in early 2016, after a couple of years off. But they trained at the Arctic Edge Ice Arena in Canton for several years, at the beginning and middle of their international careers.

Belbin and Agosto, Virtue and Moir, Davis and White, were all present at the start of an ice dance phenomenon in Metro Detroit. They all skated in Canton, gauging their development and their performances against each other, the best in the world.

Passion breeds success

Their coaches, Marina Zueva and Igor Shpilband, arrived here after the Iron Curtain fell, looking for the freedom and the resources to do what they wanted to do, when they wanted to do it.

They found it here in the metropolis that ranks among the great sports towns in the world, with an Olympic figure skating tradition that dates to the 1960s and before.

Zueva and Shpilband wanted to train ice dancers.

They did not want to wait for governments to change, freedom to ascend, economic stability to arrive or other folks to decide what they had in mind.

Their time, they thought in the early 1990s, was now.

They had their piece of life, and like immigrants before, they perceived the opportunity to nurture their greatest passion in America.

Nowhere else would do. So, they came to the United States.

They sought a hub of international figure skating. So, they came to Metro Detroit.

Nearly 30 years later, Zueva and Shpilband are more than enjoying their time.

In the Olympics, across four Winter Games, Agosto and Belbin won silver; Virtue and Moir won gold, silver and gold; Davis and White won silver and gold.

And, now, Maia and Alex Shibutani have won a bronze medal.

Since 2006, all along the way, the Shibutanis were with the others.

The brother and sister from Boston, “The Shibs” or “The Shib Sibs” became the only couple in figure skating history to win a medal in an international event in their first year after “juniors.”

Maia was just 16, the youngest person ever to win a figure skating medal at the senior level in international competition.

Their careers ascended sharply from the first moments, a decade ago. Then, in the way athletics and life sometimes works, it leveled off.

Years later, after countless hours of training in Canton, came Pyeongchang.

One triumph, two stumbles

The Shibutanis became the first Asian-American couple to win a medal for the United States in the team competition, earlier in the Games, when Team USA took the bronze.

But last night was the night for which they had prepare their entire careers, from before the moment they arrived in Michigan.

Before they skated, however, the two other couples with roots in figure skating in Michigan performed for the United States.

Madison Chock and Evan Bates, coached by Shpilband and training in Novi, fell.

It made for a dramatic and unfortunate end to Bates' third Olympic quest, after more than a decade of perseverance with both coaches, in both Canton and Novi, with different partners.

Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue, who first met at the Detroit Skating Club seven years ago when the both were without a partner, skated well. But an error by Donohue towards the end of the performance on one of the technical elements of the free skate cost them.

Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue

The Shibs, however, transcended.

Carefree, confident, exacting and triumphant, they seized the bronze medal, more than winning it.

After moving to Ann Arbor 11 years ago for their schooling and to train with the two of the finest ice dancing coaches in the world, they were on the podium for the second time in the Games.

They accomplished their dream after a stumble at the U.S. Championships last month that cost them the title, and raised all sorts of old questions about their ability to perform.

Last night, Maia and Alex Shibutani proved “them” wrong.

“It feels like gold,” Alex Shibutani said, according to U.S. Figure Skating. “It’s unbelievable.

“I am so proud of the way we fought through this week and the season.

“We are so emotional.

“I was really proud of how we skated today,” he said. “We knew that regardless of what the result was going to be, we did everything that we could and have no regrets.”

The United States has now won a medal in the ice dance and four consecutive Olympic Winter Games.

And they all trained, here.

See you in four years!