Maia and Alex Shibutani Have a Long Relationship with Boston
By Sarah S. Brannen
Ice dancers Maia and Alex Shibutani have been turning heads since they were the tiny and adorable U.S. juvenile silver medalists at the ages of 10 and 13. A year later, they won the U.S. intermediate title, and the year after that, in 2007, they were the U.S. novice champions. As juniors, they won a string of medals, including the 2009 world junior silver and the 2010 U.S. title.
The dizzying rise of the siblings continued in their first year as seniors, when they won medals at both Grand Prix events in 2010, won silver medals at the 2011 U.S. and Four Continents championships, and finished up with a stunning bronze medal at their first world championships.
The team has stayed solidly on the podium at the U.S. championships since, and they seem likely to make the U.S. Olympic team and take in the sights in Sochi next February.
After the 2013 ISU World Championships, where they finished 8th, Alex said, “We’re really happy with how we performed at Worlds. It was a great way to finish the season. I thought that we skated the best that we could and we were really proud of how we felt after the competition. Every season is a learning experience.”
The team drove back to Michigan immediately after Worlds and they were on the ice the next day practicing next season’s short dance, the Finnstep. They train in Canton, Michigan, alongside Meryl Davis, Charlie White, Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir, under the coaching guidance of Marina Zoueva.
“I feel like we really learned a lot from watching Meryl and Charlie and Tessa and Scott [compete at the Olympics],” Alex said. “We’ve focused a lot of our attention on what has been done in the past, not only when it comes to our competitive programs, but the way we carry ourselves. We’ve had the privilege of meeting a lot of skaters who’ve been through this process before. I feel like we’ve been sort of groomed for this season. Everything we’ve experienced the last three years, good and bad, will help us.”
“We’re just so excited about this coming year,” Maia said. “It’s the Olympic year, and we feel like we’ve made so much improvement since becoming seniors. We’re really happy with how we’ve been progressing.”
“This is the type of season coming up that skaters dream about,” Alex went on. “There are a lot of opportunities that are going to be coming up for us. We’re looking to take advantage of each and every one of them. It’s a season that brings a lot of challenge, obviously some stress, but we’re very excited about our plan for this year.”
The team will be competing at Skate America and the NHK Trophy in the fall.
“It will be so rewarding to skate in such a familiar setting on home soil and then go to a country (Japan) that feels like our second home,” they said.
The Shibutanis are known for their superlative smoothness and exquisite lines, along with a light, effervescent quality. The Finnstep seems like a perfect fit for them.
“We love it!” Maia said.
“It’s right up our alley,” Alex said. “It’s a challenging dance and it’s the first time that it’s being competed in the short dance format, obviously. Maia and I were thrilled that the quickstep/foxtrot swing rhythms were chosen for the short dance. We feel really comfortable and we love the type of movement that that evokes. One of our most memorable programs was our “Smile” Nat King Cole program – we loved that program dearly.”
The Shibutanis have been working with Latin ballroom dance champion Corky Ballas this summer. Ballas is widely known for his appearances on “Dancing with the Stars,” on which his son Mark Ballas also appears. Recently, several ice dance teams have been working with dancers famous for appearing on TV reality programs.
“Corky really helped energize our short dance during the Latin season the year before,” Alex said. “He helped us get comfortable with the Latin movement. He’s such a great personality, a wonderful man to work with.”
Maia, who turned 19 on July 20, and Alex, 22, started skating in 1998 in a Basic Skills program in Old Greenwich, Connecticut. Their first skating coaches included Kathy Bird, Mark Magliola and Slavka Button. In 2001, their parents drove them up to Boston to see the U.S. Championships for the first time.
“We were really young,” Alex said. “It was before we started ice dancing together. Our parents were so great in terms of giving us opportunities to watch great skating when we were really young. I think that was critical in developing the love and passion for the sport at such a young age.”
“It was so inspiring,” added Maia.
Until 2003, they were singles skaters, but when the family attended the ISU World Championships in Washington, D.C., Maia and Alex were so impressed by the speed and artistry of the ice dancers that they decided to give dance a try. They started skating together in 2004, working with Josh Babb, Mary Marchiselli, Susie Kelly, Andy Stroukoff, and Judy Blumberg.
In 2005, the Shibutanis moved to Colorado Springs, where they trained for the next two years with Patti Gottwein, Rich Griffin, Damon Allen and Eric Schulz; they also worked with Christopher Dean. After the 2007 U.S. Championships, they moved to Ann Arbor, Michigan, to train with Marina Zoueva and Igor Shpilband. In 2009 Alex started college at the University of Michigan; Maia enrolled last fall.
Alex was born in Boston, where his parents were resident tutors in Adams House at Harvard University, and his father was a resident at Massachusetts General Hospital. He still feels a deep connection to Boston and roots enthusiastically for Boston sports teams.
“I’ve always been a die-hard Boston sports fan,” he said. “If there’s a game on TV, and I have free time, I’ll rarely miss it.”
He was thrilled to go to Red Sox games with his father and good buddy Ross Miner a couple of years ago.
“It took a while for the stars to align but I finally made it to Fenway Park a couple of years ago to see the Red Sox,” Alex said. “We went to two Red Sox/Yankees games back-to-back. When I finally walked through the gates on Yawkey Way and saw the “Green Monster” for the first time, I had chills … I couldn’t stop smiling. It was really exciting, the highlight of my summer, for sure. It was a lot of fun, I love this town.”
Alex also has good memories of seeing the Celtics play when he was in junior high.
“We had seats right at the edge of the court,” he said. “We could literally put our feet on the court… I can’t wait to skate underneath the Championship banners and retired numbers hanging from the rafters at the TD Garden in January.”
“We love Boston,” Maia added. “We’ve visited Harvard Square in Cambridge so many times and we love walking around Harvard Yard. As a family we would go on walks along the Charles River, and through the [Public] Garden. During the summer, we would ride the Swan Boats, and always a favorite destination when we were really young was the Make Way for Ducklings statues. We have pictures in an album somewhere with us posing seated on the ducklings.”
The Shibutanis competed at the Boston Open as juveniles, one of their first competitions as a team. Even before that, Maia competed at The Skating Club of Boston when she was little.
“Oh, embarrassing story,” Maia interjected.
“She did her program, and I was sitting in the stands, and everyone was so nice, watching and clapping for her,” Alex continued. “She must have been like, five. It was really cute. And we did the Boston Open in 2004. That was one of our first dance competitions ever. It was us and Michael Bramante in juvenile dance. Julianna [Cannarozzo] and Ross were in it. Ross had that cantilever – I was always jealous of that cantilever!”
Maia and Alex went to see An Evening with Champions when they were young, too, and they remember seeing a very young Miner.
“I remember being in the Bright arena at a very young age and thinking it was the biggest arena I’d ever seen, ever would see,” Alex said, laughing. “I remember we got popcorn. And Ross did a flamenco Spanish program and he did this thing where he was stomping his feet on the ice, and he did the hydroblade. We saw him perform before we ever met him. He was all head and blond hair, and sticks for legs.”
“The warmth and encouragement that we have received from our friends at The Skating Club of Boston, and the surrounding communities has been very special for us over the years,” Maia said. “We cannot think of a better venue, or city to host the National Championships in an Olympic year.”
“We’re so excited that Nationals is going to be here,” Alex went on. “It’s the perfect city, the perfect venue, for the championships when the national spotlight will be turned to our sport in preparation for the Olympic games. I’m sure they’re going to be doing a terrific job organizing, it’s going to be so much fun for the skaters and it’s definitely going to be a thrill for us. As long as we stay healthy and we stick to our training plan we feel like there’s no limit to what we can accomplish.”
See all of our Featured Skaters >>