Maia and Alex Shibutani (see right), the brother and sister ice dance team from Ann Arbor, Michigan, are poised to take center stage. The 2009 World Junior silver medalists and 2010 US Junior national champions have moved up to the senior ranks this season. They just returned from the Nebelhorn Trophy in Germany (kind of like a warmup competition before the Grand Prix of Figure Skating Series begins this coming week) where they placed second in the Free Dance and fifth overall. With Tanith Belbin and Ben Agosto's retirement, and Emily Samuelson and Evan Bates' recent withdrawal from the Grand Prix Series due to Evan's injury, there's a little more room for the other US dance teams to get noticed. Of course all eyes will be on Olympic silver medalists Meryl Davis and Charlie White, but in addition, I expect Maia and Alex, Madison Chock and Greg Zuerlein, and Madison Hubbell and Keiffer Hubbell to position themselves for a spot on the World team.
Maia and Alex's Grand Prix assignments are the NHK Trophy in Nagoya, Japan (October 22-24) and then onto Skate America in Portland, Oregon (November 12-14). Before they left for Japan, they took time for a little Q&A.
Q: This is your first season as competitors on the senior Grand Prix circuit. How are you a different team this year than last year?
Maia: We worked very hard during the off-season on our speed, and our maturity. We feel we have made great improvements in all aspects of our skating.
Alex: Maia has grown a lot this summer and our look is that of a more mature, powerful team. Although it is our first year as seniors on the national and international level, we are very confident in the progress that we have made and are excited to show our programs this fall. We have been working with Igor Shpilband and Marina Zoueva to increase our power and speed, but still make it look effortless.
Q: Can you describe your short and free dance this season and the process of creating the dances? What kind of input do you have in the costumes, choreography and music?
Maia: Our short dance is to “Carousel Waltz” by Richard Rogers and our free dance is to “Smile” by Charlie Chaplin and “Let’s Face the Music and Dance” by Irving Berlin – both performed by Nat King Cole. We had a great time choreographing our free dance! Everything seemed to come together very naturally. The lyrics are kind of a statement about what we are trying to do – smile even through the tough days and just dance! In terms of selecting the music, While Marina and Igor may suggest a certain style of music, we have always made a point of searching for and choosing our own music. We feel very strongly that we need to be attached to our music—that it needs to be a part of us. Regarding our costume, they are obviously directly influenced by the music we choose, and we always work closely with our costume designers in order to attain the look we are trying to achieve.
Alex: Our programs fit us perfectly. They are different from what we have done before because I think they reflect more of our personalities. Our short dance is from “Carousel”, and Maia, in particular, has loved this music since she was very young. This year, both Marina and Igor worked together to choreograph our short dance, and Marina choreographed our free dance. Because we felt very close to our music, working with them on our choreography was a lot of fun during the creative process. Both of them allowed us to be a part of the whole process and they love our programs as much as we do.
Q: What do you think are your best qualities as a team? What do you think needs improving?
Alex: Both of us love to perform, and I think that it shows. When we are skating together, I think that the audience can see that we relate to each other and love what we do. There are always things that can be improved upon, and we are constantly working to become a stronger dance team.
Maia: Being a brother-sister team, we know each other very well – sometimes too well. When it comes down to it, we are out on the ice together doing something we love. It is really a family affair.
Q: You are training alongside Meryl Davis and Charlie White, Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir, Madison Chock and Greg Zuerlein and Emily Samuelson and Evan Bates, among other top US dance teams. What kinds of things have you learned from being surrounded by the top teams?
Maia: We train in a great environment. It is a friendly one, and everyone at the rink is trying to be the best that they can be. I think it fosters a higher level of skating and performance. Our particular situation enables us to see some of the world’s best teams every day. Without a doubt, it is inspiring. We do, however, try to really focus on ourselves, and what we need to do to improve.
Alex: We feel that this year, there are no real expectations or pressures for us to achieve anything results-wise. However, we do envision ourselves being successful at the senior level, and we are prepared to make the transition a successful one.
Q: I've often read that families are separated when their children need to train at an elite level. Did your parents move with you to Michigan?
Alex: Michigan was not our first move. We originally learned how to skate when we were living in Old Greenwich, Connecticut. When we were intermediates, we moved with our mother to Colorado Springs to train. Our dad worked in New York, and would come out to see us on the weekends. After living there for a couple of years, we moved to Ann Arbor. Now our dad works in Chicago and does not have to travel as far to see us on the weekends.
Q: What kinds of sacrifices have you made in order to be a competitive skater?
Maia: The fact that we have moved twice for our skating has been a sacrifice. We are a very close family, and it was tough not to be able to live together as a family when we were younger. Of course, you have to have priorities. Going to school and skating is a tough combination, but what can you really achieve without sacrifice?
Q: Is your goal the 2014 Sochi Winter Games? If so, how will you plan to get there?
Maia: It is every athlete’s dream to go to the Olympics. We would be so honored if we could represent the US at the 2014 Sochi Winter Games. While our immediate focus is to take things one day at a time, it is definitely our goal to compete at the Games.
Q: Do you hang out together after practice or generally go your separate ways?
Alex: After skating, we don't normally see each other too much. I have my own apartment, and we both have busy school and workout schedules. On weekends, we spend a lot of time as a family and try to eat meals together as much as possible.
Q: Alex -- Do you feel protective of Maia as your little sister on and off the ice?
Alex: Of course! I will always be protective of Maia because I love and care about her a lot. But I don’t think of her as my little sister. She is so intelligent and she has always been very sophisticated and mature. When we’re on the ice, she’s my partner and we try to treat each other as equals. I have so much respect for her. She’s an amazing ice dancer, and an amazing person.
Q: Alex, you are 19 and a student at the University of Michigan. What can you tell us about your major?
Alex: I am a part-time student at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. I have not selected a major yet, but I am interested in business, sports management, and journalism courses. I am taking a sociology course that discusses “Sports as Culture in Advanced Industrial Democracies” and I am also signed up in an introduction course to Psychology.
Q: Have you thought of careers post-skating?
Alex: I am interested in pursuing media/management opportunities after I have finished my skating career. I am an avid sports fan and statistician. I follow many different sports (especially football, baseball, and basketball). Being able to utilize my knowledge from my skating experiences as well as my interests in business and media would be ideal.
Maia: While I love skating, and know that it will always be a part of my life, there are many other things that would be exciting to learn about and explore. Education has always been very important to our family, and maintaining a full-time commitment to school provides balance to my life. My experiences in skating, from training and competing, have exposed me to many different things – including music, design, and different cultures. I am 16 and currently a junior in high school and am definitely looking forward to attending college. Ultimately I can see myself studying for an advanced degree in either law or business. I am hopeful that the discipline and creativity I have learned as a competitive skater will provide me with opportunities to pursue many different possible careers.
Q: Maia -- What is your favorite subject in school?
Maia: My favorite subject in school is English. I love to read, write, and be challenged. Reading is a great escape from one’s everyday life. It allows you to look at life from different perspectives. I also find that writing is a wonderfully creative outlet.
Q: What is a typical day like for you?
Alex: I wake up at 4:00 a.m. so I can be at the rink by 5:30. I warm up so that I can be on the ice for our 6:00 lesson with Marina. We skate from 6:00 – 10:30 every weekday, working with Marina, Igor, Johnny Johns, Adrienne Lenda, and ballet/modern dance instructors. After skating, I go to class and then workout in the afternoon/evening before doing homework and eating dinner. I try to get to bed by 9:30 every night.
Maia: I wake up at 4:30 every weekday to be at the rink by 5:30. We skate essentially non-stop from 6 - 10:30, and then I go to school. I take four academic classes every day and am done with school by 2:30. By supplementing my in-school classes with online coursework, I am able to keep pace as a full-time student. My usual weekday afternoons are busy with homework and a mix of off-ice training. I always also try to make time to play with Po, our family puppy. (If you noticed the difference in what time we wake up, it’s because Alex is pretty slow :)
Q: What were your favorite memories from watching the 2010 Vancouver Winter Games?
Alex: I was able to supplement what I saw on TV with what I heard from my friends who were there. I loved watching the skating events, but watching the gold medal hockey game (USA vs. Canada) was amazing as well. Maia and I were unable to watch Tessa and Scott, and Meryl and Charlie live because we were waking up early to train for Junior Worlds. I still got goose bumps watching both teams skate online.
Maia: Watching the 2010 Vancouver Winter Games was very inspiring. It was so exciting to see a lot of our friends on Team USA and the performances of our training mates. It was a different experience watching people you know perform – kind of nerve-wracking because you want them all to go out and do their best since you’ve actually seen them train every day.
Q: When skaters fall or have a misstep, I often wonder what is going through their minds. During the short dance at Nebelhorn, you bobbled on the twizzles -- can you describe for the layperson what happens in an athlete's mind? Are you in shock? How do you recover?
Maia: Unfortunately at Nebelhorn, in the short dance, the mistake was costly and we did not receive any points for that element. The mistake was a fluky one, and it was initially quite disorienting. At times like this, you find out whether you can rely on all aspects of your training, including figuring out how to pick yourself up and continue on with the rest of the program. It is important to stay in the moment, and focus on the elements ahead. The most important thing is to always learn from the experience. We know that with each performance, whether it is ideal or not, we are gaining experiences which will help us become better competitors.
Q: How satisfied were you that you were second in the free dance at Nebelhorn and finished fifth overall?
Maia: Alex and I were very satisfied with how we skated. Regardless of the scores or placement, we were determined to show how our hard work since the end of last season put us in a position to deliver a strong performance early in the season. After a disappointing Short Dance, it was very satisfying to be able to come back strong in the Free Dance. Coming in second place in the Free Dance for our senior international debut was very exciting and gratifying.
Q: What happens after you return from competitions?
Maia: After competitions, we go home and discuss our events with Marina and Igor. Throughout every season, after every event, there are experiences and helpful feedback to consider. Our aim in competing at Nebelhorn was to get some initial competitive experience at the senior level before the Grand Prix events. We are both excited and motivated to keep making the kind of improvements that will help us grow and develop throughout the season.
Good luck to Maia and Alex at the NHK Trophy and Skate America! Below is their lovely and charming Free Dance from the Nebelhorn Trophy: