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All grown up, Shibutanis Tango to gold

Coaches see big improvement since JGP Final

Maia Shibutani and Alex Shibutani are second after the compulsory dance round.
Maia Shibutani and Alex Shibutani are second after the compulsory dance round. (Paul Harvath)

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By Lynn Rutherford, special to icenetwork.com
(01/21/2010) - Training everyday with Meryl Davis and Charlie White must be rubbing off on Maia Shibutani and Alex Shibutani.

The team, long looked upon as the cute brother and sister of U.S. ice dance, took a giant step forward in maturity and confidence with a sophisticated Tango marked by seamless transitions and a superb combination lift and spin.

"We were calm tonight; we knew exactly what we want to do, tell a story and skate to the best of our ability," Alex, 18, said.

Performing to Luis Enriques Bacalov's "Tango Rhapsody," the team opened with lightening-fast twizzles. The judges broke out into a rhapsody of their own, giving the siblings positive grades of execution across the board. Four of their elements earned Level 4, with the remainder graded Level 3.

Shibutani and Shibutani earned 88.80 for first place in the free, and took gold with 180.69 points overall.

"The idea this year was to make them look a little more mature," Igor Shpilband, who coaches the siblings with Marina Zoueva in Canton, Mich., said. "They are a young team, and I think they've grown a lot with this program."

"We wanted to teach them how a man and a woman connect with each other in the dance," Zoueva added. "Not for real-life, but the drama, the acting. That's much harder with a brother and sister."

It was a stunning recovery from the disappointment of their third-place finish at the Junior Grand Prix Final, where they were edged out for silver by just .61 points.

"This was 100 percent better than at the Grand Prix Final," Zoueva said. "More flow, more movement, more feeling. There was a lot of changes [in the choreography] as well."

Heading into the ISU World Junior Championships, where they won silver last season, Maia emphasized their training will be more of the same.

"We're going to continue to practice hard and work at the elements," she said.

"At the end of the day you can only control what you do on the ice," Alex added. "If you work hard enough, hopefully the results will come."

Rachel Tibbetts and Collin Brubaker put aside past problems competing to place third in the free and second overall with 160.61 points.

The Colorado Springs-based skaters had a fluid, well-paced performance to Sarah Brightman and Andrea Bocelli's passionate version of "En Aranjuez Con Tu Amor," choreographed by Mathew Gates.

"I was having trouble with the spin this week, so I'm really happy that I nailed that," Tibbetts, 19, said. "There is still room for improvement in the footwork. We lost a level on the combination lift, because I put my arm on Collin too soon."

In the past, these minor glitches might have punctured the skaters' determination, but recent changes in their training regimen helped them persevere.

"We've focused on consistency in training, ensuring every run-through is the same," the team's coach, Tiffany Hyden-Dombeck, said. "Even if they make a small mistake, they continue the run-through."

"I feel like as a team we've just grown a lot," Tibbetts added. "We've learned to trust each other more."

Performing a unique program choreographed by Tom Dickson to music from Alfred Hitchcock movies, Piper Gilles and Zach Donohue took second place in the free and third overall with 160.21 points.

"I think we attacked it well in the beginning but didn't save enough for the end," Gilles, 19, said.

"We lost a level on the midline steps. It's a little disappointing to lose a silver medal by .4; you think, maybe we could have pushed a little harder."

Isabella Cannuscio and Ian Lorello's entertaining Broadway-style Tango to "Hernando's Hideway" placed fourth in the free, and the team ended the competition in fourth place with 151.88 points.