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Shibutanis hope worlds in Japan will proceed

Skaters urge fans to help the people of Japan

Maia Shibutani and Alex Shibutani urged skating fans to text the Red Cross as one way to help immediately. Fans can text REDCROSS to 90999 to make a $10 donation to #Japan and #tsunami relief.
Maia Shibutani and Alex Shibutani urged skating fans to text the Red Cross as one way to help immediately. Fans can text REDCROSS to 90999 to make a $10 donation to #Japan and #tsunami relief. (Sarah S. Brannen)

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By Amy Rosewater, special to icenetwork.com
(03/11/2011) - When ice dancer Alex Shibutani woke up at 4:00 a.m. this morning, he went through his usual early-morning rituals. Checking in with the news online was among those tasks.

But unlike the usual emails about skating, Shibutani, like most Americans, were awakened to news about the country of Japan being throttled by a massive tsunami and an 8.9-magnitude earthquake.

"It was just so shocking to see the news,'' Shibutani said. "It's reminiscent of any horror disaster movie you've seen, but here, it's come to life.''

Shibutani and his sister, Maia, are scheduled to travel to Tokyo to compete in their first World Figure Skating Championships on March 21. The Shibutanis plan on traveling with their parents. Their mother was born in Japan but Alex Shibutani said they have no close relatives living there now.

According to Shibutani, he has been alerted by officials from U.S. Figure Skating to continue training in anticipation of the world championships, which are scheduled for March 21-27. The quake reportedly hit about 230 miles from Tokyo but was powerful enough to cause much damage in the city, disrupting train and air travel and shutting down a multitude of communications operations.

Still, the ISU earlier today released a statement saying: "The ISU, while expressing its sympathy to the Japan entities, is confident that the local conditions will permit to regularly conduct the Event.''

According to the ISU, Yoyogi National Stadium appears to be intact following the earthquake and tsunami. Yoyogi National Stadium was built as a venue for the 1964 Olympic Games, which were held in Tokyo.

The last time the World Championships were canceled was 50 years ago when the entire U.S. world team, along with coaches, family members, officials and judges were killed in a plane crash en route to the championships in Prague.

"Right now, the plan is the same and we plan on competing,'' Shibutani said. "The whole season has been building up to this and we all are looking forward to skating for the people of Japan. A lot of work has been put into this season and we've achieved a lot of our dreams but whatever happens, happens. Skating is secondary in a situation like this.''

Shibutani said he and other skaters have already discussed ways to help in the massive relief effort that will be needed in Japan and urged skating fans to text the Red Cross as one way to help immediately. (Fans can text REDCROSS to 90999 to make a $10 donation to #Japan and #tsunami relief.)

News of the devastation was the topic at the Arctic Edge Arena in Canton, Mich., where the Shibutanis train alongside several other top teams including Olympic gold medalists Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir and Olympic silver medalists Meryl Davis and Charlie White. Davis and White have been especially looking forward to competing at these worlds because they have been victorious at every competition they've entered this season. If they were to win in Tokyo, it would mark the first time an American team would capture a world championship in ice dancing.

Competing in their first season at the senior level, the Shibutanis have made quite a run this season. They placed third in both of their Grand Prix events, including the NHK Trophy in Japan, and they placed second at nationals and at the Four Continents Championships.

The Shibutanis have enjoyed competing in Japan, and last season their original dance was performed to traditional Japanese music.

Figure skating's popularity has exploded in Japan in recent years. In 1992, Midori Ito became Japan's first Olympic medalist (silver). Japan played host to the Olympic Winter Games in Nagano in 1998 and in 2006, Shizuka Arakawa became the first Olympic champion to hail from Japan. The last time Japan played host to the world championships was in 2007 when the event was held in Tokyo.

Japan's Mao Asada is the reigning world champion and her rivalry with Korea's Yu-Na Kim has been expected to be the top event of the world championships. Japan also features the reigning champion on the men's side with Daisuke Takahashi hoping to defend his title in Tokyo.

"The fans in Japan are so educated about figure skating,'' Shibutani said. "And the people there are so supportive. I hope that we can compete there and be kind of a light for the people there.''