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Shibutanis not thinking about sophomore jinx

Excited for first Grand Prix Final, siblings say they can only gain

American siblings Maia Shibutani and Alex Shibutani have practiced harder than ever.
American siblings Maia Shibutani and Alex Shibutani have practiced harder than ever. (Getty Images)

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By Lynn Rutherford, special to icenetwork.com
(12/07/2011) - Winning a world ice dance medal is often the culmination of a long senior career, sometimes nearly a decade in the making. But Maia Shibutani and Alex Shibutani are doing things their own way.

After taking home world bronze in their first season on the senior international circuit, the siblings might be expected to feel the weight of increased expectations -- and more than a few critical eyes -- their sophomore season. But heading into their first Grand Prix Final, both say it's just business as usual.

"Last season was great, and by the end of it, we had a lot of experience and it showed in our performances," Alex, 20, said. "We exceeded expectations but this is a new year. We're working just as hard, if not harder."

Igor Shpilband, who with Marina Zoueva coaches the team in Canton, Mich., thinks their appetite for training is unmatched.

"I didn't think they could work any harder than they did last season, but they are," Shpilband said. "They always ask for more."

As usual in their young careers, the work is paying off: They're ahead of last season's pace.

"It's the first time we've qualified for the Final," Maia, 17, said. "Last season, we won two [Grand Prix] bronze medals and we were alternates. This season, we've won silver and gold medals."

"It's still a building process," Alex said. "No one expected us to be third in the world, and our expectations for the Grand Prix this fall were tempered. We want to go out and continue to improve as a team, each competition and each day. We're still building for the long term. We know there will be some ups and downs."

The siblings, recovered from their "Asia trip" -- back-to-back Grand Prix events in China and Japan -- are anxious to hit the ice in Quebec City.

"We've improved our technical difficulty and transitions, which are steps we knew we needed to take to reach the level we're striving for," Alex said. "Having not qualified [for the Grand Prix Final] last year, and not having expected to, we're very happy with the way things have gone so far."

They opened the new season at Finlandia Trophy, where they placed second to Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir, the Canadian Olympic champions.

"At Finland, the whole point was to get the programs out there, see how they feel," Alex said. "After that, it's just a matter of continuing to work hard and stay focused."

The 2011/2012 short dance, including two sequences of the rumba compulsory, is challenging many top teams, and the Shibutanis are no exceptions. At NHK Trophy, where they won gold, Maia and Alex stood third going into the free dance, a few points off the lead. They made up ground with their free to Glenn Miller hits featured in the 1941 Sonja Henie movie Sun Valley Serenade.

Heading into the Final, they've had a solid month to work on both routines.

"It was challenging having [back-to-back] competitions. We were a bit fatigued," Maia said. "But it was fun to have Igor [Shpilband] with us for the whole two weeks, and we felt that when we got back to Canton, we showed visible improvement. We're confident for the future. Now we have to take what we learned and apply it."

"Our upward trajectory can continue [with the programs]," Alex said. "We don't see a problem."

Last season, the siblings tackled Foxtrot and Quickstep rhythms in Irving Berlin's "Let's Face the Music and Dance." This season's free dance, choreography by Shpilband and Zoueva to "Chattanooga Choo Choo," "In the Mood" and "Moonlight Serenade," evokes a comparable feel and upbeat attitude, but Alex doesn't feel its derivative.

"In a way, I'm a student of the sport, and it's a lot of fun to [trace] the different looks and different phases of ice dance," he said. "The ISU has made it clear it wants upbeat programs with an audible beat. I guess you could say this season's [free dance] is similar to last season's, in that both really try to bring the authenticity of that era (1940s). But the style is different, the theme is different.

"The free this season is much faster paced. Maia and I would say to Igor and Marina, 'The first 30 seconds feels way harder than the entire program last season,' but we knew our coaches were pushing our boundaries, while also picking music within the guidelines the ISU set."

Even with a world medal in hand, both skaters -- who train alongside the world's two top-ranked contenders, U.S. world champions Meryl Davis and Charlie White, and Virtue and Moir -- still speak with the abandon of newcomers, insisting several times they have "nothing to lose."

"We've analyzed our performances; we're going to the Final planning to be aggressive and show our improvement and set ourselves up for the rest of the season," Alex said.

"Actually, it will be like practicing at home. We're young, still at the beginning of our careers. We're going to go out and attack and enjoy it. You only compete at your first Grand Prix Final once."

The competition within the competition

There is an old saying, 'ice is slippery,' but nearly all observers think the battle for gold in Quebec City will come down to a face-off between Davis and White's free dance to Strauss' Die Fledermaus and Virtue and Moir's routine to music from the 1950 Fred Astaire/Audrey Hepburn film Funny Face.

In separate competitions this season, Davis and White hold a slight edge in scores, tallying 179.06 points overall at Moscow's Rostelecom Cup, as compared to Virtue and Moir's high of 178.34 at Skate Canada. Moir scoffed at comparing early-season scores.

"Different [technical] panel, different judges, different country," he said. "It doesn't compare. We know that the real matchup is coming in December [at the Grand Prix Final]."

The moment is fast-approaching, with the six ice dance teams scheduled to take the ice for the Latin American short dance on Friday afternoon. The free dance will follow on Sunday, Dec. 11th.

The other four teams -- Shibutani and Shibutani, plus Canadian silver medalists Kaitlyn Weaver and Andrew Poje; French European champions Nathalie Péchalat and Fabian Bourzat; and Russian champions Ekaterina Bobrova and Dmitri Soloviev -- will likely compete for bronze. After the top two teams, the next highest score this Grand Prix season was 164.56, awarded to Pechalat and Bourzat on home ice at Trophée Eric Bompard.