Shibutanis make ice dancing the family business

Finding a figure skating partner is a tricky endeavor, requiring the elements of athletic evaluation (think NFL combine), subjective judging on appearance and synchronicity (think "Dancing with the Stars") and the intangible of personal compatibility (think online dating).

Then, throw in a few life-changing decisions, such as who's going to pull up hometown roots, and you begin to wonder how any team lasts longer than a few months.

Ice dancers Alex and Maia Shibutani count themselves lucky never to have had to worry about any of that. Their ideal partner was right there at the breakfast table. After some success as individual skaters, the brother and sister switched to ice dancing -- with each other.

No getting-to-know-you awkwardness. No angst about coaching. No coordination rides to the rink and practice times with another family.

They started out as a cute-kid team in figure skating's lower levels, where the slim-limbed look-alikes steadily progressed to win national titles and international medals as juniors.

Then, in a stunning rookie season at skating's top level last year, the Shibutanis took one giant leap together. Alex, now 20, and Maia, 17, became the first ice dance team in U.S. history to win a medal (bronze) at the world championships in their debut senior season.

They also became the first rookie dance team from any nation to medal in each of their international senior Grand Prix competitions.

The Shibutanis took silver at the 2011 U.S. championships and at Four Continents behind Meryl Davis and Charlie White, who went on to win America's first world dance title.

The brother-sister team is not slowing down this year, either, with the same work ethic and an even more technically challenging free dance.

"We're really looking forward to this season," Maia said. "We have a lot to be excited about. Last year, worlds was just the cherry on top of an already great season, so we're excited to show our improvement. We worked really hard in the short offseason to try and show how we've grown, so that's the goal."

Ice dancers, unlike pairs figure skaters, do not perform jumps or throws and typically are not separated by more than two arm-lengths. Unlike pairs or singles skaters, ice dancers adhere closely to the music's beat or rhythm. The sport is rooted in ballroom dancing.

Until White and Davis won Olympic silver in 2010, the most familiar names in U.S. ice dancing were Tanith Belbin and Ben Agosto, the five-time U.S. champions, world silver medalists and 2006 Olympic runners-up.

Now, look out for the Shibutanis, who might well be at the top of their game for the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia.

They're young yet so technically proficient, said co-coach Marina Zoueva, that the international federation last year used their skating to train judges in identifying how competitors can score bonus points on certain elements.

"Mentally, they are very mature, very intelligent," Zoueva said.

Zoueva said the Shibutanis are more self-reliant than others their age.

"Some kids come and say, 'Oh, we can't do it, can you help us?' [Alex and Maia] always say, 'Yeah, that's not comfortable, maybe we can do this another way' … They bring their ideas how to fix stuff," she said. "I love this. This means they are thinking."

The Shibutanis credit a tight family and an unusual training environment for their climb. In 2007, the Shibutanis moved from Colorado Springs to the Arctic Edge Ice Arena in Canton, Mich., and a dream team of stablemates: Belbin and Agosto (now retired), Davis and White, and Canadians Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir, who would go on to become 2010 Olympic champions.

The older, more accomplished Davis and White don't consider themselves mentors to the young duo.

"They're both so mature, we feel like they know exactly what they're doing," White said. "They're great to be around, they're the hardest workers and they're not taking their success for granted. We definitely can't take it easy."

Guided by notable Russian coaches Zoueva and Igor Shpilband, Davis and White led a startling club sweep of the world championship podium last spring in Moscow: Davis and White, followed by Virtue and Moir and the Shibutanis, who admittedly surprised even themselves.

Standing fourth to European champions Nathalie Pechalat and Fabian Bourzat after the short dance, the Shibutanis skated a near-perfect free dance to win bronze.

"Our expressions in the kiss-and-cry area says it all," said Alex, who looked stunned when the results were announced.

Skating in the last group at worlds in Moscow felt an awful lot like skating in Michigan. Alex and Maia warmed up with four of their training partners.

"We were literally giggling during the practices," Maia said.

Coaches and skaters point to the Shibutanis' musicality -- the instinct not only to select the right music but also to perform it on the ice -- as an unusual trait for young skaters.

"We have worked hard to have a strong technical foundation, but what we hope distinguishes us is our ability to connect with our audience," Alex said.

But it's no surprise, considering their parents, Chris and Naomi, met as Harvard musicians. Dad played the flute, and Mom was a concert pianist.

Their athletic roots are harder to explain.

"Our parents were not serious athletes," Alex said. "Dad skated recreationally on a pond."

Chris grew up in Chappaqua, N.Y., and Naomi, born in Japan, grew up in Miami. The Shibutani siblings started skating at ages 7 (Alex) and 4 (Maia) in New York. Chris currently works with a hedge fund in Chicago and is able to come home on weekends, Maia said.

The siblings started skating together when Alex was 13 and Maia 10. This is their eighth season.

The key to success as a brother-sister team?

"We live pretty separate lives outside of skating," Alex said.

Alex, known among skaters for his popular blogs -- he won an outstanding English scholar award in high school -- lives in his own apartment and attends classes at the University of Michigan. The 5-foot-3 Maia, who lives with Mom in the same apartment building as Alex, is a straight-A honors student and senior at Huron High School after years of home schooling. She is working on her application to Michigan this fall.

By all accounts, the two get along well. Alex described his sister as, "the most mature person I've ever met … a 30-year-old trapped in a 17-year-old's body."

In an interview, they tag-team each other's answers. How do they keep sibling spats and familiarity from wrecking their partnership?

"It would be silly for us to say everything's daffodils and rainbows," said the 5-foot-11 Alex. "Because we're both very driven, it's easy for small conflicts to arise. Because we're brother and sister, since the beginning of our existence, Maia's known how to push my buttons, I've known how to push hers.

"Because we're close, we're able to …"

"Work it out," Maia said. "We know that we want the same things; that's the main thing."

They train seven or eight hours a day, including as many as three straight hours of on-ice practice. From a young age, they were known for extraordinarily hard work and attention to detail. As juniors, the Shibutanis skated at least an hour a day longer than other kids at their level.

"[Their] mom videoed everything," said Patti Gottwein, who coached the duo in Colorado Springs when Alex was 14 and Maia was 11. "Then they would go home and they would study the video. … They had a ballet room in their home; they would rework stuff in the evenings. I don't know too many people that do that. The parents are very much an integral part of what their training is."

Certain advantages come from skating with a brother or sister. Long-term stability is a plus. It's harder to split with your brother or sister than it is with someone outside the family. Having one set of parents involved in decision-making is easier than two.

But being brother and sister in a sport largely rooted in romance presents a challenge. Alex said they are careful to select tasteful programs without shortchanging their artistry.

Still, "their spectrum of programs is not as wide," White said. "I can understand some people just have a preference when they watch skating, want to see some kind of love relationship. That's not necessarily what you have to see. You don't have to be in love."

Gottwein said it's unfortunate that judges tend to favor the familiar romantic storyline in ice dance.

"I do think there is a challenge of a sibling team being able to create that magic on the ice from an emotional standpoint," she said. "They're going to have to be creative in their choice of material."

Gottwein said the Shibutanis may be able to open up the sport.

"You get into the dance world, not the ice dance world, and there's such variety," she said. "Right now our sport is a little narrow in what they're looking for. Maybe the Shibutanis is a team that can broaden that."

Those who have watched the Shibutanis blossom know that's not too much to expect from a team whose members have had the big picture in mind since they were young. You get the feeling they're just getting started.

"If anything, our results last season and at worlds especially have only motivated us more to push ourselves harder," Alex said, "because we witnessed firsthand what hard work can really accomplish."