Shibutanis take circuitous path back to prominence

BOSTON - You're teenage siblings in a discipline where the major championship medalists long have been older -- twentysomethings at least -- so critical are performance maturity and adult passion to excellence in ice dance. 

It's only a year after you missed the podium at the 2010 World Junior Championships, and suddenly there are world bronze medals around your necks, which are all of 16 and 19 years old.

No one has done this before, going from the junior level to the world dance podium in a season. In fact, the best jump anyone can recall from junior to senior worlds was the sixth-place debut by Canadians Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir the season after becoming world junior champs.

Sure, you were a distant third at those 2011 World Championships to compatriots Meryl Davis and Charlie White, who went on to win Olympic gold, and their Canadian rivals, who were already Olympic and world champions.

But the road between you and more glory then seemed very short and straight.

If only it had been that way for Maia Shibutani and Alex Shubutani.

In one season, they dropped from third to eighth at worlds. The following three seasons brought another eighth, a sixth and a fifth, plus a dismaying ninth at the Olympics.

It reached the point that when they referenced uncertainty over their future after the 2014 Winter Games, it was interpreted as a retirement announcement. Some reasoned that the Shibutanis might be too frustrated to continue.

"To their credit, they never talked about quitting," White said Wednesday. "To get third and then have to be so far from the podium -- or just be off the podium -- for so many years is very discouraging.

"But they love ice dancing. That is what has directed their actions and their mindset so they could get to where they are here. If that drop hadn't happened, they might not even have been able to make it."

What White and a decent-sized weekday afternoon crowd at TD Garden saw happen in this world championships was the Shibutanis delivering a dazzling and choreographically clever short dance to music from the comic ballet Coppélia.

It earned them a personal-best score of 74.70 and a second-place finish behind defending champions Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron of France (76.29). The ShibSibs, as they call themselves on Twitter, have a 2.24-point lead over last year's silver medalists, Madison Chock and Evan Bates of the U.S., going into Thursday night's free dance.

Their free dance to Coldplay's "Fix You" already proved to be a show-stopper in victories at the U.S. and Four Continents championships this season, and they are in a position to bring down the house again, having drawn the last spot of 20 in Thursday's skating order.

Comparing scores is tricky, given the different makeup of judging panels and changing requirements in the sport, but it is worth noting that the Shibutanis did not top their 2011 world score for the short dance (66.88) until last year (69.32), and that was only good enough for sixth place.

"We didn't think about it as, 'Oh, we dropped,''' Alex said Wednesday. "We have grown a lot since that point. This year is the result of a lot of hard work. It is a very satisfying feeling, for sure."

At 21 and 24, respectively, Maia and Alex have developed a sense of selves strong enough to try different music genres and choreographic ideas. They looked to Cheryl Yeager, a former American Ballet Theater principal who had danced the main roles of Coppélia, for help in getting the ballet's ideas transformed to ice.

Their short dance includes arresting and amusing moments during both the performance and the bows in which they mime the wooden movements of a doll, what the character Coppélia turns out to be. The way their arms open in a series of synchronized twizzles, a form of pirouette, also has a doll-like feeling.

"It's a change from what we have done in the past," Alex said. "I think it brings out our natural sibling chemistry and the fun we have off the ice. This is the first time we have put that into a competitive program."

They did it while getting credit for maximum levels (Level 4) on the three required elements: twizzle, step sequence, lift. The judges also gave them two 10s in components, the first perfect scores of their career.

"They finally found the right style for them to go to the next stage of technique and maturity," said Marina Zoueva, who has worked with the Shibutanis as coach and choreographer for nearly a decade.

Virtue, who trained at the same rink as the Shibutanis for several years, long was impressed by their work ethic. She now is struck by their growth as a partnership.

"Their programs are beautiful," Virtue said Wednesday. "They really resonate and connect to the audience. They were always strong technically. They have evolved as a team and really seem to be hitting their stride."