Maia Shubutani

Maia, Alex Shibutani
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Maia, Alex Shibutani can bring ice dance title back to U.S.; Worlds preview

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BOSTON — The best U.S. hope for a World Figure Skating Championships medal this week comes in ice dance, and Tara Lipinski and Johnny Weir believe it could be gold.

Madison Chock and Evan Bates have been the strongest U.S. figure skaters across all disciplines internationally the last two seasons, with Olympic champions Meryl Davis and Charlie White sitting out competition since Sochi.

Chock and Bates improved from eighth at the Sochi Olympics to fifth at the March 2014 World Championships to earn silver at the 2015 Worlds. They also earned silver medals at the last two Grand Prix Finals, the most prestigious annual competition outside of Worlds.

But another U.S. couple has been better the last two months — siblings Maia and Alex Shibutani. The Shibutanis upset Chock and Bates for their first U.S. title in January and then did so again at the Four Continents Championships in February.

“Since then, everything in our skating has just gotten better,” Maia said last week. “We’re stronger than we’ve ever been before.”

Before this year, the Shibutanis hadn’t outscored Chock and Bates since the 2012 U.S. Championships.

“Last season there was a big stretch of land between the two [couples],” said Weir, an NBC Olympics analyst and two-time Olympian. “It’s pretty unpredictable.”

That said, Weir believes the Shibutanis could be the biggest beneficiary of home-ice advantage in Boston, where their parents met as Harvard musicians and the older Alex was born during Larry Bird‘s final season with the Celtics.

“Ice dancing really is somewhat of a different beast than the rest of the disciplines in skating,” Weir said. “A lot of it has to do with opinion because so many of the top teams are so evenly matched on the technical side.”

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The Shibutanis’ free dance is set to Coldplay, which will be familiar music to many at TD Garden. The group’s tour manager saw the siblings’ performance from the U.S. Championships and invited Maia and Alex to a July 30 tour stop in Foxborough, Mass.

The Shibutanis earned Worlds bronze in their first senior season in 2011, when Maia was 16, but haven’t been better than fifth since and were ninth at the Sochi Olympics.

Now in their 12th season together, the 24-year-old Alex attributed the revival to entering the “the adult phase” of their careers.

“This is the perfect storm for the Shibs,” Lipinski said. “They have a connection to Boston. They’re skating to this magical Coldplay free dance, which is getting raves, which will only heighten the anticipation in the arena. With an audience backing you, there’s no greater setup for you to sweep in and win the gold medal.”

Weir agreed.

“And I think also that the politics of figure skating, a lot of people are going to want to see an American World champion at an American World Championships,” he said.

The Shibutanis hope to become the first siblings to win a World title in pairs or ice dance in 25 years.

“Simply being a brother and sister and skating together really limits the things they’re able to do successfully artistically, but I think that their programs this year are so strong,” Weir said.

But reputation means plenty in figure skating, especially in ice dance. The 2014 World champions from Italy, 2015 World champions from France and the 2014 and 2015 Grand Prix Final champions from Canada are all coming to Boston.

France’s Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron stunned Chock and Bates in the free dance last year, overtaking the U.S. short-program leaders to become the youngest World champions in ice dance in 40 years.

“It was really the first time in recent history that I saw that the judging of ice dance really did reward the best performance,” Weir said. “It wasn’t necessarily who had the best track record or who had the best coaches or if you’re coming from the right country.”

Papadakis suffered a concussion in an August practice fall, but they returned to win the French Nationals in December and the European Championships in January, again coming from behind in the free dance at Europeans.

“My gut is saying the French will still come out on top,” Lipinski said, “but I feel like this is the Shibs’ year.”

Here are Lipinski and Weir’s medal predictions from last week:

Lipinski
Gold: Papadakis/Cizeron (FRA)
Silver: Shibutani/Shibutani (USA)
Bronze: Chock/Bates (USA) or Weaver/Poje (CAN)

Weir
Gold: Shibutani/Shibutani (USA)*
Silver: Papadakis/Cizeron (FRA)
Bronze: Chock/Bates (USA)

*”Handicap-wise, it’s probably Papadakis/Cizeron, but it’s figure skating and anything can change in the moment when the scores come up. I think that [the Shibutanis] are capable of creating that moment.”

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