Olympic hopeful figure skaters juggle school at Michigan, practice and travel

BY JO-ANN BARNAS

FREE PRESS SPORTS WRITER

A trio of empty pizza boxes balances atop a heap of recyclables near the driveway. A few feet away, snow collects on the handlebars of a bike propped up on the front porch.

It's shortly before 5 p.m., and the inside of this two-story house on the outskirts of campus at the University of Michigan appears to be vacant. No one is answering the front door.

Suddenly, silence is broken: Footsteps racing down a flight of stairs. The door squeaks open.

And there's Charlie White.

"Come in," he says. "You found the place."

Within the half-hour, the remaining occupants arrive: Trevor Young, Evan Bates and Alex Shibutani.

They're figure skaters and roommates, friends and rivals -- and each will be competing over the next nine days at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships in Spokane, Wash.

White and ice dance partner Meryl Davis are the defending U.S. champions and Olympic-medal hopefuls for next month's Vancouver Games.

Bates, with Emily Samuelson, also hopes to win a spot on the U.S. Olympic team in ice dance with a top-three finish at nationals.

Young, who skates pairs with Andrea Best, is a long shot for Vancouver but could crack the top six in Spokane. And then there's Shibutani, at 18 the youngest of the roomies. He and his sister, Maia, are among the world's top junior ice dancers.

The Free Press spent a recent snowy evening with the group -- all students at U-M (although White and Bates are taking this semester off) -- to see how the skaters manage demands of their sport and their lives.

A challenging routine

No one envies Alex Shibutani's schedule.

On most days, his alarm jolts him awake at 4 a.m. He usually hits the snooze button until 4:15, when he drags himself out of bed in time to be picked up by his mother and sister for the drive from Ann Arbor to the Arctic Figure Skating Club in Canton.

Alex and Maia Shibutani, reigning world junior silver medalists, practice early with their coaches so Maia, 15, can attend classes at Ann Arbor Huron, where she's a sophomore.

Second semester recently got underway at Michigan, and Alex Shibutani, who graduated from Huron last spring, is taking a light but challenging load -- 9 1/2 credits -- for his freshman year.

For elite skaters such as the three male ice dancers and pairs competitors who live together in an off-campus house in Ann Arbor, balancing school and sport is difficult, to say the least. Most practice upward of 25 hours a week, but training isn't as grueling as the travel -- weeklong trips to far away places, complete with jet lag.

Since September, the Shibutanis' competition schedule has included flights to Croatia and Tokyo, in addition to another ISU Junior Grand Prix event in Lake Placid, N.Y.

White's international competitions this season have taken him and partner Meryl Davis, also a U-M student, to Germany, Russia and Japan (twice) since September.

"Practice isn't easy, but it becomes routine," White said. "I'm up at 6 a.m., shower, grab a Cliff Bar, out the door at 6:15 and on the ice at 7 a.m."

On their most recent trip to Japan, last month, White and Davis became the first American ice dance team ever to win the ISU Grand Prix title.

The two will battle former Canton teammates and five-time national champions Tanith Belbin and Ben Agosto for the U.S. title next week. Belbin and Agosto, who left Michigan in the spring of 2008 for new coaches in Aston, Pa., didn't compete at nationals last year because Agosto was suffering from a back injury, allowing White and Davis a runaway victory.

In a few weeks, Shibutani will be the only member of his house under 21; Evan Bates will celebrate his 21st birthday Feb. 23. Young is 21; White is 22. Mindful that they were once first-year students, the older three deliver only small doses of grief to Shibutani -- all in fun, of course.

For instance, when Bates arrived home shortly before 5:30 p.m. on a recent Thursday and announced, "Where's Shibs?" the snickering was barely audible. Shibutani had just called in: The busses were running late because of the snowstorm.

"He's walking here," White said.

A place to decompress

Recently, Bates gave several prospective renters for next school year a tour of their four-bedroom house, which he and his roommates lease for $2,800 a month. As the price suggests, the home is far from your typical off-campus dive: it has hardwood floors and is fully furnished; it includes a washer and dryer. It's on a street that's residentially mixed with students and families.

Bates, reigning U.S. ice dance silver medalist with Emily Samuelson (also a U-M student), immediately recognized the students he gave the tour to as U-M hockey players.

"No surprise, they had no idea who I was," laughed Bates.

Even White, with his distinctive mop of curly blond hair, said he's never recognized on campus. But he's gaining popularity on the Internet, especially among tweeners: Seventeen magazine recently named him as one of the "hot guys" to follow at the Vancouver Olympics. The list included short track speed skater Apolo Anton Ohno and men's world figure skating champion Evan Lysacek.

At the house, each skater has his own room. Young's is right off the kitchen, which is probably a reason Shibutani has his own refrigerator in his bedroom upstairs.

White, glaring in jest to Young, said: "Let's say I have 24 cheese sticks and two Juicy Juices. When I come back from a competition, I'll have no cheese sticks and no Juicy Juices."

Young said: "I'm the worst at eating other people's food."

Young, a 2005 grad of Bloomfield Hills Andover, is taking five classes this semester to finish his degree in industrial and operations engineering, which he'll have earned in four years. He started at U-M in 2006-07.

"I took a year off between high school and college to concentrate on skating and pizza delivery," he said.

When the roommates aren't playing sports games on their X-Box, the TV is tuned to ESPN, they said. Their older-model big-screen television formerly belonged to Meryl Davis' parents.'

Their living room furniture is protected by blue slipcovers -- compliments of Shibutani's parents. The housemates consider that a wise investment since they don't own the furniture and that's where they eat most of their meals.

When they're home together -- which isn't often because of their varying schedules -- the skaters say they subsist on carryout and the generosity of the parents who drop off food. They look forward to visits from Bates' mother because she usually delivers homemade spaghetti and chocolate chip cookies.

"As you can see, this is the place to decompress, to take our mind of things," White said. "We all get along."

Young said: "Well, there was one time I flipped out last year."

White: "Over a video game."

Bates: "There were carrots thrown."

Young calls Bates the wittiest of the group, but it was hard to keep up with White on this night.

Young said: "The other day I asked Charlie, 'When you're watching a pair team, do you watch the boy or the girl?' He said, 'I try not to watch.' "

With nationals coming up -- Young and Best compete their senior pair short program Friday, while the senior ice dancers start next Thursday -- the skaters make sure to keep things light.

"We know nationals are going to be very competitive," said Bates, the only one among the roommates who trains at the rival Ann Arbor FSC. "People are always surprised when they hear that we all share a house."

White said: "It's a similar situation that I have with Scott (Moir of Canada, who with Tessa Virtue also train in Canton). We're competitors, but we leave it all on the ice."

Except for a collection of lanyards hanging from a door knob that display credentials from past events, there's very little that suggests the house is occupied by figure skaters. For example, there's no posters or medals hanging around. They don't even keep their competition costumes at the house, which, not surprisingly, leads Bates to offer the last laugh:

"Our parents keep our costumes," he said, "because if anybody tries to steal stuff, we know they're going right for the outfits."

2 comments:

charlie puth said...

Thanks for comment

William Braylen said...

I need to allude to Meryl Streep's scene again in light of the fact that that was a point where Meryl gave us a monstrosity that would make us trust that we are watching something clever. What might happen if Charlie Chaplin doesn't act like the persona he is on film and carries on like a general person? Would he make us giggle then, without that offbeat strolling style and motions? No, he wouldn't and that is something that on-screen characters need to comprehend while doing satire. Speed skater ___ Anton Ohno

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