At the 2018 Winter Olympics in PyeongChang, Alex and Maia Shibutani made history. Not only were the “ShibSibs” the first US pair to medal in ice dancing, they were also the first sibling pair to hit the Olympic podium since France’s Isabelle and Paul Duchesnay in 1992. The Shibutanis managed to snag two bronze medals at the Olympics, completing a 14-year journey from an ice rink outside of Boston to the biggest stage in sport.
It would be easy to dwell on the Shibutanis on-ice accomplishments, which are myriad, but zoom out and a bit and it become clear that one of their greatest accomplishments — perhaps the greatest of all — is the way they’ve built a relationship on love and hard work. To see the Shibutanis on television is to be impressed by their finesse. To meet them in person is to be impressed by the fact that they like each other. This brother and sister, smashed under the weight of profound expectation and thrust (periodically) into the spotlight, totally get along. They take care of each other. They make it a priority. They are, in this sense as well as the more obvious sense, exceptional.
That said, it’s taken work and support from their parents. They didn’t just hit the ice ready to to go (though, to hear Alex tell it, Maia may have). There’s is a shared victory, the product of both practice and care. They spoke to Fatherly about both.
It’s been a few weeks since you took home bronze at the 2018 Winter Olympics. How are you feeling?
Alex: We’re running on caffeine and the feeling of accomplishing a dream that we set out to do 14 years ago. The Olympics were an amazing experience. We skated four times in two different events, performed to the best of our ability each time, and got better each time we went out there. And that’s all you can do. We did everything we wanted to.
Maia: It’s been incredible.
You’re the first sibling pair to win an Olympic medal since 1992. Does that make it even more special than if you had someone else as a partner?
Maia: This whole journey has been very special, especially because we didn’t necessarily have a sibling team to look up to growing up. It was different. We always had confidence in our dream, and just the fact that we were able to do this together has been awesome.
Alex: Yeah, I think that it’s really awesome that we’re able to provide a different perspective on ways that we can do what we do on ice. I think that we’ve always been really passionate about skating, and we’ve always loved it.
When did you first realize you had a connection, both on and off the ice?
Alex: When she came back from the hospital, I met her for the first time and I was like, ‘Wow she’d be a really good skater, but I should wait a little bit and you know, see how she actually does.’
Maia: You were really planning it out.
Alex: Yeah, this was all planned. It happened just the way I wanted it to.
In all seriousness though, we always had a great relationship, before we even put skates on. I was really excited to have a younger sibling, especially a younger sister, because our parents did a really good job of explaining to us that when you have a sibling, that’s a friend. That’s not to say I didn’t have friends, but it was really cool to know that I was gonna be able to teach her things, and we were gonna be able to grow up together. We’re older than the typical age where siblings go off into the world and do different things and the fact that we’ve been able to work together as a team to accomplish a dream that we share is really special.
I think that we really first realized that we were good as a team on the ice…maybe the first time we did a competition, right?
Maia: Yeah, it was so much fun for us to practice together, and then just being out there on the ice there’s a lot of pressure even at that young age, but we just really enjoyed the experience.
Alex: I’d always been pretty nervous when I was out there by myself, but being out there with a teammate and someone that I’m close to was comforting.
How did your parents help you develop your skills early on?
Alex: We’re so lucky to have amazing parents. They couldn’t have anticipated that we would be doing this, let alone for how long we’ve been doing it. They’ve always supported us and believed that if we were happy, we would be doing what was right for us. Maia found skating at a very early age, she was four years old, and that’s pretty early to decide what you want to do.
Our parents were musicians, and so I tried the violin, and they encouraged me through that. I didn’t like to practice, so I didn’t get very good at the violin. I guess that’s how it works. I was really into basketball, but there was no precedent for you know a child of two people who were under six feet tall becoming a good basketball player.
Maia: But they still encouraged you!
Alex: They did. They encouraged me and so when we started skating together and I became really involved with that and I wanted to be the best that I could be, they believed in that. It hasn’t been an easy journey. There have definitely been some difficulties, and some challenges that we’ve had to overcome, but we’ve always risen to the occasion and we’ve always pushed through, because we have each other, and because we have our parents.
Maia: And it must have been a bit challenging for them too! I mean, 14 years of our partnership and they were trying to support us both equally, but one of the things that our mom always told us was that we needed to take care of each other. And I know that really helped us along the way.
Did you ever have a sibling rivalry? Were your parents there to negotiate peace?
Alex: To be honest we’ve always gotten along really well. We never fight…. No, that’s not true. We definitely fight. We definitely have our disagreements, but now that we’re older, they’re almost exclusive to our creative process and what we’re trying to do on the ice. We have very high expectations of for each other and for ourselves. Our communication is very good, but maybe more… direct?
Maia: Very honest.
Alex: Very honest. It can cause some differences of opinion, but I really feel like we were never particularly competitive outside of skating. We’re very businesslike and serious when we’re on the ice, and intense because we have to be. But when we’re off the ice, we have a great relationship and we still spend time together.
Who was a better skater growing up?
Alex: When we first started skating together, Maia was much better than me and that was a weird feeling being an older sibling. I’m three and a half years older than Maia. I think they meant well, but we would be learning the same thing, and our coach would say “Alex, that was good, but ….”
Maia: I didn’t tell them to say that!
Alex:No, I know you didn’t. You were like 8 years old or something. But ‘look at Maia. Maia’s doing it right. Do it more than Maia,” was a thing. She was better than me and I think I did feel a little insecure about it, which pushed me to work really hard. Now I’m better than her.
Maia: Wait, what?!
Alex: No, we’re equals and we’re even and we’re a really good team because we bring different things to the table. We complement each other really well.
What’s next for the ShibSibs?
Alex: Next, we are going to be touring the country with Stars on Ice, with a bunch of really talented skaters, many of whom were on the US Olympic team in 2018.
Maia: And what’s been really exciting is that since we’ve gotten home, we’ve experienced so much support whether we’re in New York, Los Angeles or home, wherever. So to be able to tour with some of our team mates, and really build that momentum for our sport will be exciting.
Alex: Yeah, and it’s just such an honor to represent your country at the Olympic games. To have participated and competed at not just one, but two Olympic games is a real accomplishment, and we’re so proud to have brought home some hardware this time, and two medals, and more than that we’re really proud with how … We were really proud of how we conducted ourselves at the games, how we handed the pressure, how we just stayed in the moment and really embraced everything. It wasn’t a whirlwind. Yes it was very busy, but we have very clear memories and can go back and realize what we did.