Maia Shibutani and Alex Shibutani, a brother-sister duo, are the most decorated of three U.S. ice dance teams leading into the 2018 Winter Olympics. They’ve also been together the longest: the “Shib Sibs,” separated in age by three years, started as a dance team in 2004.
They have two world championships medals, capturing silver in 2016, and bronze in 2017. They have a third world championship medal, a bronze, from 2011. They won three medals at the Four Continents Championships (one of each color) and have been to the Grand Prix Final four straight times, picking up two bronze medals. They are the two-time U.S. national champions and they placed ninth at the Sochi Olympics, a formative experience for them.
All eyes have been turned toward PyeongChang for the past three years. The Shibutanis performed a Coldplay exhibition program at the 2015 U.S. nationals and from there, they developed the idea of a trilogy of free dances. For the 2015-16 season, they used Coldplay’s “Fix You” to win their first national title. The following year, they titled their free dance “Evolution.” This year, for the Olympic season, they are using Coldplay’s apropos piece “Paradise.”
“This program and everything that we’ve been building for has been for the coming weeks,” Alex said on a recent conference call with members of the media. “For Korea, for the Olympic Games. We’ve made a lot of positive changes and the program has changed quite a bit. We’re very confident in the changes we’ve made and it’s really clicking for us.”
Since September, the Shibutanis have hosted a series of monthly mentorship sessions with students at the Jinbu middle school in PyeongChang, South Korea via video chat. The program was jointly developed by the United States Olympic Committee and the PyeongChang Organizing Committee and includes a plan for the Shibutanis to meet their students upon arriving in South Korea.
The last time the Shibutanis were in PyeongChang to compete was for the 2017 Four Continents Championships, where they won a silver medal. Their Olympic competition will take place at the same venue. Following the competition, they acted as sports envoys for the U.S. Embassy in Seoul. They conducted a clinic for young skaters, part of a panel discussing youth empowerment and sportsmanship, learned to prepare Korean Buddhist food with monk and chef Sun Jae, and learned traditional Korean dance at an arts high school.
“This time around, we’re comfortable with the venue,” Alex said. “We had a great competition last February at Four Continents Championships. Every interaction we’ve had with people in Korea has been fantastic. We know the power of the Games and what it can do to the power of sport and young people in a country. We’re looking forward to going to this Games with a better perspective on what it all means, and the value it brings to not just us, but everyone around the world who participates and watches and is inspired by it.”
It’s both a distinctive asset and a unique challenge to be siblings competing at this level. When they were younger, the partnership seemed natural since they were such good friends already. Plus, when Alex’s school required he participate in a team sport, ice dancing with his sister was a ready-made solution.
“Originally, we started skating separately,” Maia explained in an interview with NBC Olympics. “But then we saw ice dance live and it really inspired us to try skating together. We were natural partners and it really started out as just being fun.”
“We had a great relationship and our coaches felt comfortable putting us together, knowing that we wouldn’t hurt each other,” Alex added, laughing.
The Shibutanis recently created a short film in tribute to their mom, complete with home video and a touching, emotional voiceover. They shared it on their YouTube page, which they launched in 2012.
Today, as a team, their familial relationship pushes them to think outside the box when creating concepts.
That’s something their coach, the legendary Marina Zoueva, has embraced. She coached Canadians Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir to dance gold in 2010, and their American rivals Meryl Davis and Charlie White to gold in 2014. She also coached celebrated pairs team Ekaterina Gordeyeva and Sergei Grinkov. Zoueva faced a challenge in not being able to package the Shibutanis as champions in the same way she could with the other teams.
“It goes beyond her just being our coach at this point, it feels more like she’s our family,” Maia said of Zoueva. “There’s so much trust that we have in our relationship with her and really it’s been amazing how she’s been open to helping us on our journey. It’s never felt like we’ve had a specific path to follow but we’ve all been open – when I say all I mean Alex, Marina and me – to really exploring different sides of ourselves, our creativity, to bring our very best back to what we’re showing on the ice.”
“Marina has obviously worked with skaters across generations and across disciplines in figure skating with a lot of terrific success,” Alex added, noting that when they first began working with Zoueva he and his sister had a hard time understanding Zoueva’s Russian accent. “Maia and I don’t quite fit the… We aren’t quite like any of the skaters of the teams that she’s ever worked with before. Whether that be how she would package a team, us being siblings was a unique challenge initially.”
The last set of siblings to win an Olympic figure skating medal together was France’s Isabelle and Paul Duchesnay in 1992. The Shibutanis could be next, maybe even become two-time medalists in PyeongChang.
“Before the Olympics in 2014, people asked why we were skating to Michael Jackson,” Alex said. “It seemed maybe like an interesting choice. But every decision that we’ve made, we can proudly say that it served a purpose in developing an aspect of our skating, our career, our performance style. And we are only as strong as we are this year with the Latin short dance because of the decisions that we made in previous seasons to upgrade our quality of movement, our understanding of our bodies, and the way that we perform.
“Everything has been building to this point, where we are now on the eve of our second Olympic Games, and [Zoueva] has always been the most supportive when it comes to making sure that we plot out the path that will get us to maximize our potential.”
On the media call, the Shibutanis couldn’t discuss the team event roster. They were trying to protect the strategic planning of U.S. Figure Skating. But, it should be noted, they won the short dance at nationals in January and led the three U.S. teams in the short dance at the Grand Prix Final in December.
Should they participate in the team event – truly maximizing their potential for themselves and the greater Team USA – it means they could bring home as many as two medals home from PyeongChang. With Virtue and Moir’s widely-anticipated battle with France’s Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron almost certain to result in gold and silver, the rest of the field seems to be fighting for bronze. It’s likely that bronze could go to the top U.S. team in PyeongChang; the U.S. has three of the top six best ice dance teams in the world.