Ice Network

Shibutanis guided by close family connection

Strong bond helps brother-sister duo earn bronze medal in Korea
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Years of dedication and reliance on each other paid off for Maia Shibutani and Alex Shibutani, who won the Olympic bronze medal in ice dance Tuesday in Gangneung. -Getty Images

GANGNEUNG, South Korea - It began so simply in 2004: Alex Shibutani was tired of having his 12-year-old butt kicked by rivals in singles skating. His 9-year-old sister, Maia, was having more success, so Alex decided he would be better off trying to skate with her in ice dance.

"When we came up as a sibling team, it was just so natural, and we thought, 'OK, this is going to be a great journey we can be on together,'" Maia said.

She also quickly discovered it was more fun to be on the ice with Alex than to be out there by herself. And they were good together, good enough to start winning medals in national competitions the next year and keep winning medals as they moved up through skill levels, from juvenile to intermediate to novice to junior.

And then it got complicated.

"As you start to move forward and people start to take your skating more seriously, you stand out because you're different -- two Asian kids that are also brother and sister," Alex said. "People start to take notice of your ability and potential and they start asking, 'When the cuteness fades, what is the ceiling of their career?'"

The consensus was a pretty low ceiling. Theirs was a discipline in which love stories play a part in such a huge percentage of programs, in which no Asians or Asian-Americans -- and only one brother-sister team, Isabelle Duchesnay and Paul Duchesnay of France -- had ever won an Olympic medal until the Shibutanis took the bronze Tuesday.

Alex could have said "I told you so" to all the doubters. He dismissed that as an "easy and cheap" reaction.

"It has never been about other people," he said.

But the sibling issue clearly had hung like an albatross over them for years, even if they never let anyone know how heavy a burden it was. That was clear when first Maia, 23, and then Alex, 26, choked up when describing what it meant to get past misconceptions and preconceptions and how that familial bond helped them stand up to the competitive pressure of the Olympics.

"Along the way, there were a lot of people who told us you shouldn't be doing it, that siblings shouldn't be a team," Maia said, with tears leaking from her eyes.

They made it their calling card. They chose "ShibSibs" as a Twitter handle. They emphasized the relationship at every chance in tweets and vlogs and YouTube videos. Their interactions became so appealing that Minute Maid, Ralph Lauren, ICE BREAKERS, Intel and Milk-Bone signed up to sponsor them, and NBC made them a big part of its pre-Olympic promotion.

Marina Zoueva never thought their being siblings would be a problem when she began coaching them 11 years ago.

"Just because she didn't have a team like us before doesn't mean she didn't believe it was possible," Maia said.

Their teacher-student bond is so strong that Zoueva proudly showed off the gold infinity bracelet the Shibutanis gave her to mark their 10th anniversary together.

"It's not necessary to have a love passion," Zoueva said. "Any passion is passion. Their passion is in how they worked to reach their goal."

They rejected the notion that ice dance had to be romantic or sensual.

"That's probably hurting ice dance's feelings," Alex said, then apologizing for his personification of the discipline. "Ice dance can be whatever it can be. Don't put people in boxes."

With an impassioned, electric free dance to the Coldplay song "Paradise," the Shibutanis shook off the albatross and their disappointment over being fourth in a short dance in which they felt deserved better scores. It left them just 0.02 points behind teammates Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue.

Hubbell and Donahue made mistakes on two free dance elements, and the near-flawless Shibutanis wound up beating them by 4.9 points for third place. The top two teams, Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir of Canada, and Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron of France, were in a league of their own, as expected -- nearly 19 and 18 points ahead of the Shibutanis, respectively.

Seven years after becoming surprise bronze medalists at the 2011 World Championships, the Shibutanis gave the United States ice dance medals in four straight Olympics. Tanith Belbin and Ben Agosto broke a 30-year U.S. dance drought with a silver in 2006, and Meryl Davis and Charlie White added silver in 2010 and gold in 2014.

"Maia was 16, and we win a medal three years before the Sochi Games, and it's, 'Wow,'" Alex said. "We thought the future was exceptionally bright for us. We never stopped believing that."

It was often cloudy. They dropped to eighth in the world in 2012 and did not get back on the world podium until 2016. They finished ninth at the Sochi Olympics.

"We knew we had to make changes," Alex said. "We had to be more personal, more ourselves, not taking on a role (in programs), not playing a part."

The big change came with a free dance to Coldplay's "Fix You" in the 2015-16 season. They made it about themselves, about their comeback. They realized the psychic risk of doing a program that, as Maia said, "meant they were judging you on you, not on that they didn't like your portrayal of a story."

They won their first two U.S. titles in 2016 and 2017, and returned to world podiums with a silver in 2016 and bronze in 2017.

They left the Gangneung Ice Arena very upset after the result of Monday's short dance. They needed to find a way to forget that feeling.

"Maia did an awesome thing," Alex said.

She pulled up old home videos on her computer, videos of them as little kids dancing together off the ice, having goofy fun. It was the perfect reminder of who they are and what they mean to each other.

"The family bond we have is something no one else has," Alex said, his voice cracking with emotion. "It sets us apart. For the people who think it's a deficit, we made it a strength."