Olympic figure skating treasures Maia and Alex Shibutani open up about what it's really like to be a sibling team
You might know them as the Shib Sibs, Maia and Alex Shibutani, or just those amazing American ice dancers who took bronze during the figure skating competition at the 2018 PyeongChang Olympics. However you’ve been introduced, we’re sure that you — like us — are dying to know more about this talented sibling pair (that never seems to get annoyed with each other!).
Maia, 23, and Alex, 26, live in Ann Arbor, Michigan, where they’ve been training hard and studying at the University of Michigan since their last turn on Olympic ice at the Sochi Games in 2014. They placed 9th that year, and vowed to work harder than ever for the next four years to medal at the 2018 Games — and they succeeded. The Shib Sibs scored bronze in both the team figure skating competition, along with the rest of the U.S. skaters, and in the individual competition, where they skated memorably to “Paradise” by Coldplay.
As part of their partnership with Minute Maid, the Shib Sibs chatted with HelloGiggles about their journey to the PyeongChang Games, as well as the reason some people think it’s weird that they’re a sibling team. They also generously told us all about their pups, Lily and Po, whom you’ll definitely want to follow on Instagram after you’ve been introduced.
HelloGiggles: You competed in the 2014 Games in Sochi, but didn’t medal there. What was different about this year’s Olympics?
Maia Shibutani: This Games, we definitely had a different intention and goal in mind, especially after the past three years. Our results internationally have been very strong, so we knew we had the potential to come away with two medals, and so heading into this Olympics we were training better than ever.
Alex Shibutani: We had built a strong reputation with our performances leading up to the Games, and a lot of confidence alongside that that we didn’t necessarily have going into the 2014 Olympics. There’s more confidence, there’s more expectation, maybe more pressure, but the amount of maturity that we’ve gained, and perspective, in the years leading up to the Games allowed us to stay in the moment.
HG: Outside of actually skating, what was the most memorable experience you had during your time in South Korea?
MS: It was definitely the time we spent with the class of students that we mentored for six months [through an education program called Thank you, PyeongChang] leading up to the Olympic Games. It was amazing, because they were able to come watch our free dance from the individual event.
To see them in the audience was really special, because we’ve been on this journey with them, getting to know them over our video-chat sessions, and then to have their support in the arena — and to meet them and spend time with them a few days after we were done competing — it was really emotional.
AS: It also added potentially more pressure, because when you’re in a mentoring program and you’re talking about the importance of believing in yourself, and all these things, and we know that we inspired them and they inspired us, it upped the stakes a little bit. We wanted the story to end with a happy ending.
HG: What’s one thing viewers of the Olympics would be surprised to know about the Games?
AS: There’s a lot of downtime during the Olympics, so socially there are a lot of opportunities to have meals with other athletes. We all have this shared interest and passion for what we do, so there’s something very relatable about that where you can have a conversation with anyone and get to know them and you’re coming from the same place.
HG: I’d love to ask a few questions about your personal life: Do you two live together or separately when you’re at home?
AS: I have my own place; it’s sort of a necessary thing, I think, as we got older especially. It kind of happened coincidentally — I was living with other skaters and some friends when I was at the University of Michigan… then people decided to get their own places, we were all slobs, so it was just better for our general health that we weren’t grouped together. So Maia lives with our mom, and I slumped into my own place, but it’s important that we have our own separate spaces when we’re not on the ice or working out.
HG: You obviously have one very big shared interest. Do you have any others?
MS: We’ve been skating together for 14 years, and we’ve grown up together, so it’s kind of inevitable that because we’ve shared all the same experiences… you start to develop similar interests.
AS: We’ve always been fascinated by storytelling, so that’s the YouTube channel.
On our downtime, we love going to movies and just being able to enter another creative world. We love television, not that we get to watch very much of it, but those different variations and formats for storytelling help us with our craft. Because that’s essentially what figure skating is — you take away the ice and you take all the things that make it stand out as an Olympic sport, and one of the things that makes it stand out is there is that storytelling component.
MS: Another thing we connect over is food, and spending time together.
AS: Growing up our parents were great, we always had dinner together as a family. Obviously as we’ve gotten more intense with our skating careers there’s not always the opportunity to do that, but when Maia and I are on the road, unless we’re really sick of each other, we’ll eat meals together.
That being said, we’re not the same. I’m way more into following sports than Maia is, and Maia’s got separate interests as well.
MS: I think I have more of an interest in fashion, but that’s not to say that he doesn’t have an interest in fashion.
AS: I’m super into fashion! Maybe not in a traditional or expected way, but it’s a way of expressing yourself, so I express myself with a lot of neutral colors and dark tones.
HG: It’s a fashion choice! We all know that siblings sometimes drive each other crazy, and you two spend a lot of time together, so I would love to know how you get on each other’s nerves.
AS: When I give an answer like the one I just gave, sort of off-the-cuff, that gets on Maia’s nerves. I think I get on her nerves more than she gets on mine, naturally. I’m her older brother, so I give her a hard time sometimes.
MS: He has a great sense of humor, which I’m sure so many people appreciate, but sometimes I’m like, ‘Okay, okay, I get it, you’re funny.’ But that’s really nothing to complain about.
HG: So I saw on your social media that you have two really adorable dogs. Do they have any funny quirks?
AS: Our dogs are named Lily and Po. Po is older, he is actually Lily’s uncle. He’s 8 and she’s 7. They’re our first family pets — growing up we always wanted…
MS: Alex always wanted dogs. I was really scared of dogs until we got Po.
AS: You had a really intense St. Bernard experience…
MS: …when I was a toddler, but our dogs cured my fear and I’m good with all dogs.
AS: I mean it was a very friendly St. Bernard, but she was strapped into a stroller and that was a really large dog to come up and sniff her.
So Po is… it’s a weird characteristic, but when I look into his eyes, they’re almost human. You know when you see the Planet of the Apes movies and they digitize those characters so they seem to have human characteristics? It’s kind of like that.
And he’s a little bit of a grumpy old man, and Lily is the exact opposite, so they complement each other well. She’s very gregarious, playful, maybe a little bit forgetful… I mean it’s a wonderful quality actually, which is why they’re so…
MS: They’re a good team.
AS: Yeah, they’re a good team.
HG: I love that you guys are describing them gently so they don’t get their feelings hurt if they read this interview.
AS: We just want to make sure things stay balanced at home.
HG: You’ve said that people sometimes think it’s weird that you’re a sibling ice-dancing pair. Why is that?
MS: I think it’s just unexpected because, historically, there haven’t been a lot of sibling teams (Editor’s note: The Shibutanis are only the second ever to medal at the Olympics) so people have this idea of what they’ll see when they turn on the TV to see ice dance. Something I’m so proud of is that because we know we’ve been different creatively, we’ve been able to push what can be expected from ice dancing.
AS: We provide a different perspective and a different storytelling approach in a sport that I think has been seen commercially, traditionally, as pretty one-dimensional. When people talk about ice dance I think the go-to thing is romance and passion and drama.
The ridiculous thing to me is that when all the teams start skating, or when you first get your partner, you’re as young as 7 — Maia and I started when we were 9 and 12 — we were not being instructed to be romantic, and none of our competitors were being told to be romantic at the ages of 9 and 12. It’s just the tradition and the expected route, but like all mediums and forms of expression… there is room for diversity.
We don’t do that just because we’re a sibling team. We also utilize music that’s more contemporary and current, things that we connect to, because when we connect to what we’re doing that translates to an audience and the judges.
This interview has been edited and condensed.