GANGNEUNG, South Korea – The night before they won their first Olympic medal, Alex and Maia Shibutani were frustrated. They skated what they believed to be their best short dance of all time, but weren’t scored like it. They finished two-hundredths of a point out of medal position, but five points out of gold medal position. None of it felt right.
But as they wrestled with pride in their skate, the pressure of the moment, and frustration with their scores, 23-year-old Maia pulled out her computer and found some old home videos.
“We started watching these old family videos we have of us when we were little kids, off the ice, just dancing together,” her older brother said, before trailing off into tears.
The ShibSibs are the second set of siblings to win an Olympic ice dance medal, first in more than 25 years. Over the years they’ve heard the comments from those who don’t understand, or even the concerns of those inside the sport who do. Can siblings really succeed in this sport? Should they? Aren’t they limited from the steamier showings of those who tend to climb the podium? And in those moments of close physical proximity and high emotional intensity, is something just … off?
“With ice dance, it’s just generally grouped into ‘oh, it’s romantic. Oh, it’s sensual.’ That’s not fair to ice dance. You’re probably hurting ice dance’s feelings,” Alex Shibutani said. “Ice dance wants to be whatever it can be… We’re all put here to hopefully find something that we’re passionate about, and hopefully connect in some way to the people around us. We found ice dance. We’re siblings. We’re doing it the way we know how to do it.”
Alex and Maia grew sterner as questions along that line continued. No, they’ve never had to ditch a program because it was too romantic, and therefore too awkward. No, these programs do not have to be about romantic passion. They can be about different kinds of passion, too.
“Think of all the different stories there are or types of dance … or different types of anything,” Maia Shibutani said. “Just because we didn’t see a team that we could directly look up to when we first started skating doesn’t mean it’s not possible. We worked really hard. We found our way. We did it. Hopefully, for other teams coming up after us, if they’re brother and sister, if they’re Asian, they’ll believe it’s actually possible.”
The Shibutanis are the first Asian-Americans to medal in Olympic ice dance, too. They are not the norm in this sport, which used to be dominated by classic European couples and – since Vancouver – by all-white couples from North America, too. Over and over these last few weeks questions about race and the nature of their partnership leave the siblings to answer for things they cannot change – and they do answer. They might not always be happy to do so. But they realize that succeeding despite lacking similar role models often means becoming some yourselves.
“If you’re sitting through an event full of ice dance teams and seeing the same story told over and over again, that’s not good for the growth of the sport. That’s not entertaining for the viewers at home,” Alex Shibutani said. “Having a different point of view, which we naturally bring because we are coming from a different place, is something that we’ve embraced.”
But that different point of view, that different journey, costs them – or so the Shibutanis believe. They tried not to say it outright, dancing around the point for nearly 10 minutes Tuesday as they addressed their race and relationship. Then Alex broke.
“The adversity we mention is – you can’t control the marks you get in this sport. You try to learn the rules. You do your very best,” Shibutani said. “… But we have had a lot of results where we haven’t been satisfied, or we’ve been told we should be receiving more.”
Monday’s short dance was, at least in their minds, one of those moments. It didn’t matter in the end. When frustration mounted, when doubts rose, and when the moment got big, they withstood the pressure when so many others couldn’t.
“The family bond we have is the strength that no other team in this field has. It sets us apart,” Alez Shibutani said. “For all the people who think it’s a deficit, we’ve made it our strength.”