On Tuesday, Maia and Alex Shibutani, long considered the next great American ice dancers, won bronze at the PyeongChang Olympics.
The siblings — known as the ShibSibs — stood on the podium after posting the second highest score in the free skate portion of the competition. They set their free skate to Coldplay’s “Paradise” to symbolize the next step in their skating progression. A few years ago, after a meteoric rise and slow plunge back to earth, the Shibutanis skated to Coldplay’s “Fix You” — willing themselves to fix what they saw as a cracked career trajectory. They did and chose “Paradise” to signal the next, more encouraging time in their careers.
The ShibSibs are the second set of siblings to win an Olympic ice dance medal, and the 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.”
Programs don’t have to be about romantic passion, Alex and Maia insist. 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 also the first Asian Americans to medal in Olympic ice dance.
They are not the norm in this sport, which used to be dominated by European couples and — since Vancouver — by all-white couples from North America. They lost the top spot on Tuesday to Canadians Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir, and the silver to Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron of France.
Does the nature of their relationship affect the scores they receive? Sometimes, they think about how it does.
On Monday, the night before they won their first Olympic medal, the Shibutanis 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.
“You can’t control the marks you get in this sport. You try to learn the rules. You do your very best,” Alex 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,” Alex Shibutani said. “For all the people who think it’s a deficit, we’ve made it our strength.”