The brother-sister Olympic ice dance team of Alex and Maia Shibutani, known by their fans as the “Shib Sibs,” have spent most of their 20-something-year-old lives in rinks, bobbing and weaving in and out of complicated poses on top of freshly Zamboni’d ice. But just under a year ago, at an international competition held at the newly built Gangneung Ice Arena in South Korea that doubled as a test event for the venue that would host this year’s Winter Games, the Shibutanis found themselves in a position that, while as synchronized as ever, was also extremely unfamiliar.
“We were both sliding on our backs, seeing the ceiling,” Maia, 23, says during a recent FaceTime conversation at the end of a long training day, tilting her face skyward and recalling what should have been a brief and breezy routine group warm-up period that preceded the free dance at the 2017 Four Continents event. As the Shibutanis and several other competing teams skated around the rink for a few minutes to loosen up, Alex suddenly totally bit it, pulling Maia down with him. “And that never happens,” Maia says.
“And it’s the worst thought,” Alex, 26, continues. When the Shib Sibs tell a story, it’s almost always a joint effort. “You’re at the Olympic venue, and you’re staring up at the ceiling, and you’re doing the backstroke, and the judges are watching, and they’re human beings, so they’ll remember that.”
“There’s that: ‘Oh, are they vulnerable?’” says Maia, voicing the skeptical, tsk-tsk inner workings of the mind of the median figure skating judge.
“‘Are they vulnerable all of a sudden?’” Alex repeats.
As NBC broadcasters love to remind their audience every couple of years in hushed tones, Olympic athletes are always vulnerable: to nerves, to unexpected breakout performances by underdog competitors, to tiny wobbles that can throw four years of careful training and world travel and hope off their axes just like that. This is true in the figure skating world generally, but particularly so in the persnickety and increasingly competitive discipline of ice dance. While a solo figure skater can fail to land a big jump but still medal if the rest of his or her routine sparkles enough, an ice dance team can and will effectively disqualify itself with some brief error that is borderline imperceptible to the untrained eye.
Which is why Alex’s outright wipeout, which took Maia down with him, was so nerve-racking, even if it was only in warm-ups. What happened next was worse: When he stood up, instead of feeling the familiar catch of the edge of his skate on the rink—that literal thin line between being one of the best and most precise performers in the world and being a Stooge slipping on a banana peel—he felt only an icy void. “My blade just kept sliding out,” he says.
He left the ice, examined his blade, and saw that it was badly nicked, maybe by some errant piece of debris that had wound up on the gleaming new rink and caused his fall, although there was no time for a forensic investigation. He and Maia were in second place after the previous day’s short dance and set to perform again in about 10 minutes. Their careful pre-skate routine had been completely disrupted. It was the stuff anxiety dreams are made of.
Digging through his equipment bag, Alex located a skate-sharpening stone similar to what a professional chef would use on his best knives and began working over the damaged blade while “my coaches are standing over me, which isn’t helping,” he says, recalling their well-meaning but stressful presence. “That’s not something every skater knows how to do,” says Maia, who was also reduced to looming and lurking, not knowing whether her older brother would be able to fix things in time for them to compete.
Somehow he was able, and they did compete, and their free dance was “really strong,” says Maia—strong enough for them to win silver in the same building where, a year later, they now hope to stand on the medal podium again during the 2018 Winter Olympics.
In the span of their professional career, the Shibutanis have already known both precocious success and underachieving disappointment. They have adjusted their process to take greater, and more personal, hold of their creative decisions, a move that reconnected them with their performances and contributed to the newfound success they’ve enjoyed over the past few seasons following a relative slump. And they are determined to show audiences who may be unfamiliar with ice dance that the discipline can be lively and fearless, athletic and fun, modern and diverse. With their Olympic competition including not only breathtaking ice dance teams from France and Canada but also two other impressive American pairs, earning a top-three finish in Pyeongchang won’t be easy—which is why the Shibutanis think they can do it.
The discipline of ice dance has long been the misunderstood cousin in the more well-known, high-flying family of singles and pairs figure skating, lacking the big toepicky takeoffs, the jumps that sound like the razor blades advertised on podcasts (Triple axel! Quad loop!), and the tall men hurling small women through the air. If those events have the perceived power, beauty, and drama of thoroughbreds rounding the bend in a horse race, ice dance is often seen more like the prancing, impenetrable world of dressage.
It doesn’t help that one of ice dance’s signature moves is called a “twizzle,” or that, up through the 2010 Vancouver Olympics season, ice dance competitions included a “compulsory dance” in which every team skated essentially identical programs, with movements and music mandated by the International Skating Union. This allowed for true apples-to-apples technical comparisons of competing dance teams, which satisfied purists. But it also meant that casual viewers often tuned in just in time to sit through umpteen couples skating the same goddamn polka, again and again and again.
That’s the lazy impression that I had of ice dance until I went to Boston for the 2014 U.S. Figure Skating Championships—which doubled as the de facto Olympic trials for the Sochi Winter Games—and had my mind blown. It was a remarkable experience to see the more traditional forms of figure skating live: the breakout Riverdance performance by Jason Brown; the side-by-side lutzes and “death spirals” done by the pairs teams; the minor drama of one of the top three ladies being snubbed by the international selection committee. But all that was the sort of content and controversy I had expected. What I hadn’t foreseen was that I would come away from the event obsessed with what the ice dancers could do.
At nationals that year, the reigning Olympic silver medalists, Meryl Davis and Charlie White, reduced me to weeping quietly in the press box with their free dance to the opera Scheherazade, a routine that would win them America’s first ice dance gold medal in Sochi just more than a month later. And the Shibutanis, skating a buoyant routine to a medley of Michael Jackson songs, displayed an appealing, infectious enthusiasm: Unable to rely on typical ice dance staples like the implication of romance, they leaned even harder on their crisp technical skills, which have always been one of the top factors differentiating them from their competition.
In recent years, television programs like Dancing With the Stars have helped make dancing-centric spectacle kind of cool. But the medium of television still doesn’t—maybe can’t!—do justice to the speed, strength, or endurance of the sport. Watching live, with the big, blank, frosty palette of the rink laid out beneath me, it was remarkable to see the sheer amount of ground covered with each side-by-side stride, the quickness with which the skaters switched from one edge of their blade to the other and back again in ridiculous unison, and the spacing and synchronization they maintained all the while. It required graceful artistry but also brutish endurance. “Our routines are three, four minutes,” Maia says. (In comparison, a typical ice hockey player will stay out on the ice for roughly only a third of that at a time between breaks.) “There’s that goal of making things look effortless, but you’re not going in shifts. There’s no tapping out. You’re doing it.”
On TV, the close-up angles and constant movements of the broadcast cameras can undermine these revelations. When I mention this to the Shibutanis, Alex, who is an enormous sports fan, compares it to another beautiful game. “I think, in my experience watching soccer,” he says, “it can be kind of the same thing. The pitch is so huge, but when you’re zoomed in on a player dribbling down the field, the perspective is a little different.”
With my perspective forever changed, my newfound ice dance snobbery even began to inform my opinion on the events that I had previously always watched with an uncritical eye. Pairs figure skating started to appear reckless, even brutish: Why did they fall so freaking much? Where was the artistry, the balletic grace? Even singles began presenting itself in a new light. Cool edge work, I thought. Try doing it with another person’s skate mere inches away from your own and let me know how that works out!
Based on their performance that year in Boston and throughout the figure skating season that preceded it, the Shibutanis were one of three U.S. ice dance teams to compete in Sochi in 2014, and they spent much of their off-time in Russia connecting with fans via their ever-enthusiastic social media feeds, and meeting other athletes around the Olympic Village. (Of particular excitement for Alex, who is a huge Boston sports fan, was running into Bruins defenseman Zdeno Chara; the siblings even shared with Chara some of their skating exercises, at his request, for him to try out in the offseason.) Their coach, Marina Zoueva, who relocated to North America from Moscow in 1991 and is a creative legend in the figure skating world, raved about their Michael Jackson free dance to the media in Sochi, explaining that her young students back in Russia had all learned the moves to Thriller back in the day and that the routine would connect with audiences.
But it was two other teams coached by Zoueva—Davis-White and the Canadian pair of Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir, who had won silver and gold in Vancouver, respectively—that dominated again in 2014. The Americans won gold this time around, the Canadians took the silver, and the Shibutanis, whose free dance was mildly disrupted when Maia’s costume got stuck on Alex’s sequins during a lift, finished a distant ninth.
The result might not have been so disappointing if not for the way the Shibutanis’ careers had begun. The first time White saw the Shibutanis skate, “they couldn’t have been older than 13 or 14,” he says in a phone conversation, his newborn baby chirping in the background. (White’s wife, Tanith, is another ice dancer who won a silver medal in Turin in 2006 and now calls competitions for NBC Sports.) “I remember being just so impressed with such a young team’s commitment to the character and to the style of their dance,” he says, “and to their speed across the ice.” Alex was 14 at the time, Maia had just turned 11, and their performance at the 2005 Lake Placid Ice Dance Championships earned them a gold medal in the intermediate division.
A few months later, when the Shibutanis skated the same routine at the U.S. junior nationals, Nancy Kerrigan, who was doing commentary for TV, observed of their small stature that “they can barely see over the boards” and joked that she wouldn’t be taken aback to learn that they were aged 7 and 10. “These two are tiny enough,” her broadcast partner added, “that I’m surprised they can get on amusement rides!” The Shibutanis won gold once again (and Alex would, eventually, grow to 6 feet tall). “You could see back then that if these guys stick with it,” White says, “they’d have a really great future. And, you know, I don’t think ‘stick with it’ really does justice to what they’ve done.”
What the Shibutanis have done includes bursting onto the international senior skating circuit in 2010 with one of the best debut seasons in history; weathering a several-year lull in which medals became more elusive and doubts piled up; and making a call in the aftermath of Sochi to take more ownership of their creative decisions as they moved forward with their career, a choice that has led to successful, and even occasionally viral, programs set to music ranging from Jay-Z to Coldplay.
Their third-place finish at the 2011 World Championships was the first time a team had debuted at the senior level at worlds by making the podium, and with Maia being just 16 years old, the pair was the youngest to medal at the event since 1962. In the aftermath of the performance, says Zoueva in a phone conversation, footage of the Shibutanis became part of a video training session for ice dance judges, intended to demonstrate above-and-beyond technical supremacy.
But in the four years to come, the Shibutanis wouldn’t finish higher than fifth at worlds. They were proud to have been Olympians, but having come in ninth place in Sochi, they knew there was more they could prove. Their technical skating was no longer the stuff of instructional judging videos; in early 2015, an NBC analyst even pointed out that they’d been working on their facial expressions to make them less formal and “more accessible” to audiences and judges. “They encountered a bit of a dip,” says Davis, “and were forced to really find an identity as a team that was not only something that could work for a brother and sister but was just suited to who they are as skaters and as individuals. They really dug deep, and they’ve been able to find something very special.”
In the summer of 2016, Alex and Maia were at Gillette Stadium in Massachusetts for a summertime Coldplay concert, having earned an invite after the band’s tour manager found out that there was an Olympic ice dance team out there who had been building a remarkable comeback around one of the band’s hit songs, “Fix You.” But while the Shibutanis might have rivaled even Coldplay’s biggest superfans in terms of the number of times they’d played the song on repeat, Alex—who says he sometimes listens to “Welcome to the Jungle” before skating because the Celtics have been known to tip off to it—found himself distracted when they arrived. “It was cool because that was my first time in Gillette,” he says. “I was like, ‘Tom Brady stepped here!’”
The selection of “Fix You” as the team’s free dance song came in the aftermath of Sochi, as the Shibutanis began mapping out the future of their careers. “The Olympics were always our dream,” says Maia. “And so once we were on that team and had that experience, as we were looking ahead to [Pyeongchang], we looked at each other and knew that there was a different way we had to approach our skating. We wanted to be more personally involved in the process because, I think that, in a sport where you can’t always control the outcome—”
“You can’t,” says Alex.
“You can’t,” repeats Maia. “At the end of the day, you want to be the most proud of what you’re sharing. So that’s really where, following that year, our whole new creative process began.” The Shibutanis began choosing outside-the-box music that spoke to them personally rather than more traditional fare, feeling that their skating would benefit from greater emotional investment. “It’s taken trust from our parents and our coaches,” Maia says. “For example, with [last season’s] hip-hop blues program, that was Alex’s idea and Marina could’ve easily been like, ‘What are you talking about?’ But she trusted us to just go for it.”
She is referring to the program that Alex put together last season for their short dance, a mix of Frank Sinatra and Jay-Z. Their performance set a new record for a short program score at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships. A video of the routine posted to Facebook got more than 8 million views. “Which is a lot for a figure skating video,” says Alex. “Especially in a non-Olympic year,” Maia finishes.
Maia had been just 4 years old when she first started agitating for skating lessons; Alex, hoping to avoid boredom whenever he was dragged along to local Connecticut rinks, soon took up the hobby as well. Their parents, Naomi and Chris, had met at Harvard as members of the student orchestra and retained a deep appreciation for music and performance. By 2003 they had encouraged their kids to skate as a team, indulging in their burgeoning talent by taking them to witness skating competitions like the 2003 World Championships, which was held in Washington, D.C. There, Alex and Maia were transfixed by the speed and power of the ice dance teams; Alex could feel gusts of wind from his seat when they skated past.
In 2005, as the Shibutanis’ talent became apparent, the family relocated from Connecticut to Colorado Springs to enable Alex and Maia to train with top coaches. (Chris, who had begun his career as an anesthesiologist before switching to finance, flew back and forth weekly from Colorado to his job on the East Coast, and living that frequent flier life had its pluses and minuses: There was “something wonderful and pathetic,” he told Time in 2014, “about being recognized at JetBlue, Starbucks, and the rental car agency.”) Two years later, the Shibutanis moved again—this time up to Michigan, outside of Detroit, to work with Zoueva and her former coaching partner Igor Shpilband. Never having worked with a Russian coach before, they had trouble understanding her accent the first time they spoke by phone but were too timid to say so. “We hung up the phone,” Alex says, “and we were like, ‘We don’t know what time we’re supposed to be at the rink.’”
“We showed up really early,” says Maia. (“We just showed up really early,” echoes Alex.) That was more than a decade ago, and the Shibutanis have been working with Zoueva in Canton, Michigan, ever since. When I ask her to describe each of the skaters separately, Zoueva goes quiet, then laughs. “It’s hard for me to think of them, like, separated,” she says. “If you ask me about, like, ‘What is Maia? What is Alex?’ I picture Maia with Alex beside. I can’t picture them separate. Seriously, I don’t know.” Zoueva’s history in the figure skating world extends past ice dance and across oceans: In the 1980s, she famously worked with the beautiful, doomed pairs skating team Sergei Grinkov and Ekaterina Gordeeva, whose work combined the big jumps of traditional figure skating with the artistry and elegance of ice dance.
“She’s brilliant,” says Sandra Bezic, a former CBC and NBC commentator and a longtime choreographer who designed routines for skaters ranging from Tara Lipinski to Katarina Witt, speaking by phone from Toronto. “She’s brilliant. If she had done nothing else other than Gordeeva and Grinkov, she’d still go down as one of the greatest. Everything is always sophisticated, and rich, and passionate.” The talented lovers won two gold medals with their breathtaking chemistry and memorable routines—in one, Zoueva had them mimic poses from famous Rodin sculptures—married and had a daughter together. They were practicing in Lake Placid in 1995 when Grinkov’s heart stopped (due to a genetic abnormality that came to be known as the “Grinkov risk factor”) and he died at age 28. When Gordeeva performed a special solo routine in tribute to her late husband, that was choreographed by Zoueva, too.
In Sochi, she coached both the gold and silver medalist ice dance teams, switching back and forth between Team USA and Team Canada warm-up jackets as she watched their performances. Her influence isn’t limited to ice dance; she currently also coaches Nathan Chen, the United States’ top men’s figure skating medal contender, whose routine includes five quad jumps. (Zoueva’s days are long and jam-packed; she says she unwinds by watching shows like The Crown. “First of all, you enjoy the creativity, like normal,” she explains. “But I feel like I get lesson; I get educated. I can’t waste time in my life—that’s probably good and bad.”) But her longtime love for ballet and artwork are particularly well-suited for ice dance. “She’s an artistic genius,” says Davis, “and I don’t think that’s hyperbolic to say.”
But Zoueva also understands when to cede input to others, whether it be the Shibutanis themselves or the various people they sought out to collaborate with as they were designing their latest programs. “There’s no ego,” says Alex. “Last spring and summer,” Maia adds, “we spent a substantial amount of time in Los Angeles, working with dancers, working on our music. And we weren’t in touch with her, but she trusts us. And every time we’d come back from working with someone, she sees that growth and it’s exciting for her.”
For the Shibutanis, even while working with a mind like Zoueva, they have never had an obvious blueprint to follow when it comes to being a sibling ice dance pair. One of the most frequent reactions by viewers when they watch ice dancers is: “Are they dating?” which speaks to the inherent romantic drama baked into so many top performances. (The answer is sometimes yes, as in the case of the Pyeongchang-bound American team of Madison Chock and Evan Bates, but often no, as with Davis and White.) The Shibutanis don’t have the option of using that trope to their advantage. And as Alex notes, their Japanese descent also differentiates them in a discipline not typically known for its diversity.
“Ice dance has a really rich history in Eastern Europe and Western Europe,” Alex says. “Seeing a team that looks like Maia and myself, it’s a rarity, let alone the fact that we are siblings. And it’s like trying to win Best Picture at the Academy Awards: How are they supposed to select? It’s judges, it’s voted on. They’re comparing a war motion picture versus a romantic comedy. It’s just apples and oranges. So, how can we make our apple, that is so unique and different from everyone else in the world, stand out? And that was the call that we made in 2015-16 with ‘Fix You.’”
Figure skating can be an eye-rollingly derivative sport; one of the first things I noticed when I sat in a press box at a figure skating event was how the more seasoned journalists rolled their eyes and audibly scoffed at certain pieces of music (Romeo and Juliet, Carmen, anything from Les Misérables) that they’d heard performed again and again and again over the years. “Pieces of music and choreography have been done a lot before,” says Zoueva. “I don’t want to even say specifics, but I can say for sure, basically all of them, no matter who—it has been done. But Maia and Alex—they created music for them. They created such a unique idea, such unique music.”
Skating to “Fix You” (with a little bit of “The Scientist” mixed in by Alex, who does a lot of the musical compositions for the team) was meaningful in several ways to the Shibutanis. The lyrics spoke to what they considered to be their situation: “High up above or down below / When you’re too in love to let it go / If you never try you’ll never know / Just what you’re worth.” And the undulating, escalating crescendos in the back half of the song provided the perfect setting for the highlight of any Shibutani routine: Yep, those twizzles. Required elements in an ice dance performance, twizzles are seamless spins, in unison, across the ice. The Shibutanis are so good at them, though, that they become not just the punctuation of a routine, but the underlying language.
“Some teams might do nine twizzles total,” says Alex, “but I think in our [current] short dance we do 19.”
“It’s about us pushing boundaries,” Maia says, “not just to fulfill the technical requirement, but to really take into consideration where it goes into the program and what it does for our energy.”
As the second half of the 2015-16 season ramped up, Alex and Maia started getting standing ovations for their free dance. They also started winning medals again: At U.S. nationals that season, they came from behind following the short dance to earn their first gold medal on the strength of their “Fix You” free skate. At Four Continents, they won another gold. And at worlds, they took silver—the first time a team had returned to a worlds podium after a five-year absence.
Going into this Olympic season, when the ISU selected Latin music and movement as the required genre for the short programs, the Shibutanis knew they had a challenge: how to stand out without resorting to the kind of sexy, seductive program chosen by many other ice dance teams to go with this style of dance in particular.
To do so, they spent time in Los Angeles working with professional Latin-style dancers and sought advice from Derek and Julianne Hough, the dancers featured on Dancing With the Stars who also tour in a brother-sister act. “When we were younger, we would see them and think, ‘Oh, OK, America’s good with this, and they’re siblings,’” Alex says. “We knew with Latin this year, that would be more of an intense challenge. Because it can be scandalous, just the pop culture notion of Latin dance is sexy and sizzling and whatever words you want to throw on it.”
Derek reminded the siblings that in addition to collaborating with his sister, he’s also often paired up on Dancing With the Stars with partners who may be much older or younger than him. “A piece of advice that I gave the siblings,” Hough says via email, “was that for me, dancing with a sister of my own, and dancing certain dances like the rhumba which is known for being a romantic type of dance—for me, it was about defining the different meanings of love. When I’d be dancing with my sister, it would be very playful, very joyful, we just have a lot of fun together and therefore it wouldn’t be uncomfortable, it wouldn’t be awkward, it wouldn’t be weird. Being family members gives you strength, and gives you beautiful connections when you’re dancing together.”
“We left that conversation really confident,” says Maia. “We’ve done Latin before, in 2012, and that was a really successful program for us at the time.”
“But it was ‘cute kids,’ kind of,” says Alex.
“It was ‘cute kids,’” Maia says. “We knew that this time around, we wanted it to be really dynamic and entertaining and exciting.” At this year’s U.S. Figure Skating Championships, the Shibutanis’ short dance was exactly that: emphasizing the fun, go-salsa-dancing-with-your-friends elements of the genre rather than trying to recreate The Forbidden Dance. “We’ve heard feedback from very important officials and fans of the sport that it’s the best short dance of the season,” says Alex. The siblings led all teams going into the final day.
During the free dance, however—set to another Coldplay song, “Paradise,” which the Shibutanis see as a culmination of a three-year creative arc that began with “Fix You”—Maia slipped ever-so-slightly on an edge during a step sequence, a miscue that cost them about a point and a half; ultimately, they finished second to Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue, by .19 of a point. It was a bitter outcome for the Shibutanis, and a reminder that at the Olympics, their competition won’t just come from international front-runners Virtue and Moir and the French team of Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron—it’ll also come from inside the USA House.
But to hear Zoueva tell it, the minor setback at nationals was in some ways a good thing: The Shibutanis don’t want to actually “reach paradise,” she says, until they are performing for an Olympic medal. And the siblings insist that they have always been able to treat these sorts of setbacks like check marks, that there’s an advantage in having been there and done that, that the ups and downs of their career actually make them less nervous and less vulnerable, that their lived experience is what turns unknowns into knowns.
For most skaters, something like an 11th-hour messed-up skate blade, like the one Alex suffered a year ago in the Olympic building, is a worst-case scenario. For the Shibutanis, “it’s now something that we don’t have to worry about,” says Alex, “because it’s happened. I don’t worry about my blades anymore.” A whole lot has happened for the Shibutanis over the course of the 14 years they’ve been competing together, from breakout successes to frustrating showings. They’ve skated in Moscow and Shanghai, Vantaa and Bratislava. Their meticulously crafted programs have gone viral; Nancy Kerrigan has clowned on their height. The only territory that remains unfamiliar to them is the topography of an Olympic podium. And as always, they’re eager to start learning those steps.