How the Shib Sibs Make Sibling Ice Dancing Not Creepy
The Olympic bronze medalists on how their brother-sister partnership, by eschewing the romantic chemistry of their competitors, might be changing the sport for the better.
Everything that could go wrong is going wrong.
There’s a “bomb cyclone” outside. The hail is coming down harder than the rain. My train decided to stop between stations for 15 minutes and I’m late.
When I finally reach the lobby of the Sheraton Times Square, Alex Shibutani informs me that his sister is in the hotel room packing. The restaurant where we’re supposed to meet is unexpectedly closed, so we find the last remaining couch in the lobby. I press record on my recorder.
Just as I begin talking, though, a marching band starts, with blowing horns and banging drums in the lobby.
Somehow, Alex Shibutani is focused.
You sometimes wonder how Olympians keep their composure under immense pressure, but in the midst of what could only be described as utter and complete chaos, the two-time bronze medalist is almost hypnotizingly unfazed. “There’s a Big Ten tournament going on, so all the college teams are here,” he says, gesturing to the Times Square lobby that might as well be Grand Central Station at this moment.
The wispy maroon-and-black ombré shirt-blouse-thing that figure skaters wear, which he sported when we last saw him climbing the medal podium the week before in Pyeongchang, has been exchanged for a stylish cropped leather jacket, his hair gently tousled with the casual finesse of a male model. He is the epitome of calm, cool, collected—all composure and all suave—as he answers my innocuous opening question, something I loudly barked about “HAVING FUN IN THIS NEW YORK WEATHER, EH?”
Turns out that’s the kind of temperament that gets an athlete to the big time. Who knew?
Alex, who is 26, and his younger sister Maia, 23 and with preternatural poise when she joins us 15 minutes later, are two of the breakout stars of what may have been the 2018 Winter Olympics’ breakout sport: ice dancing.
Figure skating, of course, has always been a reliable star factory for Team USA. This year, sassy cherub Adam Rippon, pioneering force of nature Mirai Nagasu, and Lord of the Quad Nathan Chen certainly shone reliably bright from Korea. But the discipline that’s steadily grown in popularity over the last handful of Olympic Games is the unusual sport of ice dancing, in which partners samba, spin, and twizzle across the ice, like ballroom on blades.
The marquee faces of the sport captured our attention for two very different reasons. There was the palpable horniness of the electrifying pair from Canada, Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir, winning the gold medal and sending the world to cold showers. And then there’s the wholesome grace of Alex and Maia Shibutani, siblings who, after winning two bronzes in Pyeongchang, are only the second brother-sister pair to ever medal at the Olympics. As such, they’ve had to forge a unique path to success by, for obvious reasons of creepiness, eschewing the traditional romanticism of the sport and its love-themed choreography.
Even casual figure skating fans know the sport is nothing if not steeped in its tradition. Turns out it takes an inordinate amount and determination from young siblings to change the way the sport is viewed. Even several weeks after the Olympics have ended, we’re all still Shibustanning.
Alex doesn’t remember when people started referring to Maia and him as “the Shib Sibs,” a moniker tossed off with alliterate glee from NBC’s Olympic commentators and handily hashtagged on social media. They certainly didn’t coin it themselves, but now they’ve adopted it as the handle for their @ShibSibs YouTube channel, which has 147,000 subscribers and turned them into bonafide social media stars before the Olympics even began. As it stands, the siblings have a healthy rivalry for the most followers on their individual Twitter and Instagram accounts. (Right now Maia has the edge on Instagram, while Alex is ahead on Twitter.)
“We’ve been referred to more as ‘the Shib Sibs’ than ‘Maia and Alex,’” Alex laughs. Has that triggered any sort of identity crisis? Does he ever wish he could stand on his own? Am I about to get the deep, dark psychological scoop on the Shibutani siblings? “I just feel like it’s only maybe during this period of time after the Olympics when people are grouping us together,” he chuckles. Calm, cool, collected … and pragmatic: “I don’t feel like I have an identity crisis.”
It’s the thing that has made them such outliers in their sport that has made them the most relatable athletes: Almost everyone can relate to a sibling dynamic.
The Shibutanis started skating individually when Alex was seven and Maia was four. It was after attending the 2003 World Championships in Washington, D.C., and witnessing first hand, as Alex has put it, “the gust of wind as the skaters flew by” when the ice dancing competition started that the wheels started turning. Alex was 13 and Maia was ten when they realized they could make headway in the sport by just looking to the other side of the family sofa.
“People are interested in the fact that we work together so closely,” Alex says. “Like ‘I have a brother, I have a sister. How do you do that?’ How do you manage the intensity of training with someone you’re so close to? Is that a positive or a negative?’ That’s the overwhelming question we get the most.”
They argue. Duh. But they are so aligned in their goals and dedicated to their training that they’re able to compartmentalize and communicate. “Like when we were younger people would ask if we fought, and we were like, ‘No…’ But not anymore,” he says. “It’s not realistic.”
They’re like the next Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen, I suggest. “Right—or I guess the Hadids,” he counters, gently age-shaming my pop-culture references.
There have been obvious advantages to their sibling partnership, like ease in synching schedules, a built-in shorthand and emotional closeness, a necessity to solve conflicts swiftly (both for the family and the partnership’s sake), as well as a parallel training journey: Their skills and coaching evolved together.
But then there are the red flags, the ones people have become snarkily obsessed with.
There’s an emotional intensity to ice dancing, as skaters glide across the ice in close-hold, almost exclusively to love songs. The Best of the Best, like the aforementioned Virtue and Moir, are exalted for a chemistry so believable the world is actively annoyed that they aren’t twizzling in the bedroom, too. Are the Shib Sibs limited by not being able to inject their programs with romance? Is it even fair that they get off not having to produce an intense romantic chemistry? Or, not be gross, is it still a little ... icky to see them skating together?
These are not new questions. The Shibutanis are armed with defenses to all of them, and even see themselves as trailblazers in the sport because of their unique dynamic.
“Maybe it’s extra work, or it’s seen as a disadvantage in a sport that has kind of a reputation for being more romantic and dramatic,” Alex says. “And obviously once every four years ice dance is characterized by the media for being more emotionally dramatic than, say, bobsledding.”
But he thinks they’re doing the sport a service by succeeding with a different perspective. Maybe it’s because he and Maia will be hopping a plane to attend the Vanity Fair Oscars party right after our interview, or maybe it’s because, as it becomes clear over our conversation, he’s a bit of cinephile, Alex analogizes their dynamic to movies.
“No one really likes to watch the same thing over and over again, whether it’s a movie or a skating program,” he says. “Because we have to think outside the box and that’s seen by other people as a disadvantage, I think it ends up being truly an advantage because it’s pushed us to really figure out who we are and what we want to say.” Because falling back on the tried-and-true ice dancing cliché would be...—he cuts me off: “Inappropriate.”
It’s at this point that Maia breezes in, having finished packing in the hotel room. She fusses with the sleeves on her chic navy blazer, and nods in earnest agreement as Alex recaps her on what we’ve been talking about. “Since we became Olympians in 2014, I feel like that first Olympic experience completely changed and matured us and gave us much more perspective on what our skating could possibly do not only for ourselves but also impact other people,” she says.
We talk a bit about their education. They together made the decision to pause their college education after the 2014 Games to focus on the sport. They begin to explain why they’ve embraced social media, and the answer makes complete sense, given the press’s fascination with their relationship: it allows them to tell their story how they want to.
They become practically giddy when I ask who they hope to see at the Vanity Fair party Sunday night. She loves Saoirse Ronan. He gushes about Steven Spielberg—he watched the HBO documentary about him on the plane to Pyeongchang—Greta Gerwig, and Jordan Peele.
(Mission accomplished: an Instagram from the party shows the Shibutanis trading hardware with Peele, who’s showing off their medals while they clutch his Oscar.)
I cheekily ask: Since they’re sibling partners and therefore completely spared any gossip about any romantic nature to their relationship, do they have any interesting perspective on all the “shipping” of Virtue and Moir, an obsession over their coupling that became its own Olympic phenomenon?
“I guess it’s not a surprising phenomenon to us, just because we’ve known them for so long. The skating world has always debated whether or not they were,” Alex says, with Maia chiming in: “It’s basically like, now the Olympic audience discovered it.”
Alex makes another movie comparison: “You see a movie, and everyone wonders on the press tour, are the co-stars dating? Because they were so love in the movie. How does that not filter in real life. But they aren’t dating in real life. It’s a testament to the way they perform.”
The way they tell stories should be familiar to anyone who has, or has been around, close siblings. The excitement and speed of speech escalates, until eventually they’re finishing each other sentences, or even just talking over each other. They’ve been inseparable, and not necessarily by choice, for the last months. Yet they’re not weathered by it, but closer for it.
There’s a story that still makes us teary even though we’ve heard the Shibutanis tell it so many times. Before their final of four skates at the Olympics (two in the team competition, two in the ice dancing competition), they were one of a half-dozen or so pairs within hundredths of points of medal contention. Maia had uploaded a home video to her computer that she had originally planned to give to NBC to use in human interest packages, but ultimately decide to save just for them, to show watch together before their final skate.
The video was of their parents bringing Maia home from the hospital to meet Alex for the first time. Minutes later, they were on the ice skating to Coldplay’s “Paradise,” solidifying their second bronze medal.
“I’m very confident that we’re not going to be skaters forever,” Alex says when I ask about what’s next. “There’s an athlete’s life time table, so to speak. So we’re going to be able to take these skills into whatever we want to do next.”
“We realize like Alex said that in order to reach the elite level of our sport we’ve had to become really well-rounded and that’s why we’re so grateful that we’re a great team,” Maia adds. “We have different strengths, but together we’re able to push each other to be our very best.”