Sister-brother Olympic ice dancing? For the Shibutanis, it's all in the family

Dan Wetzel

GANGNEUNG, South Korea – Alex and Maia Shibutani, like most twentysomethings, are extremely active on social media.

For the most part, they interact with fans of the brother-sister ice dancing pair, who enter Tuesday’s long dance in fourth place, just 0.02 behind fellow Americans Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue, who are in third. Canada’s Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir and France’s Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron are 1-2, respectively. A medal is possible for the Shibutanis.

The response from fans, the Shibutanis say, is overwhelmingly positive but the fans do, at times, descend into something between curious and confrontational on one subject.

Why do you dance with your sister/brother? In an event that generally requires the participants to feign romance, isn’t that a bit awkward? While only a few dance teams are actual couples – almost everyone is acting – isn’t that more difficult with a sibling? Alex is 26. Maia is 23.

The response is simple: This is about family. You either understand, or you don’t. They aren’t changing. It’s about performing with family, and chasing dreams with family, and succeeding with family. It’s about them, but also their two parents, Chris and Naomi, who, as Alex notes, “supported two Olympians.”

“I think every Olympian wants to share the experience with their family,” Maia said. “But we are actually getting to do this together every step of the way.”

Alex Shibutani (left) and Maia Shibutani of the United States ranked fourth after the short dance competition. (AP)

If that doesn’t satisfy the people who question a brother and a sister dancing together, then so be it.

“Trolls have families,” Alex said with a laugh.

“The people who don’t understand, they have families, too,” Maia said. “I just think it is so special that I can enjoy this with my sibling and I think if they were in our shoes hopefully they would enjoy it too. But who knows?”

That doesn’t mean there aren’t challenges. Ice dancing isn’t just about the athletic ability needed to hit all of the technical aspects the judges require.

There’s a story to tell and it’s almost always about love. One American team, Madison Chock and Evan Bates, is dating. Another, Hubbell and Donohue, used to be a couple.

Selling romance is so paramount that at the 2014 Olympics, gold medalist Charlie White tried to hide his off-ice relationship with retired ice dancer Tanith Belbin so judges would still believe he was pining for his partner, Meryl Davis. (White retired after Sochi, and he and Belbin are now married.)

On the ice, dancers stare into each other’s eyes. They hold each other suggestively. They exude sex appeal – outfits here Monday included bare midriffs, plunging necklines and even a halter top that came off (accidentally).

Sex sells, and the Shibutanis obviously can’t sell it. Even subconsciously, the judges might react unfavorably. They have to survive on incredibly clean and precise performances, and even then they rarely get the score they feel they deserve.

On Monday, they thought they might crack 80. They wound up with 77.73.

“Have you been watching our career?” Alex said when asked if he was surprised. “It was an amazing skate. It was the best skate of our season so far. And it was awesome to do it on Olympic ice.”

“Every single second we were out there, it felt like we were owning it,” Maia said.

The Shibutanis shrug. They know what they are dealing with. They aim to overcome it anyway. The ShibSibs, as they are known on social media, have skated together nearly their entire careers. They’ll overcome the obstacles, together.

Maia Shibutani and Alex Shibutani perform during the ice-dance, short-dance event at Gangneung Ice Arena. (AP)

There are benefits, though. The two know nearly everything about the other. And when they argue, as all siblings will, there is a base of family they know will bring them back. It might be healthy in a team activity like ice dancing to be able to express yourself freely.

“We fight now, we won’t sugarcoat it,” Alex said. “We are both athletes who are working to do the very best we can do. In the NBA, do teams fight? Sure. You are going to have some disagreement. But it is our dedication, and we persevere through those moments.”

They each point to their parents, who raised a close-knit group. They were musicians who met at Harvard and have moved around the country in search of training opportunities, coaching and competition for their children. After Monday’s skate, the kids’ first goal was getting a chance to text their mom and dad.

“They are so proud and we’re so proud to be here with them because our family together has worked so hard for this,” Alex said. “They raised us in a way where we know how to take care of each other.”

They aren’t the first brother-sister tandem in ice dancing. It isn’t even all that rare. At the 1992 Games, Paul and Isabelle Duchesnay won bronze for France. Hubbell used to skate with her brother. She moved on.

The Shibutanis will not move on. They are in this together. They are bright, clean-cut and fun. Alex loves the NBA. Maia offers make-up tips on YouTube. They look and act like pretty much any other people their age living in Ann Arbor, Michigan – other than the world-class athlete part.

If doing this together doesn’t make sense to some people, let alone the Olympic judges, so be it. The Shibutanis came here to podium, and it’s right there for the taking. They performed great here three times, including twice in the team skate competition where they helped the United States secure bronze. It’s made them extremely confident.

“That is Olympic ice and that’s pressure,” Maia said. “And we handled it.”

If they don’t medal, they’ll keep being themselves and enjoying the fans who understand them perfectly.

“We care much more about that than the negativity,” Alex said. “Even if we do hear the negativity, we know better.”

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