GANGNEUNG, South Korea — There is so much to love about Alex and Maia Shibutani. They are funny, they are skilled, and they are one of the finest ice-dancing pairs in the world. They just have one problem: they are brother and sister.
This shouldn’t matter. The Shibutanis are fabulous skaters and irresistible personalities. But ice dance is different from most Olympic events. The object is not simply to go fastest or farthest. Presentation is an essential part of the sport, and siblings face challenges that the other pairs do not.
Canadians Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir infuse their performances with such sexual energy that they have jokingly referred to one of their moves as “porno.” (They have said they will tone it down slightly for the Olympics.) I think it’s fair to say nobody wants to see siblings try that move.
Another top American couple, Madison Chock and Evan Bates, are madly in love and don’t mind you knowing it. When Bates was asked first meeting Chock, before they started dating, he gushed, “Maddie is unforgettable. I remember being taken with her beauty, even back then, as teenagers.” American skaters Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue dated for more than two years before deciding their partnership would be purely professional.
The Shib Sibs obviously have a different dynamic. That shouldn’t affect the scoring, but it probably does, at least in subtle ways. Ice dancers perform two programs, the short and long, and it is important to show range. The Shibutanis can’t do a risqué program like Virtue and Moir do. It would clearly be received much differently. But if they do two lighter programs, that won’t get them to the podium. The Shibutanis have to show as much range as the other ice dancers, but they have fewer options. It’s like a pitcher trying to strike people out without throwing fastballs.
The Shibutanis are skilled and creative enough to pull off two different skates. But even when they do, they must hope the judges don’t penalize them, even subconsciously, for being siblings.
Ice dancing judges are not Supreme Court justices; they do not publish opinions when they vote. Every skater—sibling or lover, partner or individual—has wondered, at times, what the judges were thinking. At the team event here, where the Americans won bronze, the Shibutanis were clearly unhappy with their score in the short program.
“You never really know what’s going to show up,” says Alex—speaking generally, not about the sibling dynamic. “I thought we had skated our strongest skate of the season and that would have, in my mind, put us on the threshold of 80 (points) and higher. We saw 75. There is always a cautiousness that you have when you’re sitting in the Kiss and Cry.”
The Shibutanis are certainly not the first brother-sister pairing in ice dancing. Madison Hubbell used to compete with her brother Keiffer. Siblings Isabelle and Paul Duchesnay won silver in Albertville in 1992. But it is much more common to see real-life couples on the ice together than siblings.
If the Shibutanis feel penalized for their genetic bond, they don’t say it. But, like many ice dancers, they compete in a strange mental space: they want to win, but they don’t want to measure themselves solely by their scores. Alex says: “We’re not obsessed with what the judges want from us. Doing something for other people has never worked out for us.” But after the Shibutanis helped the U.S. win bronze in the team event, Alex said: “It’s been an amazing journey for us to get to this point, but we’ve also known for a while now that the plan has been to compete in the team event and also bring home a medal in the individual event.”
Their competitiveness sometimes gets lost in their public image. People are accustomed to seeing the Shibutanis as a quirky and delightful pair of social-media stars. Alex jokes that the Shib Sibs’ YouTube channel “was a maniacal plan. We’re just rabid YouTube fans, and we were like, ‘Let’s become figure skaters on the side! And then we’ll meet all of our favorite YouTubers!’”
The truth is that Alex, in particular, is a huge sports fan. He says their interest started with the fact that “we were kind of obsessed with athletes’ storylines and what it took.” After the U.S. won bronze in the team event, he gave all the skaters a little speech.
“I don’t know if it was sports movie-worthy,” he says. “I just wanted to tell them all that I was really proud of them.”
When the team event ended, they all went their separate competitive ways: Adam Rippon and Nathan Chen to the men’s event; Mirai Nagasu and Bradie Tennell to the women’s; Chris Knierim and Alexa Scimeca Knieram to the pairs event; and the Shibutanis to ice dancing. They have been brother and sister for 23 years. Now they must hope judges don’t see them that way.