GANGNEUNG, South Korea—It was all over now: the performance, the scoring and all the whispers. Louder than whispers, really. Alex and Maia Shibutani had been told no so many times that maybe their biggest achievement was not even winning the bronze medal in ice dancing. It was believing that they could.
There were doubts, right up to the end. They are siblings in an event in which romantic tension often pays off on the scoreboard. So many of the other skating pairs on the ice Tuesday night looked like they couldn’t wait to undress each other. Canada’s Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir, the gold medalists, filled their free skate with their usual sexual tension. So did Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue of the U.S.
The Shibutanis had been told for years that being siblings would cost them—that judges favored romantic chemistry over common genetics. Alex said their short program in Korea was “our strongest skate of the season, and our strongest skate should get more points.” But it was later that night, with nobody watching, that Alex and Maia Shibutani were rewarded for their faith.
“Maia did this really awesome thing where she just pulled out her computer,” Alex said, describing the events of the night before. “And we started watching these old family videos that we had of us when we were little kids, off the ice, dancing around together and having a good time.…”
His voice caught. He was fighting back tears. Next to him, Maia wasn’t fighting anything back: the tears dripped down her cheeks, two decades in the making.
“Uh …” Alex said, trying to continue.
Was this the Shibutanis? Really? Usually, they are so smooth and so composed that it can be hard to elicit genuine emotions from them. Usually, they don’t want you to know that ice dancing can be physically painful, or that they push each other so hard that they fight with each other, or that ….
“Uh …” Alex said again.
Usually, they choose their words carefully, so nobody thinks they are complaining. Usually, they want you to think that they are just happy to be there, and that they aren’t too concerned with medals.
“It’s been such an amazing …” Alex said.
But usually, they have not just reached the podium at the Olympic Games.
“Our life together has been so amazing,” he said. “We are so lucky to have amazing parents.”
They had been right all along. Their way was right. No, it didn’t bring them a gold medal. But it brought them bronze, and more to the point: It was right for them. They took the ice in South Korea knowing, as well as anybody can know anything, that they were skating with the person they trusted the most. And who can put a value on that?
Earlier, Hubbell and Donohue had started their dance with medal hopes and ended it with none. Ice dancing demands a level of precision that you rarely see in other sports, and afterward Hubbell said, “We both had a little bit of a moment mentally.” Their twizzles were off. Then Donohue slipped for reasons he still didn’t understand: “I have no idea.… It’s not something that ever happens in practice.” He said he never felt totally sure of himself this week. Maybe it was the rink. Maybe it was the Olympics.
The other U.S. medal contenders, Madison Chock and Evan Bates took a tumble and couldn’t explain why either. Blades clicked against each other, and they were down: “Just in a flash, disaster struck,” Bates said. “There is no other way to put it.”
Chock wiped away tears talking to the media while the Shibutanis’ were skating nearby. The Shibutanis were not worried about the rink, or the Olympics, or disaster striking. They were at peace. They knew their best performance would probably not get the score they wanted. But at least they were confident they would give their best performance.
“The reason we can put together four skates (including two in the team event) is because of the adversity that we dance around,” Alex said. “You can’t control the marks in this sport. We’ve had a lot of results where we haven’t been satisfied or we’ve been told that we should be receiving more.”
Alex has a quick wit (and a broadcasting career ahead of him if he wants one) and he flashed it when he explained why he had partnered with his sister when he was a teenager: “I thought: ‘I’ll be more successful skating with her than I will be by myself. It’s not going too hot right now.’ I was competing against Adam Rippon, and he was crushing me. I was like, ‘I’ve gotta get out of this situation.’”
Maia, the younger and more reserved Shibutani, said simply that she thought skating with Alex would be “way more fun.” But in skating circles, people whispered that Maia should have found a different partner.
The Shibutanis heard those whispers. Alex says, “There’s a point where people are like, ‘When the cuteness fades, and it’s awesome seeing them have fun on the ice, what is the real ceiling on their career?’” He knew why they said it: “We saw teams before us that were siblings that got stopped for one reason or the other.” The Shibutanis are the first siblings to win an Olympic medal in ice dancing since Isabelle and Paul Duchesnay of France won silver in 1992.
The Shibutanis apparently never considered a split. Where others saw a ceiling, they saw a foundation. Says Alex, “The family bond that we have with each other is a strength that no other team in this event has.” Maybe Maia or Alex could have won gold with a different partner. But that would not mean as much to them as winning bronze together.