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Shibutanis defy the unwritten laws of ice dance in winning Olympic bronze

Dan Wetzel
Columnist

GANGNEUNG, South Korea — They had been told they could never win an Olympic ice dancing medal, not competing as a sister and brother. They had been told to get new partners. They’d been asked if it was weird or awkward to compete in a discipline that often boils down to selling judges on a story of romance or sensuality between the dancers.

When you are sister and brother, as Maia and Alex Shibutani are, that is a story that not only can’t be told, but judges may hold your very presence together against you, no matter how precise the technical skating.

“Because traditional ice dance is a romantic thing,” their coach Marina Zoueva said. “A big part of the performance is romantic.”

“You stand out when you are different,” Alex said. “Two Asian kids that are also brother and sisters. When the cuteness fades, what is the real ceiling of their career? Is there a point when they can no longer be successful?”

They were told there was a limit. They were told it was all impossible. They were told, well, the Shibutanis were told a lot of things. They didn’t listen to what they were told.

Tuesday here, Alex, 26, and Maia, 23, won bronze in the ice dancing competition. The Shib Sibs add that to a bronze won last week for the United States in the team skate. They leave here not just as success stories, but as a team that did it against almost all known conventional wisdom.

“We persevered,” Alex said.

Growing up in Boston and New York they skated separately. Maia, despite being younger, was first to take lessons. Alex was dragged along by their parents and eventually joined his kid sister on the ice if only out of boredom. When neither’s individual career took off, ice dancing together made sense and was convenient. They were 12 and 9.

Maia Shibutani and Alex Shibutani of the United States perform during the ice dance, free dance figure skating final in the Gangneung Ice Arena at the 2018 Winter Olympics in Gangneung, South Korea. (AP)

“I thought,” Alex said, ” ‘I can be a lot more successful skating with her than by myself. It’s not going so hot right now [competitively]. Maia is really good. I’ll team up with her.’ ”

“And for me,” Maia said, “it was like, ‘Huh, I am having a lot more fun out there with Alex than by myself.’ ”

There are lots of sister-brother ice dancing teams when kids are young. Eventually almost all split up, though. While the Shibutanis aren’t the first siblings to medal, it hasn’t been done at the Olympics in nearly three decades.

The reasons are obvious. Dancers try to tell stories and they usually revolve around love or lust. Costumes are often racy, with bare midriffs, low necklines and lots of leg. The athletes are all over each other, pawing and preening and looking into each other’s eyes. The music is soaring and meaningful. It’s a big show … with precision moves.

“Romance and passion,” Zoueva said.

Not having that, they believe, often cost them. They thought they skated extremely well in Monday’s short dance, for instance, but wound up fourth. The scores never seemed to match the skate.

The Shibutanis never backed away from each other, though, even as they got older. They saw this as something different, a family pursuit that included the sacrifice and support of their parents. They moved around the country seeking the best training and opportunities, eventually settling in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

“There shouldn’t be just one path,” Maia said.

“I think it is insulting to the discipline of ice dance where it’s just generally grouped into, ‘Oh, it’s romantic’ or, ‘oh, its sensual,'” Alex said. “That’s not fair to ice dance. … We found ice dance and we’re siblings and we are doing it the way we wanted to do it.”

Zoueva kept telling them this was possible, but only if they kept getting better. They would have to overcome what they couldn’t do. First, that meant being technically perfect. Second, it meant finding a way to express a different type of passion, namely a passion for the pursuit of excellence.

“It’s not necessary to have love passion, it’s any passion,” Zoueva said.

That’s not easy. It meant making the story of their dance the story of their lives, not acting out a scene from a movie or a song. Maia, in particular, is naturally shy. Neither was real comfortable laying it all out there. It was necessary, though.

“We knew we had to be more personable, we had to be more ourselves, not characters, not fitting a role, not playing a part,” Alex said. “And that’s a risk that you take. That’s uncomfortable putting yourselves out there like that and knowing you are being judged for …”

” … You,” Maia finished.

At the long dance of the Olympics, it fully came together. Their 114.86 points was fair, they believed. They sprung into third and took another medal. Mainly, though, they proved all the doubters wrong.

Now that you won two medals here, what do you say to them?

“Sorry we did?” Alex said. “I don’t know. It would be easy and cheap to say something kind of redemptive. It’s never been about the other people, it’s been about us.”

“It is a family project,” Zoueva said. ” … We actually broke the wall and opened the window for anyone. Even if you are brother-sister.”

For the actual brother and sister, it was a moment of triumph and a moment of relief and a moment of redemption. To them, this made sense all along. They each teared up after the competition, a long journey against a lot of headwind.

In the end, the Shibutanis stood tall, together.

“We did it our way,” Alex said.

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