Figure skating is front and center once again at the 2018 Winter Olympic Games, and the excitement for the chicest Olympic sport has only been compounded by I,Tonya’s Oscar spree, racking up nominations for Best Actress (Margot Robbie), Best Supporting Actress (Alison Janney), and Best Film Editing. So you may want to get to know ice dance champions Maia and Alex Shibutani, the brother-and-sister ice dancing duo competing for Team USA in PyeongChang, South Korea.
We caught up with the athletes while they were in NYC to unveil Ralph Lauren’s Team USA Olympic uniforms. As Maia, 23, and Alex, 26, gear up for their second Olympic Games, we got the inside scoop on the siblings' training schedule, podium goals, and what it’s like to hang out in the Olympic village.
VIDEO: Meet Olympian Alex Shibutani
What's changed in your day-to-day life since you spot on Team USA was confirmed?
Maia Shibutani: A lot of our training has stayed the same, but we feel like we’ve leveled-up. I really think we’re peaking at the right time for the Olympics.
Can you describe the moment you found out you were going to your second Olympic games?
Alex Shibutani: I think it definitely wasn’t the same experience as finding out we were going to our first Olympic games because, at that point, it felt like everything we had done from the second we put on skates was building up to that moment. But I felt proud, honored, and this feeling like there’s still work to be done. The goal wasn’t qualifying for the Olympic team; the goal is wining a medal and skating our best at the Games.
You'll be competing in two programs: short dance and free dance. What will your short dance choreography be like?
AS: For the short dance, there’s a pre-determined style that all the teams have to adhere to. That style this year is Latin rhythms. So you’ve got your Cha-Chas, Mambos, Sambas, Meringues. We selected songs from Pérez Prado, which has that classic, kind of cool vibe to it.
MS: And the rhythms we’re doing are Mambo, Cha-Cha, and Samba. So it’s very high-energy and dynamic. It’s been a lot of fun for us to perform it all around the world for the past few months.
What makes your performance stand out?
AS: I think the way that we’ve arranged it and mixed it gives it more of that modern sensibility. And we just have fun being ourselves in our performance.
And for your free dance, you’re skating to Coldplay’s “Paradise.” Why did you chose that piece?
AS: I think people at home have a certain expectation for when they turn on the television and watch figure skating: that it’s going to be all “old music.” Skating to Coldplay is a twist on what people expect. And we love Coldplay’s music because it’s about following your dreams. You know, we’ve been skating together for 14 years. We’ve been working our entire career for that special Olympic moment. So, for us, skating to “Paradise” in these Games follows the idea that we want to be in our own paradise in Pyeongchang.
As siblings, you’ve been teammates in one way or another for your whole lives. Does it every get annoying to spend so much time together?
AS: I think people always assume that it’s a negative thing. And it is a challenge being so close to someone, knowing so much about that person, and trying to figure out how to work together. But I don’t think that’s isolated to sibling relationships. It’s like any professional or family relationship. You have to know how to work with someone in close proximity. We actually find it a huge strength of ours that we are so close and our communication is good. We know that we can count on each other in any situation. And no argument gets in the way of our partnership because we know that we’re stuck together. We’re family, and that’s the special bond that gives us an edge.
How do the Olympics differ from the other major competitions you’ve been to?
AS: We’ll be there for two and a half weeks, which is a longer period of time than usual. There’s more media. The rings are everywhere. And just having that feeling of the world watching is special. There’s a lot of stimulus. For example, you’re wearing new clothes. It’s not like another competition where you bring your favorite shirt to wear. There are things you have to adjust to. But I think if you roll with the punches and embrace that feeling of being a part of something much bigger than yourself, then you can really use that energy to your advantage in competition.
What is the Olympic village like?
MS: There’s a lot of energy all the time because there are 14 other sports, and there are people that you don’t normally see even from Team USA. I think generally speaking, it’s a very inspiring environment.
Is there a competitive atmosphere?
AS: It depends on the sport and the person. I mean, we’re going to be staying in apartments with other members of the skating team. And the whole time you’re meeting other athletes from different sports from other countries, and that’s nice.
Do you have a pump-up playlist for practice sessions?
AS: We’re heavy on Spotify playlists. We’re into people telling us what we should listen to. But we’re not really stiffs when it comes to our training music taste. If Selena Gomez is playing, that’s cool. If it’s more of a Guns ‘N Roses jock jams thing, that’s fine, too. Because so much of our attention on a day-to-day basis is geared towards being prepared to compete and perform, we have to be able to go with the flow. It would be pretty lame if you’re at the Olympics and they’re playing something in Arena, and you’re like, 'Ugh I hate this song, it’s ruining the moment.'
You guys are really active on social media. Why is that important to you?
AS: We do it all ourselves, which is a lot of work. But we grew up in the era of social media. We understand the power of the Internet and we’re grateful that we have a really supportive worldwide fanbase. And also, in ice dancing, there isn’t much history of Asian teams competing. I think being able to continue and expand the popularity of your sport is the role of any athlete.
Why do you think there's so much public interest in ice dance specifically right now?
MS: It's really special to see movement happening that looks effortless and magical at a very elite level. That’s the initial draw. But right now it’s really athletic. Balancing being elite athletes while being creative performers is what drives us to be our best. And we have that global audience; we’re looking forward to bringing in new fans to the sport.
How did you get started in skating?
AS: Maia knew figure skating was what she wanted to do right away as a kid. Me, I thought I’d be playing basketball. But I got taken to the rink to watch—or not to watch; I got taken to the rink to wait for her lessons because it’s just the two of us. And I was really bored. So I just got out there.
MS: I thought I’d be at the Olympics by myself. But it was a lot of fun to work together. Then positive results just came so quickly.
What's your best advice for Olympic athletes in the making?
MS: Our main coach always tells us to enjoy the moment. She offers such god perspective about remembering why you’re working so hard.
AS: Sometimes it’s easy to burrow your head back into the working process and over-analyze how to make things better. That’s what I think a real athlete and competitor does. But she’s always been good about making sure that we take a second to stop and realize what we’ve accomplished.