NEW YORK -- When host Carl Lewis interviewed AAU Sullivan Award finalists Maia Shibutani and Alex Shibutani at the award presentation at the New York Athletic Club last week, the siblings kept the track and field legend up on his comedic toes.
Seeking common ground, Lewis said, “I have a sister (Carol) who is two years younger than me.”
“So you feel my pain,” deadpanned Alex without missing a beat.
That’s just a flash of the light-hearted, self-deprecating side of Alex that legions of ice dance fans know well from the siblings’ blogs, Instagram accounts and other social media.
The slightly less voluble, but equally engaging Maia regularly reveals her humor and quirks on their “ShibSibs” vlogs, featured on their own YouTube channel. A recent entry had her running through shoe and wardrobe choices for a trip to the Academy Awards.
“(Social media) allows us to be creative and connect with people, and it’s very fun in that aspect,” Maia said.
Then, as usual, another side of the siblings — in this case, Alex’s thoughtful, analytic nature — kicks in.
“At a certain point, it’s a responsibility,” he said. “Social media is no longer just fun, it’s a lot of work to do well and connect to people in a real way. Doing it in a way that resonates takes a lot of time.”
There’s a lot of angst among Shibutani fans in the Twitterverse and figure skating fan boards these days. A few weeks after winning team and individual ice dance bronze medals at the Olympic Winter Games PyeongChang 2018, the siblings announced that after eight years of international senior competition, they would sit out the 2018-19 competitive season. They also did not compete at the 2018 World Figure Skating Championships.
A season without the siblings’ creative music edits, perfectly-balanced lifts or quicksilver, perfect twizzles? Cry emoticons abounded.
“The decision really started with realizing after the Olympics that we’ve been working so hard for so long, we really want to enjoy the moment and not just rush right through it,” Maia said, adding, “And we’re going to be very busy.”
They already are. The Stars on Ice tour, headlined by Olympic champions Meryl Davis and Charlie White and world champion Nathan Chen and starring a cast of Olympians, has 22 stops around the country. Maia and Alex will also perform in Japan in June, and say that’s only the start.
It’s a big switch from recent years, when their intense focus on preparing competitive programs led them to turn down a lot of show offers.
“We’ll keep doing shows, and we’ll be working on programs for shows,” Alex said. “Obviously Stars on Ice and the shows beyond are an incredible opportunity to be able to skate for people live who were supporting us throughout this process.”
There are other opportunities in the offing they’re not ready to discuss yet. Represented by IMG for figure skating, they recently also signed with United Talent Agency (UTA) for entertainment-based vehicles.
“(UTA) will be helping us with social media and other things that come along because of the recent success,” Alex said.
Another reason for the hiatus is simple lack of time. The siblings typically spend several months workshopping program ideas and choreography with their coaches Marina Zoueva and Massimo Scali, as well as figure skating and dance friends around the world, and exploring music choices with members of the Los Angeles music scene.
“The amount of momentum we’ve built creatively we felt very strongly we weren’t going to be able to accomplish,” Alex said. “Our creative process begins in December, and with the Olympics being such a huge focus for us, it was what we were building towards for this four-year cycle. We committed brainpower, all of our physical and emotional energy, to accomplish what we did at the Games. No thought was put into programs for this coming season.”
“In previous years come December and January, we’re normally balancing, looking ahead to the next season,” Maia said.
The hiatus is also a break for parents Naomi and Chris Shibutani, who were on hand in New York for the Sullivan Awards. Naomi lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan, near where her children train in Canton, while Chris works in Boston as a research analyst covering biotechnology stocks for a prominent investment bank.
“I’ve been commuting for 14 years now,” Chris said, laughing. “The ice dance centers of the world just have no overlap with the biotech/Wall Street centers of the world.”
“It was always the most important thing to us that they do something they really are passionate about, that they really enjoy,” Naomi said. “I think if you really enjoy something, the possibility of doing it really well is much greater.”
There may come a day when the Shibutanis take a break from touring, shows, social media and other opportunities, and return to competition. After all, 2010 Olympic champions and 2014 silver medalists Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir of Canada won a world ice dance title and gold in PyeongChang after taking a two-season break. Other skaters, including 2018 Olympic pairs champion Aliona Savchenko of Germany and Italy’s Carolina Kostner, are still competing — and winning medals — in their 30s.
“Tessa and Scott have re-written what is possible, and it’s not just in ice dance,” Alex said. “You see Carolina, you see a lot of great skaters that show it is possible. Aliona, how many Olympics has she been to?
“There are no rules any more about how to go about preparing for an Olympics. Every athlete is different and it only makes sense every athlete should be able to find success in their own way.”