GANGNEUNG, South Korea – Maia and Alex Shibutani found their “Paradise” at the Olympic Winter Games PyeongChang 2018, while their fellow Team USA couples endured hell on ice with a fall and a stumble in the free dance.
Skating to the Coldplay song, the Shibutanis won their second bronze medal of the Games, taking third place in ice dance event after skating both segments of the team event last week.
Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue were fourth after a flub, while Madison Chock and Evan Bates had an even bigger mistake, both falling on the entrance to a spin to drop from seventh after the short dance to ninth.
With their team event medal, the Shibutanis became the first ice dancers of Asian descent to medal at the Olympics and can now claim the same for the ice dance event specifically.
They also proved that a brother-and-sister act do have a place in this discipline, flying in the face of those who think it is a dance of romance. The Shibutanis are the only siblings apart from Isabelle and Paul Duchesnay of France, who won the silver medal in 1992, to earn an Olympic medal in ice dance.
“It’s incredibly special and along the way of our career, there have been a lot of people that have told us that maybe we shouldn’t do it or that siblings shouldn’t be a team,” an emotional Maia Shibutani said, “but we believed in ourselves and we accomplished this together and I’m so proud of the work that we’ve done.”
“There are always going to be doubters,” Alex added, “but all I can say right now is we persevered and we did it our way.”
The “Shib Sibs” trailed teammates Hubbell and Donohue by two-hundredths of a point after the short dance and were dismayed that their score was so low for a program they thought they nailed.
They got the scores to match the performance on Tuesday at Gangneung Ice Arena, and were thrilled to garner 114.86 points, just shy of their season best of 115.07.
“On the bus, I started crying on the way over here,” Alex Shibutani said. “It’s just a very emotional day. I’m glad that our training allowed us to focus on what we needed to, but also use the emotion to really lend itself to just the best we’ve ever skated.”
Getting Better And Better
Alex said they improved in each of their four skates as the Games progressed.
“We started out strong in the team event,” he said, “and we continued to grow, just embracing the Olympic energy and pulling from within ourselves.”
But Hubbell and Donohue had yet to skate. The couple, who won their first U.S. title this season, spent a long moment looking into each other’s eyes before taking the ice.
Skating a sultry program to “Across the Sky” and “Caught Out in the Rain,” they were about 15 seconds from the end when Donohue inexplicably stumbled while spinning on his knees.
Hubbell and Donohue scored 109.94 points Tuesday, well off their season best of 113.35 and were shattered to finish fourth.
He had a similar falter at the 2017 World Figure Skating Championships when they were also in third after the short dance.
“Today seemed to get the better of us,” said Hubbell.
It was a good day for their training partners in Montreal, who took the top two steps of the podium.
Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir of Canada won their second gold – and third straight medal – in ice dance. They now have a total of five Olympic medals, including two in the team event, more than any other figure skaters.
They were second in the free dance behind Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron of France, who broke their own world record with a total of 123.35. However, the Canadians had enough of a cushion after the short dance – in which Papadakis was hampered by a wardrobe malfunction – to win 206.07 to 205.28.
The Shibutanis, who were ninth four years ago, finished with 192.59 points while Hubbell and Donohue finished with 187.69.
Team USA has won a medal in ice dance for the fourth straight Olympic Winter Games. Tanith Belbin and Benjamin Agosto won the silver in 2006, then Meryl Davis and Charlie White also claimed silver in 2010 before winning the first American gold in the event in 2014.
Three Couples In Contention
Coming into the Games, the three American couples all had a chance at the podium. Their placements at national and international events moved around like a shell game. For example, Chock and Bates were the 2015 national champs, the Shibutanis won in 2016 and 2017 and Hubbell and Donohue prevailed in 2018, although they were all within .52 points at nationals.
Chock hurt her foot going at the beginning of this season and again aggravated it right before their short dance, and she and Bates fell behind the other two couples.
In the free dance, they were performing a dreamy program to “Imagine” by John Lennon when the unimaginable happened. Their skates clicked going into a spin midway through the four-minute program, and they went down, a rare occurrence in ice dance, which has no jumps.
Chock and Bates, who are also a couple off the ice, got up and finished strong, but the fall cost them. They were 12th in the free dance with 100.13 points.
“We were in position to potentially be on the podium,” said Chock, who placed eighth at the 2014 Games with Bates. “As soon as that happened, we knew that there was no way. It was pretty hard right away to just keep going, but we owe it to ourselves and our choreographers and our team to keep going and put out the rest of the performance that we intended to.”
Hubbell and Donohue said they had some small mistakes, but they were nearly home free when Donohue messed up during their choreographed twizzles, which were among the most difficult of the event.
“I wasn’t in a good enough mental state in that point in the program staying focused,” he said. “There’s no good excuse or reason why something like that happens when I can do it a billion times out of a billion at home.”
Hubbell nodded. She had not seen the judges’ marks yet, so she didn’t know if the mistake truly cost them the bronze medal since they would have needed their best score of the year to beat the Shibutanis.
“We made a program that’s challenging and intricate and difficult and we don’t have to risk things like that in our choreo twizzle sequence,” she said, “but at the same time, we ask ourselves: If we don’t do something that’s interesting and that we enjoy doing and that we find challenging, would we be in the top three anyways? Who knows. We don’t regret any of our choices and we’re proud of the work that we’ve put in to be here.”
All In The Family
The Shibutanis alternately beamed and cried during their post-event interviews.
“Our life together has been so amazing,” said Alex, 26. “We are lucky to have amazing parents. It’s really tough to get to this level because people ask us if we fight – we do fight. To be the very best, we demand a lot of each other and we demand a lot of ourselves. But we always believe in each other and the family bond that we have, the strength that no other team in this event has, and it sets us apart and for all the people that think that it’s a deficit, we’ve made it our strength.”
“And these are moments that we’ll share for the rest of our lives,” Maia, 23, chimed in. “This is something that we accomplished together.”
Alex said that while trying to shake off their disappointment following the short dance, Maia “did this really awesome thing. She just pulled out her computer and 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.”
They were reminded of how they first got together. “When we teamed up as a sibling team, it was just very natural and fun,” Maia said, “and we thought that, ‘OK, this is going to be a great journey that we can be on together.’ Along the way…”
Alex then interrupted her, as if he were taking the lead on the ice, “I thought I’d be more successful skating with her than I will be by myself because it’s not going too hot right now.”
Maia jumped back in: “And for me, I was like, ‘Huh, I’m having way more fun being out there on the ice with Alex than I was by myself.’”
Back to Alex: “I was competing against Adam Rippon and he was crushing me,” he said. “So I was like, ‘I’ve got to get out of this situation, Maia’s really good. I’ll team up with her,’ and we had instant success.”
However, he said, they stood out not only because of their talent, but because they were different.
“Two Asian kids that are also brother and sister, officials start to sort of take notice of your ability and your potential,” he said, “(but), there’s a point where the cuteness fades. And it’s awesome seeing them having fun out there on the ice, but is there a ceiling, is there a point where they won’t be successful?
“I try to be a historian of our sport and we saw teams before us that were siblings that got stopped for one reason for another.”
Alex cited Hubbell, who competed for years with her brother Keiffer, and American-born Chris Reed of Japan, who used to skate with his sister Cathy, but was with Kana Muramoto here.
Limited By Labels
Alex said that ice dance is “generally grouped into a group of ‘Oh, it’s romantic,’ or ‘Oh, it’s sensual.’ It’s so limiting to be labeled as one thing. It’s almost insulting to the discipline of ice dance. That’s not fair to ice dance. You’re probably hurting ice dance’s feelings. Ice dance wants to be whatever it can be.”
The Shibutanis won their first world championships medal, a bronze, in 2011 when Maia was only 16, but didn’t get back to the podium for five years.
“We thought the future was exceptionally bright for us,” Alex said. “And we never stopped believing that despite world placements not being the same in those following years. So to pull ourselves back onto the world podium in 2015-16 took lots of freaking guts and a lot of hard work and a lot of soul baring.”
After that ninth-place finish in Sochi, they physically transformed themselves and their ice dancing also evolved.
“It’s been so satisfying,” Alex said, “the process without the results, and that’s what makes it doubly special now because we have the result, too, and it’s amazing.”
He hopes they can set an example for future couples.
“We worked really hard and we found our way and we did it,” and “and hopefully other teams coming up after us, they’ll believe if they’re brother and sister, if they’re Asian, that it’s actually possible.”
Now they share two Olympic bronze medals as well as the unshakeable bond that kept them going.
“When times are tough, people tend to disappear,” Maia said.
“We’ve experienced it,” Alex said. “When times are tough you don’t get texts back, you don’t hear back from people. But she’ll be hearing back from me for the rest of her life.”