GANGNEUNG, South Korea -- When Maia and Alex Shibutani walked into a room full of middle-school students, the excited screams from the kids quickly drowned out all other noise. The figure skating siblings circulated among the students, giving out high-fives. They sat with the group and started to take photos.
The kids’ enthusiasm came not from the two bronze medals around each Olympian’s neck but from the relationships they had built through a mentorship program. As the Olympic Winter Games came to a close in PyeongChang, ice dancers Maia and Alex spent a morning with this group of students from Jinbu Middle School, marking the first time the Shibutani siblings met these children in-person.
Before Saturday, the interactions had come through monthly video chats that started in the fall. Through the United States Olympic Committee’s "Thank You, PyeongChang” program, which strives to contribute to the positive legacy of the PyeongChang Games, the Shibutanis have virtually spent time sharing Olympic values with these students.
“When you're getting ready for the Olympic Games, you become keenly aware of where you started, the people that have helped you along the way and the lessons that you learned,” Alex said. “To be able to share some of those things with the next generation of leaders and maybe athletes, but more importantly just citizens of our world, meant so much to us.”
PyeongChang marks Maia and Alex’s second Games. After fully experiencing what the Olympic Games represent in Sochi, Alex said the two have worked to “carry ourselves both on and off the ice as strong ambassadors for the Olympics.”
After helping Team USA won a bronze medal in the figure skating team event, the Shibutanis earned another in ice dance.
At times, these students have asked Maia and Alex whether they get nervous before performances. They explained how they’ve mastered the art of perceiving the pressure as an opportunity. However, on the bus heading to the the free dance, suddenly the Shibutanis were overcome by emotion, just not due to what was at stake. Alex scrolled through social media and saw videos of the students receiving their tickets for the free skate and hopping onto a bus to the arena.
Accompanied by good-luck signs, the middle-schoolers watched and cheered as Maia and Alex won the bronze medal.
“I really feel like we've built a bond with them,” said Maia, who was emotional at the meet-up event. “They were such an important part of this Olympics.”
“It's like meeting old friends,” Alex said.
Arram Kim, the senior project manager for the POCOG education team, said some Olympians might shy away from investing time into a program like this, especially during an Olympic year. Instead, Maia and Alex embraced the opportunity and said it added perspective to their athletic careers.
These virtual lessons weren’t just a one-way sharing of knowledge. When the Shibutanis discussed nutrition and how they eat before competitions, the students told the skaters about Korean cuisine. When Maia and Alex discussed the history of the Olympic Games, the kids explained Korean history.
“It ties the whole spirit of the Olympic movement together,” said Alan Ashley, Team USA’s chef de mission. “It brings it right to the families and right to the people that are living here and enjoying the Games and also now get to know the athletes and get to learn a little bit more about Olympism.”
While the lessons from Maia and Alex explained Olympic values of excellence, respect and friendship, the Shibutanis’ involvement in the mentorship program epitomized those three traits.
“This has overcome language barriers, cultural barriers,” Kim said. “It's brought two groups of people from totally different areas with totally different backgrounds together, and everybody's smiling. That's what the Olympics is about.”
After the students received certificates and participated in a gift exchange, they posed for photos with the two Olympians. Many kids were in awe of the recently earned Olympic medals, holding them and taking pictures with them. But for the Shibutanis, meeting all those students was just as meaningful as earning the medals.
“This may have been the highlight of our Olympic Games because you think about the entire experience as a whole,” Alex said. “For some medalists, it is being on the podium. But it almost felt like it wouldn't completely sink in until we met these students who were such an important part of this particular journey.”
Emily Giambalvo is a student in the sports media program at the University of Georgia’s Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication. She is part of TeamUSA.org’s coverage team for the PyeongChang Games.