Maia and Alex Shibutani: building bridges between worlds

July 7, 2017
By Reut Golinsky
Photo © Askar Ibragimov, Reut Golinsky

They are two-time national champions and three-time World medalists. Their YouTube channel, ShibSibs, has around forty thousand subscribers and their original content videos have garnered almost five million views. Maia has recently crossed the 100K mark on her personal Instagram and Alex, with 85K, will be there soon. They are Sports Envoys for the U.S. Department of State and members of Los Angeles 2024 Athletes' Advisory Commission. During our talk, half-jokingly, I asked them when they have time to sleep, but actually I meant it, as it is very impressive how much they are doing and have already achieved both on and off the ice.
We met with Maia and Alex Shibutani after their performance at the Worlds' gala in Helsinki and discussed their season, plans, and goals.

First of all congratulations on your bronze medal. It's been an interesting, should we call it, competition for you but with a happy ending.

Maia: We're happy because when we finished both programs, on each day, we were so proud of the way we skated, it was exactly how we trained, we felt like we made great strides since the Four Continents and a big crowd reaction that we got was so rewarding for us. They were so enthusiastic so that's really all you can hope for.
Alex: We felt really strong, we did exactly what we came here to do. The result is good, we had a great year and we're definitely excited to get ready for the next season and to make more progress.

But did you check the protocols from the short dance? Do you know what happened and why your marks were low? (Maia and Alex finished 5th after the short dance)

Alex: We got a level two on our partial step sequence, which we didn't expect. We executed it exactly how we wanted to, there weren't any mistakes, so it came down to what the technical panel decided. We've received good levels at our National championships, at the Four Continents, and at the Grand Prix Final so it's definitely surprising. We felt similarly about our non touching midline. We're competitors and so we don't want to lose points anywhere, we've designed the programs and train them so that they can get the maximum amount of points and that's what we hope to achieve every single time. I think we're well regarded as being very strong technical skaters, so it was surprising for that technical side to be the problem in the short dance. It was unfortunate that it put us in the position that we were in but I think that we moved forward quickly and skated a really great free dance.

You mentioned during the press conference that this was "a transformative year" for you. How, in what way have you "transformed"?

Maia: It's easy for us to look back with a lot of pride on how we handled this season. We attacked two new programs, which were very different from the styles that we chose last season. We really challenged ourselves to grow and we were ambitious with what we envisioned our programs will be at this point of the season and throughout the course of the season they developed so much! We had so much help from people that we admire and respect, who inspire us; it was a great collaborative process. At the same time, this season more so than any other season we were very much involved with the process. It gave us so much confidence every time we went out to compete because we were fully invested in both programs.
Alex: And when we say "the process", it's everything from costumes to music to choreography. Marina (Zueva) is our head coach but we have such a great relationship with her that we're able to work with lots of different people for ideas and concepts. And the way we as a team put it all together is what makes us, I think, unique. We were very confident in our point of view and our ability to express that in a competitive format. It's one thing to come up with a piece that's purely creative as an exhibition program but we are dealing with rules and so not only do we want to come up with a piece that is very emotionally connected for us and for the audience but we do need to get points. And the balance of doing that while also trying to stretch yourself in a way that allows you to grow and make progress is a challenge.
With the short dance we were confident in the risk that we were taking because we believed so much in our idea. We knew that it was a brilliant idea when I came up with it and we're so proud of the way we made it work. I think on Facebook the program's got around nine million views, so people appreciate it. People from outside the skating world were entertained and that's what we want to bring to the sport. We want to bring energy and something different and new...
Maia: It was so exciting that the ISU added hip-hop as a rhythm, we really wanted to find a program that could be so appealing to everyone whether you were skater or not.

...and especially to the young audience...

Alex: Yes, we were focused on the young audience but we did not want to neglect a traditional audience that was used to not seeing hip-hop so that was where the involvement with Frank Sinatra and "That's Life" came into plan. We were trying to make sure that we were broadly distributing our programs so that it could be widely appealing.
Maia: It allowed us to show so much range ourselves. And it was another reason why we're confident of choices - because we knew that we threw ourselves into it and worked very hard and it made us improve so much.
Alex: Peripherally you're aware of the noise - and we call it "the noise" because it's what other people think - but as an athlete and as an artist you have to have conviction in your own beliefs. And so we don't let anyone's opinion necessarily dictate what we're going to do. We're lucky to have people that know us very well and support us and we've come to know ourselves very well. So "the noise" was: "Oh, hip-hop has never worked on the ice, it's not a good idea, don't do it, it's a risk..." But we believed in ourselves.
The free dance was a whole other undertaking where the success of last season's program was tremendous and had a great impact on many people. So the challenge was figuring out how we could take the next step. Not necessarily top it because it wasn't about coming up with a better program. From the moment that we started creating "Fix you" to the moment when we started creating this year's program, "Evolution", we were completely different people, we had experienced a whole season of things that changed the way that we approached our skating and also we were just physically better at skating. So we took on the challenge of trying to grow so that going into this upcoming season we can really finish out the Olympic cycle really, really strong.

You mentioned that you worked with lots of different people during this season, tell me more about them.

Alex: It's really amazing because these people are very, very talented and very successful in their respective disciplines. For example, we worked with two people from the hip-hop group called "Quest Crew", and they won the Emmy award for Outstanding Choreography in television (in 2016). They're highly accomplished, really famous and cool but they believed in us. They have so many projects that they're working on but we developed a friendship with them and they were excited to help us and give us a little bit of something that could make what we were trying to do on the ice special.
We had a great group of people on the ice and off the ice that have helped us before the season started and during the season that were able to give us a little bit of themselves to help us really capture the programs.
Maia: And we're very grateful. We started years ago this process when we sought out the people that are at the elite of their fields who can help us draw whatever we can from the floor to the ice. And those relationships haven't been lost, those people still continue to support us and inspire us and help us whenever they can. I know that all these amazing people that we worked with this season are now a part of our team.
Alex: There are people that we've worked with or haven't worked with for years but we still stay close with and they watch us and keep up with our competitions and they care enough to provide feedback and give us advice, knowing that we will respect and appreciate their opinion. At the end of the day it's our final decision with Marina what we should do but...
Maia: ... those relationships have really shaped us into the athletes and artists we are now.
Alex: It's rare, unfortunately, when coaches will let their skaters try to work with other people. And I understand it from a business standpoint. Also you care about your student and you don't necessarily trust someone else with them. But Marina is so wise and experienced, she knows that we're different. And Massimo wants us to grow and flourish and be successful. Also, Marina is so smart, she knows that she can learn from other people too. We come back and that information helps her.
Maia: She sees it in us every time we come back, whether it's something that we did on the ice or off the ice, she sees that growth in us, because she's known us for so long.
Alex: Whenever we go away on a trip, it is so much fun for us, that's what pushes us forward and gives us energy. Every time we come back, Marina is amazed by the fresh perspective that we have on things and it makes such an impact on us.

I must say that for young age it's really impressive how you found all these people - that you wanted to find them and that you knew where to look - you are very smart. I just wonder was it all your initiative? Or you have someone who is helping you?

Alex: There are so many people to credit for our collaborations and our success! When we were younger we worked with some great dance specialists, depending on the season and the program that we were doing. Obviously, it was through the help of adults, older people who were introducing us. And now that we've taken over our career and we're responsible for it and the motivation is what's driving us and we don't want to leave any stone unturned, we want to try and experience as much as possible and make this period of our lives as exciting and as interesting as possible. So, yes, it is more pursued through us. It's not us knocking on their door and just asking them but we have the initiative. We know that anything that we can do between now and the Olympics to improve we are going to do it.
Maia: We are very passionate, we love what we do and it means everything to us to develop the programs that we truly believe in. And that's why we're so excited to compete, that's why we love to compete, because it's great to share these very special things that we spent so much time developing.
Alex: Everyone has wisdom, knowledge and experience to share. Whether you're a dancer or a musician or a filmmaker or an actor, artist, photographer, we all work in a similar way. If you're trying to accomplish something that really motivates you and that you're passionate about there's something that we all share in common. You can learn a lot from other people if you listen! So we've surrounded ourselves with a really diverse group of friends that inspire us and that helps too.

Agree. And you've achieved so much in other aspects of creativity, like, for example, in social media, the quality of what to do is amazing. The amount of conferences you're invited to, super cool people from social media world who you're friends with... How did you start in this field? Is it your hobby or something which might become a profession in the future?

Maia: Looking back, we've always been interested in it, we always loved telling stories. So whether it's sharing our experiences on the ice with the program or...
Alex: ... when we were younger it was, for example, writing a blog. We were I think the first skaters to ever write a blog, when we were still very young. And Maia was taking photos at the Four Continents in Colorado Springs (in 2007). So we've always had a passion for telling stories.
Maia: Telling stories, sharing perspective and then also building bridges - I think those are all kind of ideas that...
Alex: And by building bridges we mean connecting... The quality of what we do on social media is personal because if our work is associated with us we want to make sure that we're doing the best job that we can, with everything.
Maia: And that's why editing takes Alex so much time.
Alex: I'm not going to rush it because what's going to be coming from this camera (points to the camera they brought with them) is valuable and means so much more than a video.
I guess the story starts when we were younger; we had the opportunity to go to the World Championships in 2001 in Vancouver and then in 2003 in Washington DC to see skating live as spectators. We just started skating back then and that was what helped us decide that we wanted to start ice dancing. Whether it was meeting Michelle Kwan or seeing Evgeny Plushenko on the elevator - seeing all these people that we saw on TV and they were legends - to young kids it was so inspiring! We would watch an NHK Trophy on TV at home, or Skate America, and it was like: wouldn't it be so cool to be there?! And so we found the motivation within ourselves and we were so lucky to have our parents and our coaches that...
Maia: ...believed in us and supported us following what we are passionate about.
Alex: Now that we're in this generation of social media the world is so close!
Maia: We were just discussing the relationships you can build with fellow skaters, the way that you can keep in touch. We've known Javi (Javier Fernandez) since 2008, for example. That's almost 10 years of friendship developed with all these people that you really care.
Alex: It's not just at competitions anymore because in our age of technology we're able to be in touch every day if we want to be. And so the community has grown closer. But we're also in a period of time where the sport globally is struggling in some places in the world, including in the States where it was so popular when we were growing up. The value of the content that's on this camera is that today a ten year old, who's deciding whether he wants to play soccer or start figure skating, can see something that wasn't available to us when we were younger, see...
Maia: ... a different perspective...
Alex: ... see us and Yuzuru having fun at a practice, or us and any of our friends, and that's incredibly valuable. I know that many of the fans that comment on the videos are our age and older, but we also have had some amazing interactions with parents who say that our videos really inspire their kids.
If you only see competitions on television, the way they try to make it seem is intense, because there are high stakes. And that's very true when it's a sport. But behind the scenes, the stuff that doesn't get shown is all these very interesting and talented people sharing something together at a competition. That's why we do it. Storytelling is our passion but we feel it's also an obligation. As leaders of the sport we hope to generate an interest in someone who might never skate but will then tune in and continue to watch figure skating and support skating or cause someone to put on skates for the first time and try the sport that we care so much about.

Yes, absolutely. You're truly being ambassadors of your sport. I wonder if you have any interesting story or encounter with non skating fans that you'd want to share.

Maia: We've heard lot of that which has been really validating for us that something that we're doing inspires people to look at the sport. But as far as general impressions that we get from people that don't necessarily pay attention is that figure skating is very popular once every four years, for the Olympics. That's what made it even more meaningful that, for example, our short dance video went viral, because it was an a non-Olympic year. We're all working so hard all four years, so it would be great if we had the audience to that entire time.
Alex: The general perception that we get from people who don't know anything about figure skating except for what they've seen every once in a while is that it's very formal, and they can't name any skaters that are currently competing. But we're making progress I think... Obviously, in our country we will start to receive more recognition as the Olympics get closer. But the value of the Internet is that you can go anywhere and visit all sorts of places, also in countries where they don't broadcast figure skating. We get comments on our YouTube channel all the time: "We don't have figure skating here at all but now we're going start watching". So it's about trying to cross that barrier and any little thing that we can do, we will do.
I think that making videos helps us become better skaters, better choreographers, and thoughtful athletes. It all really works together. And that is another reason why we do it. It's not about getting anything back, but we feel like we grow from the work that we do. In skating, as opposed to other forms of art or filmmaking, you make two programs a year and you develop them over the course of an entire competitive season, it evolves and it changes and you make edits to it. Doing something where you're creating a photo or a video helps sharpen that part of our brain so that when we're ready to create again our competitive skating program we've learned.

You grew as artists.

Alex: Yeah, exactly.

So I wonder what is next in that field, because I think you tried every possible media and every possible social media - Snapchat, Instagram, Twitter, blogs. Is there any new project that you might think of?

Alex: We've got a lot on our plate, we're always willing to grow and if there was unlimited time I'd love to do a short film. I'd love to challenge ourselves even more. Not a reality blog...

You mean, not a documentary but fiction? With your skater friends? Or non skater friends?

Alex: I haven't even thought about it because it's not really a possibility right now, unfortunately... So much of our creative energy has been so far focused on creating our programs every year, it requires a lot of thought. The way that we choose to do things, which gives us the best opportunities to be unique - and by being unique gives us the best opportunity to succeed and accomplish what we want to accomplish, - a lot of thought has to go into it. It's not about overthinking but coming up with something really truthful and honest.

I really love your exhibition program you performed just now before our talk. I wonder why you chose to work with Stéphane Lambiel as he doesn't have much experience with ice dancers.

Maia: Stéphane is a skater that we've always respected so much, his skating is so beautiful and inspiring...
Alex: In isolation, not knowing him...
Maia: ... just watching. And then we met him more officially when we did Denis Ten's show.
Alex: Well, we met him for the first time I think at Worlds 2011. He was talking to Marina and she introduced us to him. Then we met him again very briefly while we were on tour in Japan for Mao's show, "The Ice", he came to visit.

And then in Kazakhstan...

Alex: Yes, all of our perceptions of him as a skater but also more him as an artist really shone through in our time spent together. And it wasn't just hanging out. We aren't afraid to ask people questions and he was very generous with his time, talking to us about how we can grow and what he would like to see from us. We had some very deep personal conversations with him and Tatiana and Max (Volosozhar/Trankov). Never thought when I was a kid that I am going to get to Kazakhstan, and it's through this crazy thing called "figure skating" that we end up there with Tatiana and Max, Olympic champions, and Stéphane Lambiel, someone who we watched in 2003 at the World Championships! It was one of the turning points before last season where we had a lot of success...
Maia: It was one of the moments that was really important.
Alex: We were able to have these really insightful thoughtful conversations with people who've accomplished so much and had very interesting things to say about us personally and what their impressions of us [are], what they hoped we could accomplish. So we took that to heart and it inspired us...
Maia: It was one of those moments where the fact that they took the time to speak to us really meant a lot.
Alex: It went beyond being nice, it went beyond them just saying like "oh, keep going" or "keep working hard" or "we like your skating". They were really invested.
Maia: And it was at the right moment because prior to that we'd already taken the steps to develop the programs for that season, we already worked with Peter Tchernyshev, so we were moving things in the right direction. But it just felt like another...
Alex: of confidence.
Maia: And then we worked with Stéphane last early summer.
Alex: Maia knew that she wanted to work with Stéphane, she felt really strongly about it and so she told me and got in touch with him. After the conversations that we had had it made a lot of sense that we would work together. Actually tomorrow we're leaving in the afternoon to go directly to Switzerland to work with Stéphane. (You can check Maia and Alex's recent vlog about the time they spent in Switzerland)

To work on competitive programs?

Alex: Yes. Well, it's very early, so it's going be a similar process to last year when we worked with a lot of people.
Maia: And he's one of the people that we want to work with this coming season.
Alex: We want him to be in our inner circle of advisers. It's very early, it's right after Worlds, but we already have our idea. So it's just going to be about spending time, talking and playing on the ice and just exploring the different directions that we can go.

You still have plenty of time to try many things.

Maia: Yes, and we're not going to be doing any shows this summer.
Alex: We'll be just completely focused on the Olympic Games. Shows are a great experience, we were so lucky to have so many opportunities to do shows. We got a lot of experience, internationally too, traveling to Japan and doing lots of performances, it really made us strong competitors. I think the strength in our competitive skills now is our consistency and our ability to deliver. It's not like we treat a competition like it's a show but it really should be. I mean, there shouldn't be a difference in how you care about your performance in the exhibition versus the competition.
Maia: One of the things that we can attribute our drive to show our best when we compete is that we had all those learning experiences of doing so many shows. We know that we have that skill.
Alex: And as much as we'd love to perform on "Stars on ice" and tour the US, and we know that we have a lot of fans that will be disappointed that we aren't going to be there...

But they will understand...

Alex: I hope that they'll understand. And we'll continue doing what you've been seeing on social media, trying to build ourselves, grow and connect to other worlds.

I also wanted to ask you and this is going to be my last question because we've talked about so many things already...

Alex: (laughs) We talk a lot!

I really enjoy, I call such interviewees "a journalist's dream", they tell you everything, you don't need to work hard.

(both smile) Alex: I think it depends on the type of question. At press conferences when they ask how was your performance there's not much to say. If we're happy with it we're happy with it, we can't talk about what the technical panel did, we don't know, we can't see what they saw.
Maia: And then at a press conference we're not going to go so deep into our personal process.
Alex: So these are better interviews for us too.

So I wanted to ask you - apart from all your work on ice and all the social media we talked about, you're also ambassadors of so many things. Is this also your initiative or have you been noticed and people approach you to be role models of American figure skating?

Alex: Some of the more formal roles that we've taken on as our career has developed and as we've grown up have been brought to us, maybe in part due to what people see that we're doing with our skating and with our social media, the way that we communicate and tell stories.
Maia: That was certainly the case for when we were named US sports envoys for Korea. After the Four Continents we spent an additional two days, we got to experience a different culture and food and dance. It was really an inspiring few days to spend right after being at the Olympic venue. The one year mark just passed and we got to see the impact that the Games are already having on South Korea and on the young children that we were talking to, school age children. It was the perfect trip for us because it's a huge honor not just to be an ambassador for ourselves and our sport and our country but then to also build bridges, like we were saying, with another side of the world.
Alex: We could have gone home to rest, we were already planning on going to Los Angeles after the Four Continents to work on our programs more and so two days at home would have been great. It would have been understandable for us to say, "no, we need to go home after these challenging competitions - Nationals and the Four Continents". But we knew that it was such a responsibility that we were honored to have been asked to do and we would grow and learn from it. And we love working with kids, it's so much fun to see young kids, people who are completely innocent and are able to express their appreciation and love of something in a very honest way. They like something and they show it, there's no thought to...
Maia: do I appear? How do I come off?
Alex: I seem cool? That's really refreshing to see. And it's a good reminder for us why we skate. Because when you throw in rules and you throw in wanting to compete and push your body to the limit, it could be easy to become cynical and too intense - and intensity is necessary to accomplish what we're trying to accomplish - and so we try to keep things fun.
Maia: While it might seem like we're doing a lot, there's a plan.
Alex: We know when we're overextending ourselves, so there have been lots of opportunities that we've had over the past couple of years...
Maia: ...incredible things, really...
Alex: ... that we had to say "no". Because skating is right now our complete priority.
Maia: And other things that we do take on we know that they are very important.

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