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Maia and Alex Shibutani

“Some of our biggest focuses are keeping the purity and quality of skating. We are always striving to make things appear effortless.”

Reigning National Ice Dancing Champions and siblings, Maia and Alex Shibutani have been competing since the 2004–05 season. Their 2015–16 season culminated with their personal best score at the World Championships held in Boston this past April. Here, Maia Shibutani chats with Chopsticks NY and talks about the passion she and her brother have for skating, their career paths, and the next Olympic Games.

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The Shibutanis charm the audience during the free dance program at the 2016 World Championships, in which they took the silver with their personal best score.

Congratulations on your achievements at the World and National Championships! The 2015/16 season has been the most successful year in your career. How do you feel?
Thank you so much! We are very proud of how we ended our 2015/16 season. We accomplished many firsts for us including winning our first National Title, first Four Continents Championship, and our first World Silver Medal. A lot of people from all over the world have been tremendously supportive of us. We are extremely grateful because we have been working hard to bring our skating to another level.

How did you start skating in the first place, and what made you choose ice dancing?
When we were kids, it was very popular for our friends to have birthday parties at skating rinks. You would take a few laps around the rink with your friends, open presents, and eat pizza. We entered US Figure Skating’s Basic Skills program because our parents wanted us to be able to enjoy ourselves – basically, knowing how to skate was a skill for social survival. When I was four, I fell in love with skating right away. At the time, Alex was seven. After completing the U.S. Figure Skating Basic Skills program, he stopped for a bit. He decided to take it up again after he saw how much fun I was having. We skated separately for the first few years, but we started skating together after we saw the ice dance event live at the 2001 and 2003 World Championships. The speed and skill of the ice dancers really impressed us. Originally, we tried ice dance to help our individual skating, but we quickly discovered we had fun working together and we were passionate about ice dance.

You are known for your perfect unison and beautiful steps. How else would you describe the Shibutani style?
Those are both huge compliments! We have been very lucky and have been coached by some incredible people over the years. Some of our biggest focuses are keeping the purity and quality of skating. We are always striving to make things appear effortless. A quality that is very important to us is how quiet our blades are on the ice.

You are brother and sister, and that is unique by itself in the world of competitive ice dancing. What competitive advantage do you think that gives you?
It is a competitive advantage for us because we know we have a stronger relationship than anyone else competing in the field. So much about having a successful partnership is trust and communication. We have known each other for my whole life. Of course there are challenges along the way, but we love each other. That is very powerful and we know that together, we can accomplish whatever we set our minds to.

On the other hand, what are some of the difficulties of being a brother-and-sister pair?
When you work closely with anyone whether it’s a co-worker, spouse, or sibling, there are always challenges. While we get along incredibly well, we are not the same person. We have different personalities, different strengths, and we definitely don’t always agree. When we are working, because we know each other so well, we don’t need to filter what we say to each other. That honesty can be a little blunt at times, but in the end we realize it is a strength. We both bring our very best to the team and can work through challenges quicker than teams that are concerned about being overly polite with each other.

Do you have any role models in skating? How do they inspire you?
We have been very fortunate to have many incredible role models and mentors in our sport. It’s one thing to admire someone’s skating, but in our experience people like Kristi Yamaguchi, Scott Hamilton, and Michelle Kwan have also been generous with their time. Talking with them and being inspired by them at a young age really helped us as we were developing. To have them be mentors and friends now is really special. They, along with other skaters, have continued to influence how we want to interact with young skaters that approach us. If we hadn’t had as many positive experiences, that could have changed our impression of the sport.

How does your Japanese-American background influence your skating and approach to life?
I’m not sure how much our heritage has influenced us, but we have fantastic and supportive parents. They have always wanted us to pursue what we are passionate about. We were taught from a young age the importance of respect, hard work, and sportsmanship. While skating is a competitive sport, we realize that we are lucky we get to perform and share what we love with people from around the world.

Your parents have music/art backgrounds. Do they ever offer suggestions for your programs regarding your choice of music, storytelling, or choreography?
Our parents have musical backgrounds and growing up we always had music playing in the house. I never played an instrument, but I was always dancing around the living room. It is fortunate that our parents are knowledgeable and that we can ask them for their input and suggestions. Between them and our coaches, we have a great team.

The next Olympics are less than two years away. What do you think you need to improve in order to reach the podium?
Since competing at our first Olympics in 2014, we have a better understanding of the pacing and the build up to the Games. We have a strong plan with our coaches. Our end goal is to be the best we can be when we are skating in PyeongChang. We are on a great track, so it’s exciting that we can continue to find ourselves as artists and athletes during the next two years leading up to the Olympics.

What are some of your favorite Japanese foods?
Some favorites include sashimi, agedashi tofu, tonkatsu, gyoza, takoyaki, yakitori and ramen. Basically, we LOVE all Japanese food.

Please share some of your favorite places in Japan with Chopsticks NY readers––or if there are any places in Japan you have never visited but would like to visit, please share those.
The first time we visited Japan was for a competition in 2009. Since then, we travel to Japan two-three times a year on average. Some of our favorite cities are Tokyo, Osaka, and Nagoya. A city we would love to explore more is Kyoto. When we were on a tour, we passed through, but it was only for one dinner.