Maia and Alex Shibutani: “We realized that we’re unique and we embraced it”

And there are many layers of uniqueness when it comes to the three-time World medalists Maia Harumi Shibutani and Alex Hideo Shibutani, and their journey so far. Alex says it best in a candid, detailed conversation that took place in Moscow, at this year’s edition of Rostelecom Cup: “Our story as a team, as a brother and sister, I think is one of the things that over the course of our career people have connected to, because everyone understands the power of family. And while our bond is unique – not everyone skates with their sibling –, it’s something that I think makes our skating relatable, and emotional in a different way from all the other teams, because of just the difference that we are from everyone else”.

But the distinctiveness of such a team attracts distinctive challenges as well, Maia and Alex will smilingly agree. And so they also talk about limitation – but mostly about what limitation brought to them: “It has pushed us. It’s had us go reach outside the sport”, “There are things that we can’t do, obviously, but it’s opened our eyes to all the things that we can do”. And there’s a quote here that Maia really likes – and you’ll discover it while reading: more like a little treasure, since it speaks mountains of their story, of their efforts so far.

And so, thinking outside the box, pushing the boundaries of the discipline when it comes to programs, music choices, Shibutanis, as they’re affectionately called, embrace the adventure of being one of the top teams out there. They did that right from the start, remember? At 16 and 20, Maia and Alex won a bronze medal at 2011 Worlds in just their first season as seniors – and no one really does that: it was the highest World Championships debut of any US ice dance team in history, while them being the youngest medalists in the discipline of ice dance in almost 50 years. And not just that: two months before, finishing second at 2011 Four Continents, they became the first ice dance team of Asian descent to ever medal at an ISU championships.

But, then again, as Alex laughingly points out during this talk, returning to the World podium in 2016, after five years of absence – no one does that either: “Once you drop, it’s like: Bye-bye, you’re gone”. Well, not them: the World bronze in 2011 was followed by a silver in 2016, and again a bronze this year, in Helsinki.

The driving force of all these? You’ll see for yourselves: the power of dreams.

…and a beautiful symbolics to go along with the interview: this in-depth look into Maia and Alex’s journey took place in the very same room they were in April 2011, when they’d just won their first World medal. And, as in 2011, they were accompanied by coach Marina Zoueva, their main ally all these years – and, you’ll notice, a wonderful addition to this conversation.

interview by Nadia Vasilyeva/Moscow

Nadia Vasilyeva: Megasport Arena of Moscow seems like a very lucky place for you, this is where you had your first senior Worlds, and it was such a success. How does it feel to be back here?

Maia Shibutani: We were so excited when we found out we’d be competing at this competitions, like you mentioned, our first World medal was in 2011, which was 7 years ago. So really time has flown, but at the same time we’ve had so many experiences through our career, that led us to the point that we’re at the beginning of this Olympic season and we’re so excited and proud of all the work that we’ve been doing. We have our programs, and we have the perspective to know that we’ve really grown so much, and that’s special.

Alex Shibutani: Yeah, being back here is a great feeling, not only because of where we are at this particular point of the season, heading into the Olympics, but it’s great to reflect and think back into 2011, when we were in this very room, winning our first World medal, and it was such a special experience for us. And though it was a great result, we’ve grown leaps and bounds since then. We feel like a completely different team. And it’s definitely nice to skate for Russian fans, they are so knowledgeable and supportive of all the skaters. And we enjoy our time here, we’ve been very excited to be coming here to our first competition.

THEN. Megasport Arena, Moscow, 2011 Worlds: Maia (16), Alex (20), skating their free dance to “Smile” and “Let’s Face the Music and Dance”, and winning a World bronze medal in their first senior season.

NOW. Megasport Arena, Moscow, 2017 Rostelecom Cup: Maia (23), Alex (26), and the opening pose of their “Paradise” free dance. They won their first GP event of the Olympic season.

Your free dance is amazing. The choreography is superb, and fits the music so well. Who did you work with on it?

Maia: Thank you. Our process…

Alex: Is different. We don’t work with one choreographer, we collaborate with a lot of different people. And we don’t necessarily have the music finished and then work on choreography, because we’ve done a lot of arranging of our music. If you listen to the song “Paradise” on the Coldplay album, it sounds very different from what our music is here. And it’s because we had a vision of what we wanted the program to be. And it was important that it reflected on not only this season and where we’re at, but also last year, and the year before. So there are some details in the music that we’re really proud of, that reflect on two years ago and last year. And choreographically… there’s a long list.

Maia: Yeah, there’s a long list. This is the most meaningful program we’ve ever had. And we can attribute it to the journey that we’ve been on and where we are, as individuals and as a team, but also to all the people that have been supporting us and believing in us.

Of course, there is Marina [Zoueva], and our other coach Massimo [Scali], and our team at home with Oleg [Epstein] and Johnny [Johns]. But when it comes to working on concepts, right after the World Championships we went to work with Stéphane Lambiel for a week. He’s one of the skaters we’ve always admired so much, so to be able to jump right into preparing for the Olympic season and have discussions with him about approach, and really working on our concepts with him, was very helpful. And then we’ve also been working with a few former US dance champions. Peter Tchernyshev came and worked with us for a week, and then also we’ve been working with Renée Roca very consistently. We’re very lucky. And, in addition, with a lot of dancers on the floor.

Alex: Yeah, we worked with a lot of dancers on the floor too. I think over the course of the past two seasons, leading into this season, we really found our identity, and our process has become very… Some might call it complicated, but for us it’s very simple, because we know exactly what we want to do, and we learned a lot last year.

But I think the vision comes from us and what we wanna say, and that helps us, because when you’re working with a lot of really brilliant people, it’s about taking the information and the knowledge that is given to you, and figuring out how to package it in a way that best reflects our abilities and what we wanna do with the program. And Marina’s a big part of that too, because she knows us so well, and we’re able to ask her what she thinks, and when we come back from the trip, whether it’s working in Los Angeles with Renée Roca, or we’d be working all night with a dancer, or Peter – she’ll be able to give us feedback. Because she knows what we wanna accomplish and she’s the best at helping her skaters accomplish what they want.

Maia: We’re grateful that everyone who’s been working with us really believes in us, and no one is really possessive or selfish about anything. They all just wanna help us as much as possible, in any way that they can.

Alex: They know that it’s our story, and our journey, and that our program is very personal to us. There’s no “Am I gonna be the choreographer?”, or “Am I gonna get credit for the program?”. We’ve built friendships with these very talented artists and skaters, who really are invested and wanna help us, because they’ve seen our diligence, and our passion, and that leads to programs that we are very, very proud of.

Maia: That means a lot, because we have our vision, but then to have people that we’ve always admired to believe in that vision just continues to give us more confidence.


I remember you posted on Instagram about the trilogy: Fix you, Evolution, and Paradise. Can you tell about this trilogy a bit more?

Maia: We posted about that on Instagram very early on, because this is a concept we’ve been developing since, I’d say, midway through 2015-16 season.

Alex: December of 2015.

Maia: Yeah, that season was a breakthrough year for us, for many reasons. But I think it was really the first season for us where we were truly ourselves as performers, and we put so much into that program and our skating, and we’ve come into our own as a team.

Alex: We were skating for ourselves.

Maia: And that led to some incredible moments and great results. But beyond that, heading into what would be our second Olympic Games, we knew that we had set this goal of becoming the very best that we could be, and, with that in mind, we knew that we want to progress and develop to reach that point by the time this season came around.

And so we really believed in what we started in 2015 with “Fix You”, and so then last season we called our program “Evolution”. Because we were challenging ourselves, creatively, to grow in new ways, so that we could really become more of a confident team and strong-head into the season. And then, part three, which is this season’s free dance, Paradise. It’s really the combination of so much hard work, and just the fact that we are truly ourselves when we’re out there skating, and the strongest we’ve ever been.

Alex: In 2015, following the Grand Prix Final, that was a very challenging competition for us, because I’d gotten food poisoning after short dance… It was a turning point for our season, because we performed very well in the free dance, despite, you know, very difficult circumstances, and we started thinking… You’re always thinking about the next season, and how you can pick material, and music, and an idea that going to help you, help us, to continue build momentum. And it was at that point, as Maia said, we started thinking about a trilogy.

And some of the greatest stories are trilogies. You know, the first part of the story – you meet the character, or the characters, and they go on this path. Our story as a team, as a brother and sister, I think is one of the things that over the course of our career people have connected to, because everyone understands the power of family, and everyone has family. And while our bond is unique – you know, not everyone skates with their sibling –, it’s something that I think makes our skating relatable, and emotional in a different way from all the other teams, because of just the difference that we are from everyone else.

Maia: Something that’s changed a lot with our process and our skating is that we realized that we’re unique – and we embraced it. And we’ve been pushing ourselves, harder than ever, to become the best version of ourselves.

Alex: So this third chapter of the trilogy: this season’s free dance, Paradise. We understand that not everyone who will watch our performance this year has seen last season’s free dance, or the year before. But what we’re proud of is the fact that the story of this program embodies our entire life together.

Because the lyrics of the song talk about a girl, and when she was young she had all these hopes and dreams. And at a certain point, you know, these hopes and dreams seem out of your reach, like they’re unattainable. But the song then goes on about how she continues to dream, and believe in herself. Life goes on. That has been our mantra, continuing to believe in each other, and dream.

And we’ve always loved skating. Someone mentioned that coming here for our first World Championships in 2011 and medaling in our first year as seniors – no one really does that [smiles]. It’s a very unique result for a first-year senior team, and so the expectations we really high. We expected the world, as the song says. And then, the following couple of years, we haven’t developed the sense of self that we have now. And so our results weren’t as good. We still believed in ourselves, and still continued to dream, but things had flown away from our reach. And the way we believed we could return and become something greater than we ever thought that we could be for the past two seasons was staying together. And dreaming. That’s what this program is about. So every time we step on the ice this season, and then at the Olympic Games – we’ve reached our paradise. And the dreaming that we’ve been doing for the past two seasons and from the very beginning when we were children, that’s what this is about.


You were recently able to meet Coldplay. How does it feel to meet the band whose music inspired your skating so much?

Maia: It’s amazing. Like you said, their music inspired us so much. Their music is a lot about believing in your dreams, and for us, like Alex said, we only were able to reach this point and be this confident in who we are as a team because we never stopped believing in ourselves.

Alex: We’ve been lucky to meet them a couple of times, and, you know, they’re really famous [both laugh]. They have so many fans around the world. And I think the reason why people connect to their music is somewhat the same reason people connect to our skating.

When you go to a Coldplay concert, it’s all this color, and light, the songs are about so many different things, but the feeling you get when you’re at the concert watching them perform is joy, and love, and power of dreams. They talk about flying, and that freedom that we feel when we listen to their music, that’s also how we feel when we skate together. So it’s been definitely an inspiration, and it was nice to be able to thank them, in a small way, for kind of helping us discover more about ourselves.

Have they seen your programs?

Maia: They saw our program from 2015-16 season, but until this moment no one had seen our program for this season.

Alex: Yeah. Maybe they will see our free dance this year.

Did they say anything about the previous program?

Alex: You know, they are so so busy, and they are always travelling… We explained to them… It wasn’t like an interview [laughs], but we explained to them that a lot of it came from us. But in skating to their music and connecting to “Fix You”, and even the year before that, doing the exhibition to “O”, they helped us find ourselves, and find who we were, how we transformed, the happiness that we had that year, medaling after five seasons. You know, our first medal at Worlds was in 2011, and then again 2016.

Maia: That’s a long stretch of time.

Alex: That doesn’t happen either. No one would go five years without medaling – once you drop, it’s like: Bye-bye, you’re gone [laughs]. And so we just wanted to thank them for inspiring us, and playing a role in helping us discover who we want to be.

Black-blue-red: the trilogy in pictures. It was “Fix You” in 2015-2016 season, the start of the road to discovering themselves – and the utter joy this process brought (Grand Prix Final, Barcelona).

It was “Evolution” the following season – aspiring, challenging themselves to grow (2017 Worlds, Helsinki).

And flying, reaching “Paradise” in this third season – while on their way to the second Olympics.


Besides skating, you do so much, you are very active on social media. And, among other things, you post a lot of videos and photos from your practices. It is something that viewers don’t get to see very often. Are you trying to show the underside of the sport to the broader audience?

Maia: I think as we’ve developed as people we discovered that we enjoy being creative, and we also enjoy being storytellers. So whether it’s developing our programs on the ice, or sharing more of what goes into the process of creating those programs, or who we are as individuals, as people – there are multiple aspects to it.

We’ve always enjoyed social media, we grew up with it, and it’s been a part of our identity for a long time. But now that we’ve reached the level that we have, success-wise, in the sport, partially it feels like it’s our responsibility to share and promote the sport that we love so much, and to make it more accessible to anyone from all over the world. So one of the most fulfilling things to us, whether it’s comments from all these different countries, or meeting young kids…

Alex: …that don’t have figure skating. They don’t have rinks, or they never skated before, and they start to watch figure skating because they saw a video, either our performance, or… it just happened. That’s the beauty of the internet: everyone is potentially very-very close together, and connected. So they’ll see a video from our travels, or our training and our process, and it will get them interested. And then they’ll start watching skating, and competitions, and they’ll support us, but then maybe they’ll find other skater that they also wanna support. So I think that’s, like Maia said, part of the responsibility of being a leader, and a great way for us to connect with fans.

It’s been interesting, because initially, when we started doing YouTube [videos], we hadn’t developed the creative process we have now. So people were asking us: Oh, we wanna see what you do to make a program, and now I think our process is very different from every other skater. I know that we spend much more time on our music… Just because of the lack of sleep [laughs]. We’ve been working so hard on our music, and our choreography, and there’s a purpose for everything. And the attention to detail that we’ve put doesn’t mean that it’s overthought, it’s just we care so much.

Maia: We’re pouring everything we can into it.

Alex: Yeah, we’re giving it every single ounce of energy that we can, and so it’s not so much sharing what skaters do to create programs, it’s sharing what we do. But that’s the goal of it. Even the last years’ short dance, the Sinatra/Jay-Z program – we’re skating it tomorrow in the exhibition [2017 Rostelecom Cup’s gala in Moscow]. But it was the opportunity that the ISU gave us, to select two different rhythms, one was more modern, and so we decided to take that opportunity and think creatively about how we can activate the interest of people who don’t watch figure skating. So that if they watch a video on Facebook or on YouTube, they would like it. You wouldn’t just have to be a figure skating fan or a skater to appreciate the performance.

Because that’s what figure skating is all about, it’s one of the great things about the sport, it’s entertainment, while also being very challenging athletically. And that’s why people are watching it during the Olympics. But there’s no reason why people shouldn’t wanna watch figure skating every year. And we try to make decisions that will help grow the sport, and, in a small way, that’s one of the reasons why we’re skating to Coldplay this season. But more of the season it’s because it’s personal.

Maia and Alex – and a glimpse of their Sinatra/Jay-Z short dance, as skated in Helsinki, at 2017 Worlds

You work a lot on promoting figure skating in USA and worldwide. Do you see any progress now?

Maia: Definitely. That’s the thing we’ve been doing even before the start of our senior career, and to see the change, to actually meet people that, like Alex said, didn’t have skating, or didn’t even watch skating but now they love it, or they’re interested in, that means a lot.

That really shows the potential and the growth, and we’re really looking forward to what these Olympics might bring. I mean, it’s the first time in 20 years that the Winter Olympics will be in Asia, and I think it’s a really unique opportunity, the sport is at a very exciting point in all the disciplines, when we can really show the world what skating has to offer.

Alex: And I think not only because of the social media, but over the course of past eight years there was a change in the youth, in the kids that are starting to skate – we’re seeing more siblings skating together. And before… there were Isabelle and Paul, the Duchesnays, but they were several generations before us. And when we started ice dancing together, we weren’t thinking about becoming successful champion ice dancers [smiles]. We were just doing it because it seemed fun. So when we were growing up we never really had a role model to look up to what was a sibling team. Or, to be honest, an Asian ice dancing team. I think in 2011, when we came second at Four Continents, there had never been a team of Asian descent to medal at the ISU Championships in ice dance.

So that’s the other thing that we’ve seen over the course of past seven years, since our first World medal: we’re seeing more depth in the ice dance field from Asian countries, we’ve had the opportunity to do some seminars in Japan… And again, like Maia said, the Olympics are in Asia for the first time in 20 years. And I think the sport only gets better. Like any sport, any art, any medium can only improve with more diversity. And more people. No one wants to see the same thing 20-30 times, so people with different ideas and coming from different countries and backgrounds, entering not just figure skating but ice dance, I think would be a very good thing for the sport.

It seems like it actually helped you, that you had no role model, no one like you, because it means you had a chance to build your own story, completely from scratch.

Alex: Yeah, that’s a good point.

Maia: I guess we’ve realized over time that every skater takes a different journey. We’ve been lucky, while we maybe didn’t have the sibling team to look up to, that we had so many amazing role models within the sport. And so now that we’re in that positions when we have the opportunity to inspire, or to meet people, talk to them, to answer their questions – that’s where social media comes in. It’s just a unique position to be in, something that we’re very grateful for. Like Alex mentioned, especially, we’ve noticed a lot more sibling ice dance teams, and it’s exciting to think that people now think that’s possible.

Alex: We were always very successful when we were young, we moved through the ranks very-very quickly. So there wasn’t really an ice dance team that mentored us, or supported us, until we started training with Meryl [Davis] and Charlie [White], and were competing with them, and they were… great. Great role models for us, and now they’re really good friends of ours. But when we were younger, we had people like Kristi Yamaguchi, or Michelle Kwan, who I think saw us when we were very young, but they didn’t know anything about ice dance, but they wanted to support us and encourage us. And now, like Maia said, we’re at that point of our career. Every team is very different, and being able to learn from Meryl and Charlie, and from Tanith [Belbin] and Ben [Agosto], in small ways, and to have their support, it’s been really valuable.


Some people might say, and maybe it’s a more conservative point of view, that being brother and sister in an ice dance team puts a certain limit to what kind of programs you can do. But apparently you don’t agree?

Alex: Oh, it totally does. We can’t do romantic things. We could, but it wouldn’t go over very well, and it’s not what we would do anyway. So, yeah, there’s definitely limitation, but I strongly disagree when people say that limitation is a disadvantage. Because what it’s done for us – we had to think more. We don’t have the comfort to just say: Oh, we’ll do another romantic program this year, we’ll look like we’re in love this year again.

Just because that is one way of portraying emotion, a story, doesn’t mean it’s the only way. Like, you know, if you oughta ask anyone what their favorite type of movie was – and I’m making a kind of metaphor between movies and figure skating –, no one wants to see a romantic movie every single time they go to a movie theatre. Maybe they want comedy, maybe they want something more biographical. You look at something like in the US – the Academy Awards – they are comparing different things. And they are trying to decide what is the most impactful, the most meaningful. And it’s subjective – just like figure skating. And so our I guess restriction… [to Maia] And you have the quote that you really like, right?

Maia: Yeah. “Out of limitation comes creativity”. And the way that I see that, maybe there’s certain things that we’re not doing, like other teams, but it has pushed us. It’s had us go reach outside the sport. We’re not just using music that’s been used for years and years.

Alex: We’re using music that’s never been used for ice dance before. And, you know, it’s 2017, we’re trying to kind of bring it into the new generation, and help it grow. And it’s really the best thing for us to do, so it’s not like we’re doing it for the sport and being completely selfless. It’s because we know what we wanna do, and it takes a different perspective sometimes.

For example, with Latin being the short dance this year. We dealt with this whole discussion when we were doing Latin short dance in 2012. It was the year after we had won our World medal, and everyone was like: Oh, it’s Latin, it’s not gonna be good. They’re brother and sister, they can’t do it. Because Latin is romantic, and sexual, and passionate, and there’s no way they’re gonna be able to do that. I think we proved a lot of people wrong that year. And while there were some other struggles, and things like that, I think it’s one of our favorite programs of that period of our career.

I guess there’s one thing I’d like to clear up [chuckles]. When people say Rumba for this season – we’re not doing a Rumba. The compulsory dance in figure skating is called the Rumba, but the rhythms… Yes, the Rumba in the dance world, in the ballroom dance, is sort of a sensual, slow, generally trending toward romantic style dance. But our rhythms in our program this year are Mambo, Cha-Cha, and Samba. And those are fun, dynamic, and that’s our approach for the program.

Maia: Because actually the beats per minute that the compulsory dance had – it’s not a true Rumba.

Alex: It’s like they decided to call it a Rumba for figure skating, but it’s not a Rumba in real life. Well, that’s just another thing that I wanted to say [laughs].

So with the Latin short dance this year, some people are close-minded, but we’re just trying to have a lot of fun when we perform. And I think the reaction that we got yesterday [at 2017 Rostelecom Cup] was awesome, and we had a blast skating our program.

Maia: It’s a really dynamic program and we’re challenging ourselves a lot.

Alex: We enjoy the music, it makes you wanna get up and move.

So the whole sibling thing – it’s overblown. There are things that we can’t do, obviously, but it’s opened our eyes to all the things that we can do.

…and you clearly can’t resist their fun, colorful short dance this season, to Mambo, Cha-Cha and Samba

It’s amazing how you turn any possible weaknesses into your strong sides…

[Both Maia and Alex laugh]

Alex: Well, it’s strategy! But also once we realized at a certain point of our career that we had potential, we wanted to be the best. We wanna be the best team, wanna be the best team that we can be, so it’s figuring out, with Marina’s help, how we can make this happen. For us, ’cause we’re different.

Marina has never done this before, for us, for a sibling team. You know, she worked with Katia and Sergei [Ekaterina Gordeeva and Sergei Grinkov], and Tanith and Ben, and Meryl and Charlie, and plenty of other champions and skaters, but this is her first time learning and trying to figure out how to work for brother and sister, for Maia and Alex, right? [to Marina Zoueva, who is in the same room]

Marina Zoueva: Alex, because you have different talent. Everyone has different talent. It’s just what we’re doing – we bring the talent which no one else has. And we just have to improve, grow and show.

Alex: What’s our talent?

Marina: It’s your talent.

[Everyone laughs]

Just being you. The Shibutani talent.

Marina: Yes, absolutely. Unique. This is a process, this is why it’s not fast, but it’s a process.

Alex: But we talked after the Worlds in 2014, we said down and were like: Okay, where do we wanna be four years from now, and how are we gonna get there? Let’s figure out ways that we can think creatively, and challenge ourselves.

Maia: And enjoy the process, and feel fulfilled with all the programs that we perform.


You have so many activities besides skating: social media, vlogging, you starred in a TV show… And sometimes when I watch your videos, I’m like – when do you even sleep? Do you sleep at all?

Alex: [smiles] We’re gonna start sleeping more now. Marina knows, we’ve been tired, because we’ve been travelling a lot, and she’s always encouraging us to get more rest… But that’s what you have to do. We only know how to do it one way. With the Olympic season – I don’t wanna have any regrets, I wanna give it everything that we have, Maia wants to give it everything that she has, Marina wants to do it everything that she has.

Maia: That means pushing yourself in the new ways, and that takes time.

Alex: And sometimes, you know, the videos that we put on YouTube are really late. We put up a video for June the other week. And that’s what gets sacrificed. Because our focus is on competing, and training, and skating. So it’s during that extra tiny bit of time that I have every day, when we’re not training, or working on music, or working out, to edit video, and to put something together, for us, but also for all the people that support us. I think they really appreciate and enjoy watching the videos.

I think viewers can understand why you are late with the video, like, you’re busy with other things…

[Both laugh]

Alex: Yeah, it’s kind of like a joke now. People are like: When’s the next video? So sometimes people give me a hard time. But I think they appreciate it, and that’s one of the reasons we do it.

Can we talk about the process of creating these videos? Do you have any script, or is there a lot of improvisation?

Maia: When we were younger and we had more time and didn’t have so much of a creative process with our programs…

Alex: We were putting all our creative energy into our videos. [to Maia] Right?

Maia: Well, we had personalities, and we had a point of view…

Alex: We just hadn’t figured out a way to show it on the ice yet.

Maia: But we were developing skills, I guess you could say, by working on videos. And we did come up with the short sketch videos and concepts like that, but more recently we’re vloggers because…

Alex: Because it’s just us. We’re documenting our process, so it’s not scripted, thought out too much. If we’re tired – we’re just tired, we’re not trying to put on a facade.

Maia: It’s a real look into how we’re feeling at the time.

So now you prefer shooting the video-diary rather than sketches?

Alex: I think there’s just no time to write sketches. When we were touring in Japan earlier in our career we had more time. We have so many friends that we grew up with through the sport, some of them have retired now, like Taka Kozuka, and Mao Asada, and, Kanako [Murakami]. But some of our friends are still competing with us, like Javi [Javier Fernández] and Mirai [Nagasu]. And friends can look back on six or seven years ago, and see what we all looked like then. And it’s nice for us. Because it’s another part of the sport, while it’s a lot of hard work, and everyone’s going for the best result and trying to train really hard, but we all are unique people, and there’s more to us than just the skating.

Maia: Another aspect of it is that documenting what we do forces us what to do, and that gives us perspective – and I think that’s been very grounding and helpful for us. ’Cause there’s so much that we’re doing, to know that we’re doing everything for the right reason, because we love it and we’re passionate about it.

So shooting the diaries helps you to develop and even to skate?

Maia: I mean, we’ve grown as people. We’ve experienced so much since last Olympics.

Alex: When you’re putting together a video – you’re telling a story. And maybe it’s indirect, but there’s definitely a connection between picking the music for the video, the timing… I edit everything for our videos and I think that skill that I started to develop six or seven years ago has carried over to the way that we create our programs now. Because, what is a movie, what is a video? It’s a story. There’s a beginning, there’s a middle, and there’s an end. And it’s the same way with the figure skating program. There are different technical elements to a video, different scenes that we need to include, different ideas that we have. But the goal of YouTube – we want people to smile, we want people to enjoy it. And with our programs, depending on the type of music and the concept, we want people to appreciate it and enjoy it. So it’s just working that creative muscle and learning how to be better storytellers. Because I do believe it makes us stronger skaters and stronger competitors.

Everything is connected.

Alex: Yeah, yeah! It really is, I think.

If you ever want to relax – if you even want to, because I’m not sure now [all laugh], what is your favorite way to do so?

Alex: You learn how to get enjoyment out of…

Maia: Even challenging things.

Alex: Yeah, even the work. I’m enjoying training now more than I was enjoying it four years ago. And even if we have an obligation off ice that we have to do, maybe we would rather do resting, or maybe we would rather be working on something else – but you take it as an experience and you try to be the best version of yourself, for everything that you can make yourself do. But to answer to your question, when we are resting, we like eating…

Maia: Spending time with our dogs…

Alex: And spending time with our family, it’s pretty simple.

Marina intervenes with a smile: Spending time doing the videos.

Alex: Yeah, yeah, when we have free time we’ll do that.

So in your free time you will work again.

Alex: It depends on how you think of work, what’s work to you.

Or I’ll listen to an interview on a podcast, actually with directors, and writers of film and television. And I learn a lot from that, because, for example, when we were listening to one on the plane on the way here, there was a director, who has this TV show, who he has the first season, and the second season, and he’s releasing the third season soon. And there are so many parallels to that in our trilogy. There’s critical reception, there are critics, people who rate every episode and the story, and the first season – he said people loved it, and with the second season people have been more critical. But hearing people talking about their process… Making movies or television is so different, people would be like: How is that related? You learn from people who are doing the same creative things that you are. So we’re always open to learning.

Marina’s always been like that. We’ve been skating for a long time, but of all the coaches and people who we met through the sport – Marina’s always learning, and watching videos. [to Marina] Even when we first started working with you, you would show us videos of dance, things that weren’t really related to skating. And even old skating performances – she’d share this stuff with us. She always wants to learn, if we work with a hip-hop dancer, like last year – she’s always interested. And that’s what allows her to do things professionally and successfully.

Marina: Professional people have to work for [their] profession. My profession is to make them champions. And how: I invite professional people to help to reach the goal.

Maia and Alex practice their “Fix You” free dance in Barcelona, at 2015 Grand Prix Final, under the eyes of Marina Zoueva (right, behind the boards) – and Marina has always been there for the Shibutanis: a friend, an ally, a beautiful constant in their career.


How would you define your plans for this season, your goals?

Alex: Well, step one was pretty good [both smile]. First competition. We’re aware, based on experience, that not always the first competition goes the way you expect it to. Two years ago, we started off at Ondrej Nepela Trophy and we didn’t get the result that we wanted at all. So we had to go back to the drawing board, and we were able to turn things around by the time we had our first Grand Prix. There’s always work, you always try to set the best plan, and try to follow it, but you have to be capable of adjusting and adapting.

And that’s why, having this team, where we’re really good at communicating and organizing and planning, we know that we will go to Lake Placid for our second Grand Prix really well prepared. There’s a lot of time between now and then, four weeks, and then there’s the Final.

Maia: But this is really an exciting start, it’s good to start and to show what we’ve been working so hard on.

Alex: And, obviously, everyone is looking at the Olympics. The goal for us is to be this season the best we’ve ever been. Our results over the past two years have just been getting better. And I guess it’s kind of leading to what we hope we can accomplish at the Olympics. I think we’re on the right track.

Marina adds: And the program, I think, wasn’t about them in Paradise. I feel like it’s a step, and step, and step. They can’t be now in a Paradise, you know what I mean? It’s a stairway. So much room for improvement. So many competitions – that’s how many steps, and that’s what they show. It’s a start.

Alex: We’ll be ready to compete every single time. Marina’s right – that’s the way every season has gone for the past two seasons.

Marina: Yeah, and it has to be.

Alex: No one’s expecting the Olympic performance in October.

Marina: No-no, no one wants the Olympic performance to be like the one in October.

[All laugh]

Alex: You’re right, that’s true.

Marina: Your performance was great today, but do you want to perform like that at the Olympics? Even if it’s great, if you do your maximum, if you perform like that in February, will you be satisfied with it? No. No one will be happy. Everyone wants to see improvement. Improvement is key. Key for life, key for this moment, and big picture comes from small picture with improvement.

Alex: And we’re good at showing improvement.

Yes, it’s like a saying we have in Russian: if you go slower, you will get further [“Тише едешь, дальше будешь”]. Well, thank you so much for your time, and best of luck to you!

Improvement is key, Marina Zoueva says – and no better time, no better place for a (photo) recap of some key-moments, improvement included, in Maia and Alex’s career. We’ll start with that: the moment they set foot on senior stage – and won a bronze medal in their debut at Worlds (short dance in Moscow, 2011).

From one lady of ice dancing to another – as if gold medalist Meryl Davis were passing an imaginary torch to (then) teenager Maia Shibutani (medal ceremony at 2011 Worlds).

Glowing Marina Zoueva embracing Maia Shibutani at the end of medal ceremony in Moscow – it was a day of joy for Marina Zoueva and Igor Shpilband: they coached all three ice dance teams medaling at 2011 Worlds.

Fast-forward to December 2015: Maia and Alex practice their “Fix You” free dance in Barcelona, at the Grand Prix Final; at the end of season, after a very long hiatus, they’ll return to the World podium, winning the silver medal in Boston.

Pushing the boundaries when it comes to music choices: Maia and Alex, and the opening pose of their short dance to Sinatra and Jay-Z (2017 Worlds).

The second part of the trilogy – “Evolution” – as performed at 2017 Worlds in Helsinki

Stéphane Lambiel closely watching Maia and Alex in Helsinki; at the end of competition, they’ll all fly to Switzerland to already work on the Olympic season’s concepts/ideas.

Happy brother and sister in Helsinki at the end of their free dance – they’ll finish the competition with another World medal (bronze).

Now onto this season: skating – and having fun while doing it – to “Mambo No. 5”, “Cherry Pink (and Apple Blossom White)” and “Mambo Jambo”.

„When she was just a girl she expected the world…” – Maia and Alex in Moscow, skating to Coldplay’s „Paradise”.

“…every time we step on the ice this season, and then at the Olympic Games – we’ve reached our paradise”.

[interview by Nadia Vasilyeva, Moscow/intro & editing by Florentina Tone/photos by Natasha Ponarina, Julia Komarova, Florentina Tone, Veronika Potaturko]


Edges, lines, emotions: my week at 2015 Grand Prix Final

The ice dancing event at 2015 GPF: a journey through emotions