Despite no medal, Shibutani siblings 'win' by making most of Olympic experience
SOCHI, Russia – A funny thing happens whenever I tell someone that my last column at the Olympics will be about figure skaters Maia and Alex Shibutani. I expect people to say: Really? Why?
Instead, a reporter says: “Hey, they live just six blocks away from me.”
A USOC official says, “Oh, they were just in here … Alex was asking me all about what I do here. What great kids.”
My wife Margo says: “Can we adopt them?”
Freeski halfpipe gold-medalist Maddie Bowman sees them and shrieks, “Ahhh! I love you guys so much!”
NBC social media manager Dan Palla sees them and says: “Oh, hey, I haven’t seen you guys since my honeymoon.”
Your honeymoon? Seriously?
“Yeah, Hawaii,” Alex says. “We just happened to be there.”
Let’s just get this out of the way: The Shibutanis won the Olympics. They didn’t win a medal. They didn’t come especially close to winning a medal. They are a brother-sister ice dance team and they were actually disappointed in their free skate – they had a bit of a clothing malfunction. They won the Olympics anyway.
“No regrets,” they say to each other, and they smile because that has been the whole point of their Olympics. No regrets. Enjoy everything. The Winter Olympics are a massive snowglobe of joy and dismay and confusion and politics and friendship and glory. The thorny challenge for the athletes is to somehow make sense of it all. You see them here in a fog, weighed down by the intense pressure, frustrated by a poor score or an imperfect turn, staggered by the hugeness of it all. That’s human.
Embedded video_content_type: Alex and Maia Shibutani take ninth in ice dancing
So Maia and Alex came in with a plan. He’s 22. She’s 19. They have been dreaming about making it to the Olympics for pretty much their whole lives. Maia fell in love with skating when she was 4 and attended a skating birthday party. And Alex, three years older, soon realized that his basketball future was limited. So they skated together. There was something unusual about them from the start. Yes, they were natural skaters, advanced beyond their years, but that wasn’t the unusual part.
The unusual part was how well a brother and sister got along.
“I don’t remember this obviously,” Alex says. “But there are films of me when Maia is born and I’m SO excited to have a sister. It’s always been like that.”
“We’re very different people,” Maia says. “But I think our differences complement each other.”
“We are very different,” Alex says. “But we’ve just always been super close.”
“I think you have to remember that we’ve been on this journey together, we’ve had this common goal, and that’s kept us close,” Maia says.
“People think we never fight,” Alex says. “We cringe when we people say that.”
“We definitely fight,” Maia says.
OK, the last few quotes – they came one after another, without pause, each of them picking up right where the other left off, like they were singing a duet. It’s mesmerizing how much they care about each other.* And I can’t get my daughters to sit in the backseat of the car for 10 minutes without fighting.
*I asked them at one point if they had any advice for parents who want their kids to like each other more. They offered an involved and thoughtful 20-minute answer that they might have to turn into a book someday.
Embedded owg_slideshow: Shibutani childhood photo gallery
Point is, they had this wonderful perspective more of less from the start. Their parents – who met as musicians at Harvard – did not push them into skating. Maia and Alex did that themselves. They practiced relentlessly because they wanted to go to the Olympics but also because, most of the time, it was their favorite thing to do. Their first coach, Kathy Bird, nicknamed them “Mac and Cheese.” Alex was cheese because of the cheesy way he would smile at judges and the crowd.
Well, both of them just loved it. Then, both of them have a huge capacity for loving everything. Music. Sports. Movies. Memories. Before they skate, they usually watch a sitcom (“We always skate best when we’re happy,” Maia says), but before the U.S. National Championships - which function as Olympic trials - Maia found an old skating tape of them in Boston 10 years earlier. The two watched it and bawled their eyes out.
“I thought, ‘Why did I do this?’” Maia says.
“But it was exactly what we needed for that performance,” Alex says.
They obviously skated well at the trials and made it here. And they came into these Olympics with a plan to enjoy all of it, to embrace all of it, experience all of it. That began in Munich where they got their Olympic gear, an experience they described as one of the coolest things ever. Then they started introducing themselves to every athlete they could, and found they were all SO NICE, experiences they described as some of the coolest things ever.
They, of course, marched in the Opening Ceremony. They find it a little sad for those athletes who don’t.
“We weren’t going to miss the Opening Ceremony,” Alex says.
“That was a big part of the dream for us,” Maia says.
Maia says she was surprised Alex didn’t cry during the Opening Ceremony – Alex tends to get pretty emotional about these things (he actually cried at a media gathering in Salt Lake City because the Olympic dream was so close and it was just so cool to be interviewed). Alex admits he did mist up a time or two. They both remember a moment when they heard a voice yell: “Hey, I know you two. You are the brother and sister skaters!”
That was Lolo Jones.
And that was one of coolest things ever.
Embedded video_content_type: TODAY: All in the Shibutani family
They tried to meet everyone. Alex, a huge hockey and Bruins fan, was particularly mesmerized that the hockey players would talk to him. Maia, not a huge sports fan, just found Bruins and Finnish goalie Tukka Rask to be so nice. “Every time we see him, he asks ‘How are you doing? How are you enjoying the Olympics?’” Alex merely nods, still a bit spellbound by it all.
That, obviously, was one of the coolest things ever.
They took photos of themselves everywhere. By the torch. In the mountains. At the water. On the ice. They took video of themselves that they will put on their YouTube channel. Maia wrote in her journal. They spent as much time as they could in the athletes’ cafeteria just so they could, you know, meet athletes. Alex says it was amazing to work out in the same gym as the great athletes. It was, well, you know, one of the coolest things ever.
“Everybody has a journey to get to the Olympics,” Alex says. “And I think we’re fascinated by that. We have had our own journey, and it’s tough sometimes. It’s a lot of hard work and there are times you wonder if it’s worth it. It’s great to hear how other people get through those feelings.”
On the ice, they were very proud of their short program – “about as well as we can do,” Maia says – and on the long program (which they do to a Michael Jackson medley) her dress got caught during a lift which cost them a lot of points. They were a bit disappointed, of course, but Maia says, “We knew we did our best.”
“Things like that happen,” Alex says.
“It isn’t always perfect,” Maia says.
Of course they stayed in Sochi afterward. They went to events. They talked with athletes. They roamed around asking a million questions. When they saw the NBC control center, Alex had to take a photo of it – he says he wants to redo his apartment to look like it. When they went to watch some halfpipe, they had to get as close as possible to marvel at how tall it is (“It’s so much taller than it looks on TV,” Alex says). They went to hockey games. They cheered on American skaters.
And they walked in Sunday’s Closing Ceremony. Of course they did.
“We wouldn’t miss it,” Maia says.
It is a gift to be so wide-eyed. And you sense they will never lose it. Maia and Alex Shibutani don’t know if they will ever be at another Olympics. They expect to be. They are young and talented enough that they should be a contender in 2018 – but as Maia herself says, there are no guarantees in life. They are students. She would like to study law. He is interested in film and sports media. “Skating,” Alex says, “is just one part of our life.”
And,so they leave Sochi knowing that they made the most of it. That’s the goal. They won the Olympics. You know the Olympics, like almost everything in life, are exactly what you want to see in them. In the eight I’ve covered, what has struck me most is how few athletes really embrace it all. Years later, they will say they were too young to appreciate it or too caught up in their own performance to have fun or too discouraged by a judging lapse or a mistake to recognize that being an Olympian, competing in this one event with the rest of the world, it is …
… well, seen through the Shibutanis’ eyes, it is the coolest thing ever.
Joe Posnanski is the national columnist for NBC Sports. Follow him on twitter @JPosnanski