How the Shibutani Siblings Have Stayed Friends Through the Olympics and Book Launches

Alex and Maia Shibutani might be the most recognizable siblings to have graced the ice skating rink. Known affectionately as the "Shib Sibs," the ice-dance team won two Olympic medals in the 2018 Olympics and were elected to the US Figure Skating Hall of Fame just last year. The siblings — Alex is 31 and Maia is 28 — have been competing in ice dance for nearly two decades, becoming fan favorites as they document their life together.

Since stepping away from competing, the two have been busy — their latest book, "Amazing: Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders Who Inspire Us All," was released last month. This is their third book and first nonfiction children's book, and it highlights the achievements of various Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders. The pair started working on it more than two years ago, amid the pandemic and a rise in anti-Asian racism.

"Initially what inspired us, or part of it, was wanting to see more representation than what we had when we were children," Maia tells POPSUGAR. Alex adds that they want its impact to go far in that sense: "It was a way for us to uplift, celebrate, and highlight AAPI figures and improve the representation in children's literature — and hopefully advocate for increased educational resources and even mandated AAPI curriculum across all 50 states."

POPSUGAR got an insight into how the siblings, ice-dancing partners, coauthors, and best friends interact over Zoom. They called in from Los Angeles, where they both live. Read the duo in conversation with one another ahead — they reminisced on their childhood, recounted pivotal moments in their career together, and even joked about each other's biggest quirks.

And be sure to read all of our APIA Heritage Month stories centered on friendship here.

On Their First Memories of Each Other

Alex Shibutani: Our sibling relationship is unique in that it's incredibly well-documented. Our parents had a camcorder and they took photos of us and took video of us, and we're fortunate to have that to look back on. And we've shared some of the videos in the past, and people really seem to like them. One of the most popular ones is the first day that I met Maia. I was so excited to meet her. Our parents explained to me that I was getting a best friend, and so I was excited to meet my best friend. I asked to hold her, and of course, she starts crying. But for a brief moment, she was peaceful, and in my mind, very happy. That was a very memorable moment for me.

Maia Shibutani: Fortunately, because we do have video of that moment, I've been able to see it. As far as early memories of Alex, I feel like it maybe those start when I was 3 or 4. I just feel like Alex was always helping me with things, whether it was passing me food at dinner —

Alex: Yeah, I wanted to help feed her.

Maia: There was just always this sense of, if I needed something, Alex was always there for me.

Alex: There is a video that has been shared where Maia and I are playing after dinner one night, and her hair clip falls out of her hair. And I immediately start helping her by trying to put the clip back in her hair.

Maia: And I'm very satisfied when he finally fixes it. And then I also remember playing outside and reading books together. That's something that was very core to our childhood.

What Drew Them Both to Ice Dancing

Maia: We first stepped on the ice when we were 4 and 7, respectively. And then we started ice dance when we were 9 and 12. But in those five years, I'd say that initially I took it more seriously than Alex did; he was playing the violin, he wanted to play basketball, whereas for me, skating is what I gravitated toward right away.

"We're just so used to spending time together."

Alex: That's not to say you weren't involved in other activities, like ballet. Our parents exposed us to a wide array of things. Any time we expressed interest, they really supported us and were like, "Yeah, let's try it." But Maia's definitely right, she took an immediate interest in skating. The act of doing it was so much fun for her that she wanted to keep doing it and was very sure of herself.

It's foggy for me in a way, but all I can remember is that all of a sudden, I was at the skating rink, too — taking lessons. And maybe it was because we had such a close sibling relationship. The way I've told this story before is that there was no way my mom was going to leave me at home to just watch TV and cause problems while Maia was at the rink with her. So it was like, I was at the rink.

That progressed to us skating individually, and then eventually we were introduced to ice dance because we had the opportunity to see it live, and our coaches thought it would be a great addition to our training. And we just immediately excelled, I think, and had so much fun. Those two things going together — the improvement and the instant —

Maia: Gratification.

Alex: Yes, gratification of progress, was fueled by how much fun we were having and how well we got along and worked together.

How They've Navigated Conflict as Siblings and Ice-Dance Partners

Alex: We're just so used to spending time together. We're each other's only other sibling, and so I think in noting the earliest memories that we have of each other, they do really inform how natural it was for us to get along. It wasn't like, oh, all of a sudden we're skating together and that's going to be a big adjustment for us. It was just, now there's a lesson plan, now we have an objective.

Maia: Yeah, I think we naturally got along, but one of the things we had to get used to was how the other person reacted to high-pressure situations, because we were only 9 and 12 at the time. Once you start competing, everything changes, and at that time, we handled nerves differently. I'd get kind of quiet, Alex would get really chatty and boisterous, and so we had to be able to balance each other's energies and be understanding of the other person — like, Maia's not being quiet because she's angry at you, it's because she's focused.

Alex: It's just her way of expressing herself. And regardless of how similar we're perceived to be, we're still two different people with different preferences, and then you toss in a high-pressure environment. People will ask, "Was the Olympics the most pressure you've been under?" and I will say yes, but with the caveat being that when you're 12 years old and you're doing the local competition, that feels like the most pressure you've ever been under. So each progressive experience kind of builds on the last and gives you the confidence of having gotten through it and the learnings you take from those memories and moments you then apply to the next thing. So I think maybe it's just the way we communicate or the examples that our parents, teachers, coaches gave from a young age, but that all informed how we behaved.

Maia: But one thing I do have to mention, early on, I think because we are a sibling team and coaches were trying to teach us things, they would lean into the sibling rivalry aspect of it, which wasn't helpful because we were on the same team.

Alex: Yes, and I don't want it to come across like it was easy for us, because we've been through challenging disagreements and arguments that resulted not necessarily because we had a rift, but it may have been generated from an unintentional outside source. And we had to just figure out why we were feeling the way we were feeling about it.

Their Favorite Moments Competing Together

Maia: I think it's easy to look back at the memories with the best results, but for me, there was an event that I want to say took place in 2015 where Alex was really sick. He got bad food poisoning, stomach virus, something —

Alex: You can gloss over what the illness actually was . . .

Maia: But it was at a competition and Alex really wasn't feeling well, and we had done the first part of the competition and the next day, overnight, you were not in good shape. But the way that you dug so deep and persevered — you were having a hard time, we weren't able to even warm up or practice normally the morning of. But you just found it within yourself to get where you needed to go. And it was such a strong and emotional performance.

"We had to overcome and show mental grit and toughness and belief in one another."

Part of it was that I was concerned about your well-being, and then you have people outside asking questions like, "Is it safe for him to even be lifting you, do you trust him?" And it's like, I do trust him, if he's telling me he's going to be able to do it, I believe him. But at the same time, I knew it was so immensely challenging for you — which made me not only just respect you as an athlete and a teammate, but that was a huge breakthrough moment for us and that's only because you were able to really dig deep.

Alex: Looking at that period of time, it was a pretty significant moment in terms of hindsight being 20/20. That was a turning point where, in the lead-up to the 2018 Olympics, it was a moment that we had to overcome and show mental grit and toughness and belief in one another. And that was very much felt by us and very visible to everyone else.

My other favorite memories are when we figured it out. Of course, the reason why people like sports is that they're unpredictable — your routine is just waiting to get disrupted and it's about how you react and pivot and stay focused. And my favorite moments are those real brimming-with-confidence, things are going wrong around us, the bus is running late, our competitors are very, very nervous, and us just kind of — not shrugging, but knowing that we had it. You can't control the results in a subjective sport, but we knew that we were in control and prepared to exist in the moment and really enjoy the moment.

On the Quirkiest Thing About the Other Sibling

Maia: One thing came to mind . . .

Alex: Well one thing to note is that we've probably spent more time together than 99.9 percent of other siblings. Very unusual. We're super grateful for it, but I think people can either be envious of it or they're like, "That must be really hard."

Maia: OK, so two things immediately came to mind. The first one is that you don't know how to burp. [Laughs]

Alex: Yeah, I can't burp.

Maia: And the second one that came to mind is that you can use contacts, but you don't like putting things in your eyes, so if you're using eyedrops or something, you need help.

Alex: I mean, I have very good hand-eye coordination, but for whatever reason, ever since I was a kid, I did not like getting water in my eyes. I think there's a psychological thing with that.

Quirks for Maia . . . this is actually a compliment. She always laughs a little bit when I intentionally try to say something funny. She's just very thoughtful that, like, I tried. Well I guess that's not a quirk. I'm really trying to think about if there are weird things you do.

Maia: There's that photo of me from the Olympics where I'm lying on the ground. That was a little odd.

Alex: Unlike any other competitor I've seen, the way that Maia before competing would ground herself is very literal. She'd lie down on her back and close her eyes, and I don't know what you were doing —

Maia: It's like allowing gravity to do its job, because I feel like when a lot of people get nervous, especially in sports, they get out of their legs and they feel like they're floating. So when I lie down on the ground, I'm just like, I feel my entire body pressing against the floor, and it helps center me.