MOSCOW (Reuters) - American ice dancers Maia and Alex Shibutani exchange glances and beam as they describe their new programs and their progress since their last Olympic appearance.
The siblings’ bond manifests itself through fluidity and coordination on the ice, where the sister and brother have emerged from the shadows of veteran competitors as medal contenders for the Pyeongchang Olympics next month.
Maia and Alex, 23 and 26 respectively, finished ninth at the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics, their first Games.
Since then, they have matured and refined their craft, winning a silver and a bronze world championship medal along the way.
“We have pushed ourselves to prepare for a very important year,” Alex Shibutani told Reuters after he and Maia won the first grand prix ice dance event of the season in Moscow in October.
“Now is our time.”
The Shibutani siblings, who experienced success as a young team, came into their senior careers as the circuit was dominated by fellow Americans Meryl Davis and Charlie White, the defending Olympic champions.
But Davis and White, the three-time Olympic medalists and two-time world champions who haven’t competed since Sochi, announced this year that they would not defend their Olympic title, creating a void the Shibutanis are ready to fill.
“We had to step up to the plate and develop our own sense of who we are,” Alex Shibutani said.
“Regardless of whether Meryl and Charlie were around, we were just ready to do that at that point in our career.”
Maia introduced the Shibutanis to figure skating, starting as a single skater. Alex, who admits he initially was “not that into skating”, soon followed.
“I think a lot of our success comes from how close we are and the bond that we have,” Alex said. “I think what we have is very unique.”
Their coach, Marina Zoueva, said that the dancers’ family ties does not mean they never have disagreements, just like in any other sibling relationship.
“It’s a family project,” she told Reuters. “In the end it helps that they are brother and sister.”
Not performing romantic routines means the siblings have been forced to expand their repertoire and be more creative.
With their bubbly personalities and affinity for social media, the Shibutanis have established a broad base of followers online. Their respective Twitter accounts and a joint “ShibSibs” account have a combined total of about 120,000 followers.
They also run a YouTube channel chronicling their daily lives, travels, competitions and costume fittings.
The Shibutanis say their social media habits are a hobby they hope will help popularize figure skating in the United States.
U.S. Figure Skating, the sport’s governing body in the country, has more than 184,200 members, but the sport is far less popular and accessible than others.
The Shibutanis won the Skate America grand prix event in November with 194.25 points, a new personal best.
They finished third at the Grand Prix Final in Japan in December for the second straight year despite Alex struggling with one-footed turns known as twizzles.
“We made – or I made – an uncharacteristic error, but at the same time we love this free dance and while we wish we could have performed it better today, we’re very forward focused,” Alex told reporters after the competition.
The Shibutanis are skating their new free program to Coldplay’s “Paradise,” a song they say illustrates what they hope awaits.
The program, revealed at the Moscow grand prix event, was conceived at the end of the 2015-16 season when their flagging career got back on track.
The dancers had a breakthrough that season, winning their first U.S. senior national title, their first ISU (International Skating Union) championship event and a silver medal at the 2016 world championships. They had not stepped on the podium at the world championships since 2011.
“Over the last four years, they’ve moved up to a level at which they are competitive,” Zoueva said. “Like they are taking steps on a stairway to paradise.”
The Shibutanis will face stiff competition at the Olympics, including from Canadians Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir, the defending world champions and three-time Olympic medalists.
“Maia and I, we’ve been on this journey for 14 years,” Alex said.
“It’s about reaching our paradise and being in that moment on Olympic ice. Every time we take the ice, we seize it.”
Additional reporting by Elaine Lies in Nagoya; Editing by Amlan Chakraborty