Bronze medallists at PyeongChang 2018, the American ice dancing siblings just released their first book last month, less than a year after a health scare for Maia.
The American ice dancers and siblings released their first book, Kudo Kids, last month, a young adult mystery that is the first in a series and has an Olympic plot line and a brother-sister duo inspired by the Shibutanis themselves.
“I think that with (the characters) Mika and Andy, there's clearly some parallels in personality” with us, Alex told Olympic Channel in an exclusive interview. “And we are comfortable writing about a sibling relationship. We really wanted more positive sibling relationship representation out there. Maia and I obviously have a great relationship and we work together and enjoy traveling and going on adventures. And so do Mika and Andy.”
It’s been quite the adventure for the Shib sibs, as they’re known, since their PyeongChang 2018 appearance earned them a bronze medal in both the figure skating team event and the ice dance competition.
They’ve stepped away from competitive skating (though not retired – more on that below), travelled the world, written their new book, collaborated for a web show and continued to document their travails on their social media platforms, including their time touring with Stars on Ice – in both the U.S. and Japan.
But in October of 2019 much of that came to a halt when Maia went to the hospital on a trip to New York City with stomach pains. Two months later she had the first major surgery of her life, removing a cancerous lump on her kidney, a “very scary moment… not just for me, but our family,” said Maia.
We start our conversation there, while also discussing their new book, COVID-19 charity work, their perspectives from stepping away from the ice and whether (no spoilers!) they might make a comeback for Beijing 2022.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Olympic Channel: Maia tell us about your health now. You had that scare with a tumor in December and the recovery, from what we understand, was not an easy process.
Maia Shibutani: I'm doing really well now. I'm cancer free. It's been a challenging and unexpected circumstance. I feel so grateful that I've had Alex's support, our parents, and then really the conversations and the way that this journey has gone on. I feel like I've learned so much and the meaningful conversations and growth that I feel like I've been able to have during this period has been really helpful.
OC: Alex you guys have always done everything together. What was this experience like for you and how did you try to support the best way you could?*
Alex Shibutani:* I think it was all about being the best brother and the best teammate that I could possibly be, (while) understanding that there was no way for me to relate directly to what she was going through. But with our with our history and our past experiences of supporting each other when times are good and bad… it was in some ways a familiar role for me to step into.
Obviously, it was terrifying and very scary. But Maia is such a strong person and she has such a strong will and is very positive. And so even though those times were particularly difficult, it was almost made easier supporting her because I know how strong she is. And so actually, in some ways, she really helped me because there is sort of a feeling of helplessness. … She maybe comforted me more than I was able to successfully comfort her.
Maia: You were very supportive and helpful. You got to give yourself some more credit.
OC: How did tools from skating help you in the illness process, if at all?*
Maia:* I think a lot about what we've learned as athletes as far as mindset and mental strength. (It) definitely helped me through that whole uncertain process. Alex kind of alluded to it: We have good communication between the two of us and our family. So that support system was definitely there.
I think it was really just about taking it day by day and being patient with myself because there's so much involved when you have to face cancer, not just the surgery, but then also the mental and emotional aspect.
OC: Well we’re obviously happy you’ve come through that, Maia. Let’s switch gears… how does it feel to add the title of “author” to your CV?
Maia: It feels amazing. We're still kind of getting used to it at the same time. Alex and I have been working on this book since 2018, and so our original release date was May. And so now that the book's finally out in September, it just feels really incredible because we've been working so hard on it. Finally seeing the book in everyone's hands is amazing.
Alex: It's surreal. I think in some ways, the experience of releasing our first book has been affected by the pandemic. And so we haven't had that special experience of going into a local bookstore and seeing the display or signing copies. A lot of our promotion and discussion about the book has been digital and online. But it's been amazing because I think, you know, it's quite disappointing that the Olympics were obviously postponed. The plot of our book takes place in Tokyo at the Olympic Games. And with the Olympics still coming next year, I think it's really special that we're able to share a small piece of that with young readers.
OC: Actually, Alex, on that. Athletes who were trying to qualify or already had booked their spots for Tokyo 2020, how do empathize with what they’re facing right now? And surely it’s impacted winter athletes, too.
Maia: Alex and I really feel for the athletes that were preparing for Tokyo. The Olympics is something that you dream about from the time that you start your sport. And at least in my case, I know that I had a very specific years, like everywhere in my journal or whatever. To have something big like COVID affect what's been in your mind's eye for so long is a huge challenge. But at the same time, the Olympics brings together the most elite athletes from around the world. They're all facing the same circumstance.
So I think that like everyone, they've had the chance to just take a moment, be grateful, first of all, for health, for everyone that's doing work to keep everyone else safe, but then figure out a way that they can get back into training safely and on the timeline that they need to right now.
OC: That’s a process, of course, but let’s go back to your book for a minute and talk about that process. What was it like for you writing it?
Maia: Alex and I were really excited about this process because pretty immediately we noticed the similarities between the stories that we tell on the ice in our process there with collaboration and our communication with what we were able to transfer to this book. It's really exciting because the topic really talks about a lot of things that we know. It's another set of siblings, Mika and Andy, but they traveled to Tokyo. We've been traveling in Japan for so many years now. So to be able to share the Olympic Games, another sibling story and then also some fun food things has been an incredible process.
We've been getting a lot of photos of kids eating and reading our book at the same time. So we definitely approve of that combo.
OC: There is the similarity with you and the characters, but one thing that’s so clear is that you, Maia and Alex, have such curiosity in life for adventure. Where does that come from?
Alex: I think that we've always leaned into being creative and doing things. That's one of the things that drew us to figure skating in the first place. And, you know, being partners and being siblings has been an amazing experience in our skating, but also being able to extend that to the book. And so as far as like being adventurous, we love sharing our journey.
It felt like an interesting opportunity to be able to share another set of siblings and their adventures and their stories.
Maia: We've been really fortunate that through our sport, we've been able to travel the world and have all these unique experiences. So in telling this story, it was really important that we were able to take kids on that journey through the book and through the story. It's been great to get the feedback that people are able to escape for a few hours while they're reading the book, especially during the pandemic. I think that that's so special that not only can we share a fun adventure, but there are also some great lessons and it's also just a really fun story.
OC: So you stepped away from competition in 2018, but you were back training a bit in late 2019, when you got sick, Maia. Is there still a possibility fans might see a comeback?
Maia: One of the challenges of (the tumor) was that not only was it so unexpected, we were having a very busy year, but I think that I had both been working hard to be in really elite shape. We were both very strong. With the surgery, it was a challenge as the first surgery I’ve ever had. I think there was kind of a reset where I had to just focus on health.
I think that we're gonna be getting on the ice next month just to kind of get out there again. (I’m) just very grateful that I'm healthy, because I think that when you're in the whirlwind of competition or just traveling like we were, it's very easy to take certain things for granted or just assume that that's how things will always be.
Alex: The break from competitive skating has been well earned. And also, we've really enjoyed it from the standpoint that it's been an incredible opportunity for us to grow and to experience different things. I think we tried to do it as much as we could in the lead up to the 2018 Olympic Games. But, you know, working with different people, stepping outside of kind of the typical lanes of competitive ice dance to sort of further expand our world view. And I think we had great success in bringing a lot of the things we learned back to the ice, whether it was observable or noticeable by everyone. Our coaching team and us, we really felt the impact of our curiosity.
And so this period of time has been great because, prior to last December, we were incorporating a bunch of different new activities to our physical training regimen: Maya had been boxing and we had been working with personal trainers. And so, you know, hopefully we can get back to that because obviously health is really important, whether you're dealing with a medical issue or not.
OC: Right. But if we look at the timeline now, it’s quite challenging, especially in ice dance. You’d be coming back in the Olympic season itself to try to make it to Beijing.
Alex: I think it's all been further complicated by the pandemic. I think before March, we were looking at previous examples of, you know, Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir… Carolina Kostner, different athletes who would take time out. Yuna Kim. But given our experience and especially the level of communication and our tendency to be very much in sync on the things that we decide to do, that wasn't ever really a concern for us as far as getting things together. But as the world is sort of adjusting to sort of the new normal that we're facing, at least for the time being. I think that has added another layer, a dimension to our considerations for returning and when that might be.
OC: What have you enjoyed the most about stepping back from competition? Perhaps even being a figure skating fan a bit, too.
Maia: We're still in touch with some (skating) people, but we've taken a step back in that when we were focused on competing, I'd say that we were very in the weeds all the time. It's been kind of nice to be a spectator of not just figure skating, but other sports when we have more time. And then you find that it's like, ‘Oh, wait, we can go out to dinner and have conversations or we can focus on taking interesting photos or reading books.’ It's pretty incredible.
Alex: We really enjoy being in those weeds... the beautiful weeds Maia mentions. But it's not even an exaggeration from the standpoint of going out to dinner and having a conversation, because when you're in the grind preparing for competitions, yes, food is fuel and it's very important. But it is an activity that's something that you're just like getting through on your schedule, not necessarily something that you can enjoy.
It's been nice to step away, but while we're not observing and analyzing protocols, the same level of, you know, intensity that we were before, we still definitely keep up with people in the sport. Our coaches and it's been interesting to track some of the changes that we've seen over the past couple of years.
OC: Let’s go back to PyeongChang 2018. What memories stick out to you from that experience?
Alex: So we're asked this question related to our Olympic experience in 2018 about what was the most memorable or stand out moment for us. And so because we're asked it pretty frequently, I've contemplated trying to switch it up just so that I can give a different answer each time, because the entire experience as a whole was so was so amazing and memorable and special for us because we were there as a family and all the years and hours that go into preparing for a moment like that.
But I would still have to say that it really is my thing… Maia and I are gonna say the same two: The two moments are is when we finished our free dance, it was the final competitive performance that we had done at that Olympic Games. And it was before the scores came in. But we were so satisfied and grateful to have that moment together where it's just the two of us out on the ice and we're sharing that moment with the audience. And that was really special.
The second one is when we were able to meet a group of students that we had mentored in the six months leading up to the games through the ‘Thank You PyeongChang’ program. And that was incredibly special, too, because it was sort of the other half of what the Olympic experience has. (There are) the capabilities of being at the performance, the technical execution side of it… all of your training and that culminating in that one moment, but then also the human element, which is also incredibly special and speaks to what an important event the Olympics are and what they do for the world.
So to be able to interact and finally meet in person all these students who actually came to our to our free dance on that last performance day as well was… it was incredibly special because we learned a lot and our hearts were so filled by that moment. That's just like a nice way of saying that we cried. But it was just really special to see them and share that entire moment with essentially strangers who we had only met over video calls.
But again, it was just one of those moments that I hadn't dreamed about when I was a young kid thinking about the Olympic Games. It was always performance space.
Maia: It's true. We cried a lot when we met them because we cried a lot in general at the Olympics in a very unique environment.
It's stressful. Two weeks. The fact that we competed, we were competing four times on Olympic ice. That's a lot of pressure between the practices and everything involved. I agree that this special moment that Alex and I got to share was after individual free dance, being there together on the ice, knowing that we've done absolutely everything that we could to do a performance that we can be so proud of was incredibly special. But then the fact that we built this bond with the students in the six months leading up to the games and then had the opportunity to meet them in person. It was pretty full circle because to go from being a young kid that dreams of performing at the Olympics to speaking to kids in the lead up, it just was a very special circumstance. And we feel grateful that we were chosen as the ambassadors of that program.