Go Away With ... Alex and Maia Shibutani
After winning two bronze medals at the PyeongChang Olympics this year, Alex and Maia Shibutani made history by becoming the first skaters of Asian heritage to medal in ice dancing. “It was really special, because there hadn’t been a tradition of ice dance success for Asians,” says Alex, 26. “Whenever we compete anywhere in Asia, we always feel adopted and embraced by the locals.” Maia, 23, adds, “We got a strong sense of the audience’s enthusiasm while we were competing in Korea. We felt such love.” Fans may stay in touch with the siblings on Twitter via their joint account (https://twitter.com/ShibSibs), as well as their individual feeds (https://twitter.com/AlexShibutani, https://twitter.com/MaiaShibutani)
Q. Are you looking forward to competing at the 2022 Olympics in Beijing?
Maia: It feels really good to be asked that, because it means that people want to see more of us. But we’ve also learned that you also have to take time to appreciate the moment. We’ve worked so hard and it’s so easy to be goal-oriented and quickly move onto the next thing. But, really, we’ve been building toward the PyeongChang Olympics for a long time, so at this moment, we’re trying to just let everything that we’ve accomplished sink in.
Alex: It’s really difficult to say. I said this in 2014: “Do you know where you’ll be in four years?” and then it got misinterpreted by a reporter, who said, “Shibutatinis are considering retirement!” (Laughs)
Q. Most people will never get to watch the Olympics in person. You’ve competed at PyeongChang and at the 2014 Games in Sochi. How did they compare and contrast?
Alex: Every Olympics is different. The biggest emotional difference was that our first Games was a new experience. Sochi was pretty much designed to be an Olympics location. Everything was built from the ground up. We didn’t really have an opportunity to go out and explore the culture. What we were there for was competing and we spent the majority of our time at the rink or the athletes village. We got out more in PyeongChang. Once we were done competing, we got to see some of the local places when we did interviews. One thing I noticed was that there are a lot of coffee shops in Korea. I know latte art was one of the things they boasted about and it was cool to see that.
Q. You made international headlines for bringing Team USA swag for the Korean group, BTS. Why did you pick them?
Maia: We compete in a sport with a high performance and entertainment value and so we appreciate other artists who do the same.
Alex: And KPOP does an amazing job of blending music, dance and choreography. It pays a lot of attention to details, which we respect a lot. The reason why we picked BTS was because we really appreciate that their influence is worldwide. Regardless of whether people understand the lyrics to their songs, music is a universal language. The way they utilize the internet and social media to connect to people all over the world is a large reason for their global success. The recognition they’re receiving is really special to us as Asian Americans. And I know they’re not Asian American, but to see them being embraced in America and all over the world is inspiring for us to see. We wanted to be able to show them our support in some way.
Q. For months prior to the 2018 Olympics in Korea, you both mentored students via video at the Jinbu Middle School in PyeongChang. What did you learn from them?
Alex: So much. They are so young, but so smart. This past year has been a unique cultural experience for us. The students would tell us all about these things to look out for in the region. They also wanted us to try certain Korean dishes, so we sampled some of their recommendations before we got to Korea. Korean food is very diverse and is so much more than the Korean barbecue that everyone hears about. We really enjoyed that.
Q. How was the food at the athletes village?
Alex: The cafeteria was designed so that everyone could find something that they’re comfortable eating. There were so many different offerings. And with the Games being in Korea, they had japchae and bibimbap stations. So I enjoyed some Korean meals there, but it was at the athletes village.
Maia: This Olympics was our fourth trip to Korea, so we have had a chance to enjoy Korean food before we got there. Definitely a fan of it.
Q. What childhood memory do you have of traveling with your family?
Alex: We grew up in Connecticut and would drive to New York and Boston. The first place we traveled internationally in a big way was to France for a junior international competition and it was beautiful. The first time we went to Asia was in late 2008. That was exciting because we went to Korea and it was our first competition in Asia. On the way back, we stopped in Japan, which was our first time there. Our parents were with us, so that was nice.
Maia: We went to Tokyo for a few days and were able to explore a bit and enjoy the city.
Alex: We went to the fish market and the electronics district. We saw temples. We did a lot of touristy things and it was a cool experience. Growing up, we were aware of our heritage, but to go (to Japan) for the first time was such a memorable experience.
(Jae-Ha Kim is a New York Times bestselling author and travel writer. You can respond to this column by visiting her website at www.jaehakim.com. You may also follow “Go Away With...” on Twitter at @GoAwayWithJae where Jae-Ha Kim welcomes your questions and comments.)
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