Shibutani siblings come of age in time for Olympics

MOSCOW, Jan 5 (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.

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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 medallists 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."

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PORTLAND, OR - NOVEMBER 13: Maia Shibutani and Alex Shibutani compete in the Ice Dance Short Dance during Skate America at Rose Garden Arena on November 13, 2010 in Portland, Oregon. (Photo by Matthew Stockman/Getty Images)
PORTLAND, OR - NOVEMBER 14: Maia Shibutani and Alex Shibutani compete in the Ice Dance Free Dance during Skate America at Rose Garden Arena on November 14, 2010 in Portland, Oregon. (Photo by Matthew Stockman/Getty Images)
GREENSBORO, NC - JANUARY 28: Maia and Alex Shibutani compete in the Championship Dance Short Dance during the U.S. Figure Skating Championships at the Greensboro Coliseum on January 28, 2011 in Greensboro, North Carolina. (Photo by Matthew Stockman/Getty Images)
TAIPEI, TAIWAN - FEBRUARY 20: Maia Shibutani and Alex Shibutani of the USA skate in the Gala Exhibition during day four of the Four Continents Figure Skating Championships at Taipei Arena on February 20, 2011 in Taipei, Taiwan. (Photo by Quinn Rooney/Getty Images)
US Maia Shibutani and Alex Shibutani celebrate after the results of their free dance program in the ice dance category during the ISU World Figure Skating Championships on April 30, 2011 in Moscow. US Maia Shibutani and Alex Shibutani finished third. AFP PHOTO / ALEXANDER NEMENOV (Photo credit should read ALEXANDER NEMENOV/AFP/Getty Images)
MOSCOW, RUSSIA - APRIL 30: Maia Shibutani and Alex Shibutani of USA wait for the results after their free dance program in the ice dance category during day seven of the 2011 World Figure Skating Championships at Megasport Ice Rink on April 30, 2011 in Moscow, Russia. (Photo by Oleg Nikishin/Epsilon/Getty Images)
MOSCOW, RUSSIA - APRIL 30: Maia Shibutani and Alex Shibutani of USA pose on the ice rink after winning of the ice dance category of the ISU World Figure Skating Championships at Megasport Ice Rink on April 30, 2011 in Moscow, Russia. (Photo by Oleg Nikishin/Epsilon/Getty Images)
COLORADO SPRINGS, CO - FEBRUARY 12: Maia Shibutani and Alex Shibutani compete the Free Dance during the ISU Four Continents Figure Skating Championships at World Arena on February 12, 2012 in Colorado Springs, Colorado. (Photo by Matthew Stockman/Getty Images)
OMAHA, NE - JANUARY 25: Maia and Alex Shibutani compete in the Short Dance during the 2013 Prudential U.S. Figure Skating Championships at CenturyLink Center on January 25, 2013 in Omaha, Nebraska. (Photo by Matthew Stockman/Getty Images)
OMAHA, NE - JANUARY 26: Maia Shibutani and Alex Shibutani compete in the Pairs Free Dance during the 2013 Prudential U.S. Figure Skating Championships at CenturyLink Center on January 26, 2013 in Omaha, Nebraska. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
Maia Shibutani and Alex Shibutani of the United States perform their free dance at Skate America 2013 in Detroit, Michigan, October 19, 2013. AFP PHOTO/Geoff Robins (Photo credit should read GEOFF ROBINS/AFP/Getty Images)
WEST HOLLYWOOD, CA - APRIL 24: Figure skaters Maia and Alex Shibutani pose for a portrait during the USOC Portrait Shoot on April 24, 2013 in West Hollywood, California. (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)
BOSTON - JANUARY 11: Maia Shibutani and her partner Alex Shibutani after performing during the 2014 US Figure Skating Championship held at TD Garden. (Photo by Jonathan Wiggs/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)
SOCHI, RUSSIA - FEBRUARY 18: U.S. Olympians Alex and Maia Shibutani visit the USA House in the Olympic Village on February 18, 2014 in Sochi, Russia. (Photo by Joe Scarnici/Getty Images for USOC)
SAITAMA, JAPAN - MARCH 30: Maia Shibutani and Alex Shibutani of USA perform their routine in the exhibition during ISU World Figure Skating Championships at Saitama Super Arena on March 30, 2014 in Saitama, Japan. (Photo by Atsushi Tomura/Getty Images)
LETHBRIDGE, AB - OCTOBER 31: Maia Shibutani and Alex Shibutan of the United States skate off the ice after skating in the Ice Dance Free Dance on day two of Skate Canada International ISU Grand Prix of Figure Skating, October, 31, 2015 at ENMAX Centre in Lethbridge, Alberta, Canada. (Photo by Rich Lam - ISU/ISU via Getty Images)
BOSTON, MA - MARCH 30: Maia Shibutani and Alex Shibutani of the United States compete during Day 3 of the ISU World Figure Skating Championships 2016 at TD Garden on March 30, 2016 in Boston, Massachusetts. (Photo by Billie Weiss - ISU/ISU via Getty Images)
BEVERLY HILLS, CA - MAY 10: US National Ice Dance Champions Maia and Alex Shibutani arrive at the CASA Of Los Angeles' 2016 Evening To Foster Dreams Gala at the Beverly Hills Hilton on May 10, 2016 in Beverly Hills, California. (Photo by Greg Doherty/Getty Images)
BOSTON - APRIL 3: Alex Shibutani and Maia Shibutani from the United States perform during the Exhibition of Champions at the World Figure Skating Championships at TD Garden in Boston on April 3, 2016. (Photo by Matthew J. Lee/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)
BEIJING, CHINA - NOVEMBER 19: First place winner Maia Shibutani and Alex Shibutani of United States pose on the podium during the medals ceremony of the Ice Dance Free Dance on day two of Audi Cup of China ISU Grand Prix of Figure Skating 2016 at Beijing Capital Gymnasium on November 19, 2016 in Beijing, China. (Photo by Lintao Zhang - ISU/ISU via Getty Images)
US Maia Shibutani and Alex Shibutani compete in the Senior Ice Dance free program at the ISU Grand Prix of figure skating Final, on December 10, 2016 in Marseille, southern France. / AFP / ANNE-CHRISTINE POUJOULAT (Photo credit should read ANNE-CHRISTINE POUJOULAT/AFP/Getty Images)
Maia Shibutani and Alex Shibutani of the US pose with their national flag after placing third in the Ice Dance / Free Dance event at the ISU World Figure Skating Championships in Helsinki, Finland on April 1, 2017. / AFP PHOTO / John MACDOUGALL (Photo credit should read JOHN MACDOUGALL/AFP/Getty Images)
WEST HOLLYWOOD, CA - APRIL 28: Ice dancers Maia Shibutani and Alex Shibutani pose for a portrait during the Team USA PyeongChang 2018 Winter Olympics portraits on April 28, 2017 in West Hollywood, California. (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)
MOSCOW, RUSSIA - OCTOBER 21: Maia Shibutani and Alex Shibutani of the United States react at the kiss and cry in the Ice Dance Free Dance during day two of the ISU Grand Prix of Figure Skating, Rostelecom Cup at Ice Palace Megasport on October 21, 2017 in Moscow, Russia. (Photo by Joosep Martinson - ISU/ISU via Getty Images)
LAKE PLACID, NY - NOVEMBER 26: Maia Shibutani and Alex Shibutani of the United States perform in the Ice Dance Free Dance program on Day 3 of the ISU Grand Prix of Figure Skating at Herb Brooks Arena on November 26, 2017 in Lake Placid, United States. (Photo by Maddie Meyer - ISU/ISU via Getty Images)
SAN JOSE, CA - JANUARY 07: Maia Shibutani and Alex Shibutani skate in the Smucker's Skating Spectacular during the 2018 Prudential U.S. Figure Skating Championships at the SAP Center on January 7, 2018 in San Jose, California. (Photo by Matthew Stockman/Getty Images)
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SPECIAL BOND

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.

See other Olympians to watch in Pyeongchang: 

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Figure skater Nathan Chen poses for a portrait at the U.S. Olympic Committee Media Summit in Park City, Utah, U.S. September 25, 2017. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson
Figure skater Adam Rippon poses for a portrait at the U.S. Olympic Committee Media Summit in Park City, Utah, U.S. September 25, 2017. Rippon listens to electronic dance music while he trains. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson
Ice dancers Alex Shibutani and Maia Shibutani pose for a portrait at the U.S. Olympic Committee Media Summit in Park City, Utah, U.S. September 25, 2017. The pair listens to Coldplay and Perez Prado while they train. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson
WEST HOLLYWOOD, CA - APRIL 25: Snowboarder Shaun White poses for a portrait during the Team USA PyeongChang 2018 Winter Olympics portraits on April 25, 2017 in West Hollywood, California. (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)
SOUTH BEND,IN - SEPTEMBER 13: Sam McGuffie #2 of the Michigan Wolverines carries the ball during the game against the Notre Dame Fighting Irish on September 13, 2008 at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend, Indiana. (Photo by: Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)
BUDAPEST, HUNGARY - SEPTEMBER 30: Maame Biney of United States reacts during the ladies 500m quarterfinals heat two during the Audi ISU World Cup Short Track Speed Skating at Bok Hall on September 30, 2017 in Budapest, Hungary. (Photo by Christof Koepsel - ISU/ISU via Getty Images)
MILWAUKEE, WI - JANUARY 05: Erin Jackson competes in the Ladies 500 meter event during the Long Track Speed Skating Olympic Trials at the Pettit National Ice Center on January 5, 2018 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. (Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images)
Jan 1, 2018; Queens, NY, USA; Team USA hockey Olympic player Brian Gionta speaks at a press conference during the second period in the 2018 Winter Classic hockey game between the New York Rangers and the Buffalo Sabres at Citi Field. Mandatory Credit: Danny Wild-USA TODAY Sports
Skiing - Alpine Skiing World Cup - Women's Downhill - Cortina d'Ampezzo, Italy - January 19, 2018. Lindsey Vonn of the U.S. celebrates her second place. REUTERS/Stefano Rellandini
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PARADISE

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 medallists.

"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)

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