Maia, Alex Shibutani talk new book, life transitions, and AAPI representation

Maia Shibutani and Alex Shibutani‘s accomplishments include two bronze medals at the 2018 PyeongChang Olympics and becoming the first Asian American ice dance couple elected to U.S. Figure Skating’s Hall of Fame. Now the siblings are making a greater impact off the ice by teaching the next generation about the history of Asian American and Pacific Islander success in their new picture book that was released last month.

The Shibutanis discussed the writing process, the significance of visibility and representation for people of all backgrounds, what life looks like since they stopped competing and what they learned from Maia’s battle with a kidney tumor.

*This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Congratulations on your new book Amazing: Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders Who Inspire Us All. Tell me about why you decided to write this book.

Alex Shibutani: Education. We grew up without a book like this. I think that there’s a really natural connection between us getting exposure to the work that happens in Figure Skating in Harlem (an organization that transforms the lives of young girls of color through the combination of figure skating and education) at a very young age and sort of our experience with wanting to add to the representation that we see in children’s literature because as Asian Americans and part of the AAPI community, sadly there isn’t enough. We wanted to create this book so that the next generation can be inspired, but then also so that people from other backgrounds can learn about this community.

How do you think having this book around when you were younger would have impacted you?

Maia Shibutani: I think when you talk about visibility and representation, we were always fortunate that we had each other to encourage one another. But at the same time to be able to have those stories that are accessible of people who’ve gone on to do a variety of things, overcome different challenges, I think that that’s the gift that we want to give the next generation.

Alex Shibutani: I would have been so much more confident. If the book was around, and if it had been incorporated in education, or if other kids had the chance to read it, I maybe wouldn’t have had a hard time or as hard of a time in some social situations. As we progressed through our skating career, you meet different people from different backgrounds, and if this knowledge and this information isn’t readily available to them, they don’t have the perspective. They don’t have the empathy and the understanding to communicate and treat someone with kindness and respect that might come from a different background.

What was the writing process like, and how did you choose the people to feature in your book?

Maia Shibutani: We make a great team. There are 36 historic and contemporary figures [in our book], and that’s certainly not everyone, but we wanted to pick people who have done a variety of things. We have some great artists, scientists, activists and entertainers, so really to provide that variety of not only background, but also profession. We had great collaborators: our co-author, Dane Liu, and our illustrator, Aaliya Jaleel.

You have made such an impact with your success on the ice. Young boys and girls can watch at home and say, “Hey, they look like me, maybe I can do this too,” and now you’re making an even greater impact with this book. You’ve touched on it a little bit, but what does representation mean to you, and how do you want to continue to have an impact in this space?

Maia Shibutani: I was fortunate growing up that I had role models like [Olympic figure skating medalists] Kristi Yamaguchi and Michelle Kwan. But I know that for Alex, he had to look outside of figure skating in order to find his role models.

Alex Shibutani: They (Yamaguchi and Kwan) were my role models, too, but I think specifically as a boy in skating — there weren’t very many boys in our area when we were growing up that were in skating. It would have been helpful to have had sort of visible representation in a very direct way like Maia had with Kristi and Michelle. But I found equal inspiration from following Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen and all of the athletes from different cultural backgrounds than me. Hopefully by introducing these Asian American and Pacific Islander athletes that we have enclosed in the book, they can be inspiration for kids from all backgrounds.

You’ve mentioned Kristi Yamaguchi, Michelle Kwan and even Nathan Chen. There’s been such a great legacy of Asian American success in figure skating. What does that continued success mean to you?

Maia Shibutani: I think that it’s exciting that it’s continuing to build. But for example, those three figures aren’t three of our 36. We made that decision because figure skating out of all the sports has had a good amount of visibility. So with the seven athletes that we included, we wanted to have that mix of historic and contemporary and then also a good variety of different athletes.

Alex Shibutani: I would say that figure skating fans would perhaps argue otherwise. It’s never enough visibility. There’s never enough figure skating, but at the same time, it is one of the most popular sports in the Winter Olympic Games. And those athletes, while they do represent the Asian American community — again, it’s not a monolith. There are so many instances where people from different backgrounds have not been as readily accepted or included in our sport, and that is definitely something that the sport needs to realize.

While it’s tremendous that we have these examples of champions and that Maia and I have been able to accomplish things as well, it’s still not enough. Everyone should be welcomed into our sport, regardless of their background, regardless of their race, ethnicity, etc. I think that it’s kind of tricky, because people can name Michelle Kwan, Kristi Yamaguchi, and Nathan Chen, but those are three names. Then you add Maia’s and mine and Mirai Nagasu. It’s a handful, and it’s really important that we don’t make generalizations based on the success of very fortunate and talented people.

Speaking of your success — you and Maia became the first Asian American ice dance team to be inducted into the U.S. Figure Skating Hall of Fame. What does that accomplishment mean to you?

Alex Shibutani: We really respect the history of the sport, although people like us haven’t necessarily been in the Hall of Fame before. But still, again, it goes back to being inspired by people who were excellent at figure skating and have brought really valuable contributions to the sport both on and off the ice. It’s definitely a tremendous honor and not something that you think will happen to you. When you start skating, you dream maybe about competing at a world championships or the Olympic Games. I always associated Hall of Fame with my favorite basketball stars or my favorite football and hockey stars.

For a lot of athletes, their whole identity is wrapped up in their sport, and they struggle to find themselves without it whenever they take a break from competing. It seems like you have been able to make a seamless transition. How has that worked out for you?

Maia Shibutani: I think that it’s helped that we’ve heard each other, but then we’ve also had a variety of different interests and think of ourselves as being dimensional. Because we like challenges, I think we haven’t been afraid to move into unexpected places and spaces and just be open minded and grow and just try new things.

Alex Shibutani: [We don’t] worry about people’s preconceived notions about what we’re capable of or the expectations surrounding us in general. Because if we had been concerned about that in ice dance, I think that it would have been much more difficult for us to accomplish what we did. We’re very open-minded. We’re curious. I think ice dance as a discipline and figure skating in general demands a level of curiosity and dimensionality because it is such a beautiful sport that requires such athleticism and technicality, but also that artistry and storytelling. I think the connection, when you think about it, is not too far removed in book writing and some of our other projects.

Do you see yourselves ever returning to competition? (Alex, 32, and Maia, 28, last competed at the 2018 Olympics but have not announced a retirement.)

Maia Shibutani: We’re leaving the door open. I think that’s a question that people ask us a lot, and we’re fortunate that we’ve always been young, relative to the competitive pool.

Alex Shibutani: Fortunate in some ways. When you’re young, and everyone’s so much older than you, it’s a little harder to make friends, because everyone who’s competing against you is like, “Oh, who are these children?” But Maia makes a good point. We’re still pretty young. I occasionally have a stress nightmare about being late to a competition so it could actually turn into a reality.

What other interests do you have outside of figure skating?

Maia Shibutani: We were just talking about hockey before this. We’re both big sports fans. Alex is involved in the LA ’28 Games, and so we’re really trying to use our experience and platform not only in storytelling, but also in sports and representing Team USA.

Alex Shibutani: Yeah, I think diplomacy is also a big part of what we’ve been working on. Those connections, building bridges to different communities, representing our country, but also our community and being allies to others. That’s stuff that really matters to us in whatever industry and whatever field we move into.

Switching gears – Maia, you went through a scary time dealing with a kidney tumor. How have you been health-wise since then?

Maia Shibutani: I’m doing well now. Thank you for asking. It was certainly challenging, but fortunately, I had the support of Alex and our parents. I was able to rely a bit on the mentality of being an athlete and being patient with the recovery process, taking things one step at a time. I’m very happy to be doing well now.

Alex Shibutani: Like transitioning from being an athlete to anything else, it’s a lot of hard work. I think that experience was very, very difficult, as sort of diplomatically as she put it. I think what it did, though, was it reaffirmed a lot of what we want to do with both of our lives because we’ve been so connected for so long.

Maia Shibutani: I don’t think either of us necessarily needed clarity but we definitely were even more intentional following that experience.

Alex Shibutani: And similar to what I think a lot of people experienced during the height of the pandemic. Thinking about time, how we use it, how we spend it and what really is important to us.

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