(Yonhap Interview) U.S. sibling skaters enjoy stay in S. Korea as sports envoys
By Joo Kyung-don
SEOUL, Feb. 21 (Yonhap) -- For American ice dancers Alex and Maia Shibutani, their trip to South Korea is somewhat different compared to the two previous visits here.
The figure skating siblings arrived in South Korea on Feb. 12 in order to compete at an International Skating Union (ISU) competition in Gangneung, some 230 kilometers east of Seoul, but this time, they also came as sports envoys for the U.S. Department of State.
"Previously, we've been only here for skating competitions," Alex, the elder of the siblings, said. "What's particularly nice for this trip is that we've been able to extend our stay and be sports envoys."
Maia, 22, said she felt very honored to visit South Korea as a sports envoy.
"It's definitely something that's not bestowed upon every athlete, so for us to be here to represent not only our country but also our sport of figure skating leading into the next Olympics, it's very exciting," she said. "To have the opportunity to be here beyond the competition has been very special."
After finishing their performances at the ISU Four Continents Figure Skating Championships over the weekend, the Shibutanis held a skating clinic for young skaters at a Seoul amusement park on Monday. On Tuesday, the brother-and-sister team met with 60 local students at the U.S. ambassador's residence in Seoul to talk about sportsmanship and youth empowerment.
In this photo provided by the U.S. Embassy on Feb. 21, 2017, figure skaters Alex Shibutani (R) and Maia Shibutani (C), along with Marc Knapper, Charge d'Affaires at the U.S. Embassy in Seoul, speak to South Korean students at a forum at the U.S. ambassador's residence in Seoul. (Yonhap)
"We've met so many incredible young people over the past two days and they inspired and motivated us," Alex said. "We talked about diversity, empowering youth in both of our countries which is something that we're passionate about."
Alex, 25, said serving as a sports envoy isn't actually difficult.
"I think it's very natural for us," he said. "When we're competing at international competitions, we're representing ourselves and we're representing our country and also we're interacting with people all over the world. So this trip as sports envoys just feels like a continuation of what we do on a regular basis."
The Shibutanis are one of the top stars in the world of ice dance figure skating. They are the two-time U.S. national champions. In 2016, the ice dance pair won the silver medal at the World Figure Skating Championships and claimed the Four Continents title.
In this year's Four Continents, the Shibutanis failed to defend their ice dance title as they finished second behind Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir of Canada. But still, the siblings said they're satisfied with their results.
"Every year is a different year," Alex said. "The field is very competitive and it's very intense competition, so we're very satisfied with the work that we did. However, we know that there's a lot of progress that we can make before the World Championships in Helsinki next month."
The Four Continents, open to non-European skaters only, in Gangneung were one of the test events for the PyeongChang Winter Olympics. It was staged at Gangneung Ice Arena, the venue for figure skating and short track speed skating events for the Winter Games. The Shibutanis said the facility was "beautiful," and they are looking forward to performing there again.
"It was such a special opportunity for us to get a preview of the venue before the Olympics," Maia said. "Since we had a great skating experience there, we will remember it very fondly over the next year as we are preparing for the Olympics."
The Shibutanis said before thinking about the PyeongChang Olympics, their priority is to get onto the national team. They previously represented the U.S. at the 2014 Sochi Olympics where they finished in ninth place.
"Our experiences since the last Olympic Games, and success that we've had on the international level make us very confident that we can be back at the Olympics next year," Alex said. "Of course, we would like to be the best in the world."
Alex Shibutani (R) and Maia Shibutani of the United States perform in ice dance free dance competition at the ISU Four Continents Figure Skating Championships in Gangneung, Gangwon Province, on Feb. 17, 2017. (Yonhap)
When asked about South Korean ice dancers, the pair, who have skated together since 2004, said they see a positive outlook for them with the PyeongChang Games.
"I think they just don't have as much experience as us yet," Alex said. "But I think they showed a lot of promise and the entire Korean team will feel the energy of the country going into the Olympics. It will be great to see how they progress."
The Shibutanis said they will continue to share things they've learned from figure skating. The siblings are also known for activities on their YouTube channels and blogs.
"Figure skating has taught us so much," Alex said. "We've been following a mindset and an approach that has led to success and I think it just goes beyond skating in the rest of your life."