The Shib Sibs Will Miss Those Free Chicken Sandwiches
It's OK to call them the Shib Sibs — they made up the name themselves. Maia and Alex Shibutani describe the economic realities of being professional ice dancing phenomenons.
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Alex Shibutani: I was seven when Maia first started taking her private lessons, so I wasn't really looped in to how much they cost. My parents weren’t like, “Alex, find something that costs about this much per hour so we can make sure that we're treating you guys equally.”
The first money I won skating was when I landed a jump when I was nine years old and my coach gave me twenty dollars. I bought a Lego set or basketball cards. Something that has zero value right now.
Alex: We live in the same apartment building, but I live by myself, and Maia lives with our mom.
Maia: Our parents.
Alex: We moved to Ann Arbor right before my junior year of high school. We were trying to figure out where we were going to go with our career. Our coach, Marina Zoueva, who is probably the most decorated ice dancing coach of all time, was there and we wanted to work with her. And I wanted to go to school at the University of Michigan — because we were coming from Colorado, it was not the in-state tuition deal either. But school was definitely not the most expensive thing we’ve purchased.
We were always really lucky to have the support of our parents, who were definitely not funding our skating like, “We hope that this lesson pays off because Maia and Alex might go to the Olympics in ten years.” It was like: they loved that we loved what we were doing.
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They met at Harvard, where they were both at school as musicians. Our mom is a supermom, and our dad is now an investment analyst at Cowen & Co, which is an investment-banking boutique. He does equity research and covers the biotech industry.
Maia: And before that he was a physician. But I guess when we were growing up, our parents just made sacrifices and always did whatever they could to make sure that we were able to pursue our dreams.
Alex: Skating is expensive! Blades are a couple hundred dollars. But as we've progressed through the levels, we've received a free pair of blades every year from the blade company that we work with, MK Blades. And we use Harlick Skates out of northern California. They give us each a pair of boots once a year. Once we started winning world medals and big international competitions, those skate companies really saw us as ambassadors who have the ability to influence young skaters.
The costumes easily run into the thousands of dollars.
Maia: We pay for our costumes. The price usually depends on the amount of detail and craftsmanship.
Alex: Rhinestones do add to the price.
Maia: If you want to get into the details, there's this technique called ruching, or you can do airbrushing. Those really help elevate the look of a skating costume. And the cost really comes down to the amount of time that they have to spend on whatever costume you have.
Alex: And it's not just taking lessons at the rink every day or paying for ice time. It's very involved: working with choreographers and dancers and musicians. A coach can be as much as $150 plus per hour. We take a total of three or four hours of lessons a day, five days a week. And that’s in addition to the time we spend skating on our own.
Maia: If we're creating and developing something, we'll spend even more time. There's no set formula.
Alex: We don’t win money for our Olympic win…I don't think. If we're supposed to, then I'm going to look into it right away. But by winning an Olympic medal, we are placed into a tier of funding by the United States Olympic Committee and U.S. Figure Skating.
Alex: I'm more indulgent in the present and she's more thoughtful about the future — more fiscally responsible and financially savvy.
Maia: How much support they give us is completely dependent on the results. The US Olympic Committee isn't government funded, so everything is based off a system, which they have in place across all the sports.
Alex: And it changes depending on the year. Like, before the Winter Olympics, they're focusing on trying to support the winter athletes. We receive a lot of support — not just financially, but with our planning and our nutrition.
Maia: When Team USA flies us, it is not first class. Nope.
Alex: But we have status with Delta because we travel internationally a lot, so that allowed us to upgrade for the flight back home from the Olympics.
I have no idea how many miles we have, but we are proud Delta Diamonds. Every time we check in at the airlines, people say, “You guys are the youngest Diamond Medallion Members I've ever seen.” Which is, I guess, a badge of honor of sorts.
Maia: Diamond is a pretty high level.
Alex: Maybe Diamond's the highest for regular people, but I've heard that certain celebrities get, like, car service.
Maia: There’s not even a name for that level, probably.
Alex: We aren't in Clooney territory yet, but we're very happy to be Diamonds.
There are other perks of being an Olympic athlete. During the Olympics, McDonalds is where I got my coffee every morning. You think about coffee every day, maybe twice a day? And a cup of coffee is what, $2? $2.50? But McDonalds is ending their partnership with the Olympic Games, so this is the last time that McDonalds will be at the Village. Everyone was feeling a little sad. As people started to finish up their competitions at the Games, you saw more and more of them waiting in line at McDonalds. I had got a couple fried chicken sandwiches when we finished competing.
Maia: We make money for skating shows, too. How much we make really varies based on the number of shows we're doing, where they are, how many numbers they expect us to perform in the show. When we were younger and we had more time on our hands, we would do what in skating vernacular you’d call a “club show.” So a skating club who’s looking for a big skater to come in and skate with their local area skaters would bring us in for a weekend and we would do rehearsal and then do one or two shows.
Maia: I think that the last splurge item wasn't even clothes — it was a Charlotte Tilbury makeup palette. And I used it every day at the Olympics, so that worked out well for me.
Alex: Then there are tours in Japan and Asia, where there's a lot of interest for figure skating. That can be up to eight or ten shows across different cities. And there's Stars on Ice, which we'll be doing in the coming month and a half. That is going to be a 22-city tour across the U.S. at larger venues — NBA and NHL-type venues. I don't even really know how much we're being paid for that. But if you were going to compare it to a professional sports league, NBA players obviously make much more money. Maybe one of the reasons why people really enjoy the Olympics is because they feel like it is more amateur sport.
But there is international prize money. The Grand Prix circuit during the fall, I believe, awards $15,000 to the top three ice dance teams in regular competitions and the top six teams in the finals.
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Maia: When I was younger, I really tried to split my money up and save half — it's weird to say but I was thinking about the future. As I've gotten older, I don't make purchases that are just random. I always like to, at least when it comes to fashion, make purchases where I know it's a quality piece that will last me for a long time. I think that the last splurge item wasn't even clothes — it was a Charlotte Tilbury makeup palette. And I used it every day at the Olympics, so that worked out well for me. Usually if I'm buying something, it’s getting Alex a streetwear piece. And I don't necessarily understand it, but I know that he wants it.
Alex: It's a generous sympathy thing, like, “I know you don't have money but I'll flex on you a little.” That’s the difference between Maia and me. I'm more indulgent in the present and she's more thoughtful about the future — more fiscally responsible and financially savvy. When I was a teenager, I would buy stupid graphic t-shirts with corny jokes. Now it’s backpacks, hats, sneakers. There’s a company called John Elliott, and they had a pair of Nikes that they did as a collaboration. I'm really into the collab scene — it’s all about the Off-White Nikes and things like that. Now that I've got two Olympic medals, maybe I can bring some clout to a brand! I don't think that they need it, really. We won’t throw any numbers out there just to shield me from embarrassment, but I'm broke and she's got a lot of money, and it's not because she's been making more than I have. I just spend it in worse ways.
One of the things I've learned to do is take advantage of the sponsorship deals that we have. I haven't been buying clothes in the past year because we're working with Polo Ralph Lauren, who is the official sponsor for Team USA. And this year, Team USA switched their partnership to Toyota. But for as long as I can remember — or at least dating back to 2014 — they had a partnership with BMW because BMW was the builder of, for example, the bobsleds. Team USA had an athlete-coach discount, so Maia and I got a BMW SUV that we share. We carpool.
“Shib Sibs” is not a media created thing. It was a really organic thing that people who knew us when we were nine and twelve started calling us. So it's been, for lack of a better term, a part of our brand. We embrace it. That’s why when we started our YouTube channel, we called it “ShibSibs.”
I think that it has been easier for us to be recognized as the Shib Sibs, rather than just “that Asian American brother-sister figure skating team.” Like, everyone on the Today Show just knows us as the Shib Sibs.
Maia: It’s trademarked — I think it cost a couple thousand. But we don't even have a logo for our YouTube channel yet.
Alex: I just don't want to sell bad merch. As someone who wasted his money on crappy T-shirts, I don't want kids who are so excited to get our merch to try on this T-shirt that feels like sandpaper on their bodies.
As told to Nan Sullivan exclusively for Wealthsimple; transcript edited and condensed for clarity. Illustration by Jenny Mörtsell.
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