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Go For The Gold: Davis And White

Go For The Gold

BY AMY ROSEWATER I JAN. 22, 2014

Figure skaters Meryl Davis and Charlie White pose for a portrait during the NBC Olympics/United States Olympic Committee promotional shoot on April 27, 2013 in West Hollywood, Calif. 

When Charlie White was a young kid in Detroit, he grew up on a steady diet of Red Wings hockey. Steve Yzerman, Detroit’s star center, was White’s favorite player, and White dreamed of living the NHL dream some day. White played for an AAA team in Detroit, the Honeybaked Hockey Club, an organization that has had its share of stars, including U.S. Olympian Ryan Kesler, on its roster.

Meryl Davis, meanwhile, was first attracted to figure skating when she was 5. She got to skate on a lake by her home in West Bloomfield, Mich., and soon began taking lessons. She started making her way in the figure skating world as a singles skater.

He got into ice dance to improve his posture. She did so because she hated skating alone. Soon, they began skating together. They were just young kids from suburban Detroit. Their families live 10 minutes apart, and their moms, Cheryl Davis and Jacqui White, are virtually inseparable.

Ever since that fateful beginning in 1997, Davis and White have been skating side by side, and next month, they have a strong shot at making Olympic history together in Sochi.

Davis, now 27, and White, 26, claimed the Olympic silver medal almost four years ago in Vancouver, and now they have their sights set on becoming the first U.S. team to win an Olympic gold medal in ice dancing in these Winter Games. They enter Sochi having won their last 11 competitions including a world title, two ISU Grand Prix Finals and their record sixth U.S. title at the national championships earlier this month in Boston.

And it all started with such naïve, humble beginnings in the Motor City, a place known for its hard-scrabble style and grit.

“We were 8 and 9 and we tried out not really know what it was we were doing,” Davis said. “We enjoyed it and we just kind of kept going with it, and 16 years later, we’re still enjoying it.”

The story of how their careers reached this point seems almost too simple. They’re both attractive, talented skaters who never had to move from home to achieve their skating dreams in part because some of the best ice dancing coaches in the world moved to Michigan and worked with them.

But in reality, their story is like their skating, which gives the appearance of smoothness and ease but in reality is so much more. Their sport might seem to be about beautifully made costumes and elegant music, but as Davis put it, “Training isn’t all lipstick and sparkles every day.”

The two have been together so long that Davis joked, “I certainly have memories before Charlie,” but their lives and their families’ lives have been so intertwined that it almost seems impossible to imagine one of their lives without the other.

They were paired together when they were youngsters and White was the more advanced ice dancer when they first tried out.

“I’m not going to lie,” White said when asked about their first impressions of each other as skating partners. “I was a little put off that she didn’t know anything about ice dance, and I was like already on my European waltz.”

“I had never ice danced before,” Davis chimed in. “And Charlie had a bit of a superiority complex.”

Meryl Davis and Charlie White skate in the free dance during the 2014 Prudential U.S. Figure Skating Championships at TD Garden on Jan. 11, 2014 in Boston.

“Whoa, whoa, whoa, it wasn’t a superiority complex,” White said and later added, “I was also 8.”

They overcame those initial differences and soon were on a par with each other’s skating abilities. Not only did they appear to be a good match in terms of height, but they also seemed to be a good fit in terms of style. The young team began to move up in the rankings. They were so good so young that noted coach Igor Shpilband pointed them out to a reporter when they were just novice-level skaters.

“They,” he said back in 2000, “are the ones to watch.”

Davis and White were fortunate that they grew up skating at the Detroit Skating Club, where many of the nation’s top ice dancing teams trained. There, they watched as Elizabeth Punsalan and Jerod Swallow trained to U.S. championship titles. Same with Naomi Lang and Peter Tchernyshev, and later with Tanith Belbin and Ben Agosto. Davis and White had some of the world’s best coaches guiding them: Shpilband and Russian choreographer Marina Zoeuva were both in Detroit and tweaked their every detail.

Together, Davis and White traveled the world, going as far as Russia and Japan, and while most of their travels revolved around ice rinks, they occasionally took time out to do things like visit the Great Wall of China or to have a family dinner with relatives in Canada. They learned about different styles of ice dance, taking on challenging music such as their Bollywood program from several years ago, and have used an unusually high level of speed in their programs to separate themselves from the pack.

But not everything in their careers marked a steady incline to the top. Over the years, Davis and White certainly have overcome their share of obstacles, too. One season, White broke his ankle playing hockey, which forced them to miss the national championships. Another year they fell on a lift in the free dance and finished sixth at nationals.

More recently, in 2011, when they were preparing for their first legitimate shot at a world title, the world championships were nearly canceled because of the tsunami and earthquakes in Japan. Although they clearly understood the larger ramifications of the disaster, the chaos resulted in plenty of distractions and disruptions for their skating careers. Ultimately, worlds were relocated to Moscow and they did end up winning the title, but it was a bit dicey getting there.

Then in 2012, they lost the world title to their biggest rivals and training partners, Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir, of Canada. A few months later, coaches Shpilband and Zoueva split and Davis and White decided to stick with Zoueva.  

The following season, Davis and White found themselves seeking the world title in the hometown backyard of Virtue and Moir in London, Ont., which was no simple task, especially since they would have to perform in front of a partisan crowd. But Davis and White figured out a way to upend the hometown heroes to become the first American team to win two world championships in the sport.

A lot has been made of them training alongside of Virtue and Moir. The four best ice dancers training under the same roof with the same coach (Zoueva) certainly is unusual — imagine if White’s beloved University of Michigan Wolverines was led by the same coach guiding the Ohio State Buckeyes — but Davis and White have never uttered a sound bite of a problem with the situation.

“We’re really lucky to be able to train with them day in and day out,” White said. “They have such great qualities on the ice that when you watch them, you’re just amazed. So it really keeps Meryl and I on our toes as to what we want to do, how we want to show ourselves.”

The ice dancing world is so small that competitors often room together on the road. Agosto, the U.S. silver medalist from 2006, referred to the bond among ice dancers as “almost a brotherhood forged in battle.”

Meryl Davis and Charlie White skate in the Smucker's Skating Spectacular event during Skate America at the ShoWare Center on Oct. 21, 2012 in Kent, Wash.

The teams might train together, but they are both after the same goal: an Olympic gold medal. Not too long ago, the concept of a U.S. team winning an ice dancing title was laughable. American coaches did everything in their power to dazzle European judges with their teams and their concepts, but not even U.S. fans could get on board. The best an American team finished in 2002 was 11th.

But that was also the year when a major judging scandal, which involved the pairs and ice dancing competitions, rocked the Winter Games in Salt Lake City and soon after, the scoring system was overhauled. Although not perfect, the new system actually lists various lifts and step sequences to be judged. That helped open the doors for North American teams like Davis and White to plow through.

At the national championships in Boston, Davis and White showed they are ready for Sochi as they collected a record sixth U.S. title, racking up a record 200.19 points and besting the runner-ups Madison Chock and Evan Bates by 18.75 points. There are always persnickety details that could be improved, but White said their skating was “on the cusp on greatness.”

Their short program, performed to selections from “My Fair Lady,” including “I Could Have Danced All Night,” seems so effortless and light at times that fans in the crowd almost forget they are wearing ice skates. Davis and White make it appear as if they are truly on a ballroom, and when White is lifting Davis in the air, she seems to be floating. Truth be told, some of the lifts they perform have taken them two years to perfect.

Their free dance is to music from “Scheherazade,” composed by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, and the Russian connection is no mistake since the Winter Games will be held in Sochi and their coach and choreographer, Zoueva, is a native of Moscow. The athleticism required to get through this routine could have rivaled a hockey player muscling through a shift or two, yet they didn’t seem winded when the last note played.

“They trick you into thinking that what they are doing is not that hard,” said Agosto, who was sitting in the stands watching his former training partners perform their magic in Boston. “They always deliver their programs with maximum perfection and attention to every detail. The amazing thing is (their performances in Boston are) pretty much what they’ve done every competition and probably how they skate every day in practice, like it’s just a normal day in the park.

“They earned nearly perfect marks in Boston,” added Agosto, noting their scores for artistic components actually were a perfect score of 60.00.  “At the end of the season (the officials) will go through and evaluate how scores are given. After this, they’ll have to go through and make their criteria even harder, but I don’t know where they’re going to be able to find more points.”

Still Davis said even after performances such as the ones they skated in Boston, they never really see a ceiling, saying, “There’s an endless progression.”

Although they have yet to reveal their plans after Sochi, the two plan to continue skating together in some way.

“I don’t think not skating together, regardless of what point we stop competing, is an option for a while,” Davis said.

It would be too easy, after all, for them to just ride off in skating’s sunset should they win it all in Sochi.

Amy Rosewater is a freelance writer and editor for TeamUSA.org. A former sports reporter for The (Cleveland) Plain Dealer, she has covered two Olympic Games and two Olympic Winter Games. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post and USA Today.