Back-to-back run-throughs of free dance routines and countless repetitions of maneuvers like one-foot “twizzle” turns helped lead Tanith Belbin White and Benjamin Agosto to five U.S. ice dance titles, four world medals and the silver medal at the Olympic Winter Games Torino 2006.
These days, each time Belbin White’s phone rings with a job offer from NBC Sports to act as a play-by-play announcer or reporter, she strives for the same type of preparation.
“It comes from being an athlete,” she said. “Being over prepared is really the only way I know how to take on all of these roles.”
The day I reach Belbin White at the Ann Arbor, Michigan, home she shares with husband Charlie White, winner of 2014 Olympic ice dance gold (with partner Meryl Davis) and their five-month-old son, Charlie — plus two playful Cavachons, DJ and Finn — she’s studying up for the final FIG Individual All-Around World Cup of 2018, held in Tokyo last week. NBC researchers are on hand for the Olympic Games, but for many events, broadcasters are on their own.
“The only way I feel confident and comfortable going on air and doing play-by-play is to have copious amounts of notes and to spend hours and hours researching,” Belbin White said. “I use everything I can possibly find on the internet and any other resources I can dig up. It does take a lot of time, but it’s time I really enjoy.”
Preparing to call gymnastics play-by-play means a lot of in-depth discussion with Jonathan Horton, the 2008 Olympic silver medalist who provides color commentary for world cup events.
“A lot of time the conversations go back and forth with me and the person I will be on the air with, to make sure we have a good understanding of what to expect from one another,” she said. “And, of course, I want to use his knowledge to help supplement my research beforehand.”
The Ontario-born Belbin White, who holds dual Canadian-U.S. citizenship, took to the ice at age 3 and moved to Detroit, Michigan in 1998 to team with Agosto. She got bitten with the broadcasting bug soon after the Torino Games, when ABC’s “Good Morning America” asked her to host some segments.
“My first job was as an interviewer on the red carpet for the Super Bowl when it was in Detroit,” she said. “That was the ESPN party, and it was a huge opportunity. I did odd jobs here and there and worked with local news in the summer of 2006, and then Ben and I decided we still had things we wanted to accomplish competitively.”
Broadcasting was put largely on hold for four years. After placing fourth at the 2010 Vancouver Games, Belbin White combined performing with Agosto in shows like Stars on Ice with commentary and reporting gigs, but spent much of her time coaching in Canton, Michigan.
“I stepped away from coaching my own students in 2016, when I went to Rio (for the Games) for three weeks,” she said. “I was doing more and more broadcast assignments and wasn’t able to give my students the consistency they deserved. I loved coaching, though, and eventually, I’ll go back to it.”
In the last two years, Belbin White’s assignments have run the gamut from beach volleyball to curling, water polo and wrestling. She spent nearly two months in PyeongChang, first providing ice dance commentary and figure skating play-by-play, then staying on to cover sled hockey for the Paralympic Games.
“It’s been an incredible ride,” she said. “Every time I get a call it gives me such a thrill to say yes to every job offered. It’s been an incredible learning curve.”
Meeting her own expectations, as well as those of fans, keeps her on her toes.
“I don’t have to be an expert on every sport, but I do need to know the athletes as well as I can,” she said. “I need to know their history, in the context of the sport.”
“If I let myself go easy and not do the research and pronounce something incorrectly, I’m going to hear about it from fans,” she added with a laugh. “I don’t want it interpreted as a lack of respect for my role, or for the sport. It’s really important for me to present myself as professionally as possible and take the time to get there.”
When working as an ice dance analyst, Belbin White is the expert, and it’s a whole different ballgame. She’s acted as an analyst and play-by-play caller for grand prix and other ISU events for several seasons, often working with her husband White and old partner Agosto. PyeongChang was her first time commentating at the Olympics.
“It feels bigger to me in my heart and mind when I’m taking on the analyst role at the Olympics,” Belbin White said. “It’s the most demanding role, the only time where I need to know the ins and outs of the sport, all of the intricate rules. It was special to finally call an Olympic Games, since I’ve been doing commentary since 2010 in figure skating.”
Like any judged sport, figure skating has a wide diversity of opinions. Ice dance emphasizes skaters’ speed, on-ice connection and steps, and doesn’t feature jumps or overhead lifts. That makes it by far the most subjective of the figure skating disciplines, and Belbin White knows each Latin American short dance she evaluates, and every four-minute free dance she dissects, will spark diverse opinions.
“In ice dance, the art itself can be very subjective and up to interpretation,” she said. “A big part of my job as an analyst is to share not only my knowledge, but also my opinions. It’s important to me that I really consider and share them in a way that shows how I’ve interpreted something, but also allows for the audience to interpret it differently.”