Meryl Davis and Charlie White compete at the Olympic Winter Games Vancouver 2010 on Feb. 22, 2010 in Vancouver, Canada.
The fairy tale ice dancers Meryl Davis and Charlie White lived at two Olympic Games began as fairy tales often do: with the young heroes suffering a humbling defeat.
The setting was the 2008 Cup of Russia, the second ISU Grand Prix event of the 2008-09 season. Coming off a win at Skate Canada, Davis and White, both 21 at the time, were thrilled to be in one of figure skating’s world capitals, and White in particular had stars in his eyes.
“Going in, I was very excited to prove myself in Russia, the perceived homeland of ice dance,” he recalled. “I got way ahead of myself and was thinking about all the wrong things.”
Though the pair made it through their compulsory dance unscathed, the blades came off the skate for White, so to speak, during the optional.
“I just started falling everywhere,” he said. “It was one of those moments where it’s like you’re watching something happen and you’re not in control. We still had to compete the next day, but it was very, very disappointing, the kind of thing where people were coming up to me like, ‘Are you okay? Is there something wrong with your skates?’”
Calm followed storm. Over the course of the evening, Davis and White sorted themselves out and showed up the next day determined to do better. They nailed their free dance with the second-best skate in the category, good enough to climb into bronze-medal position overall.
“Considering how poorly I skated, it was quite astounding,” White said.
Years later, they look back on that moment as a turning point — and one of the key experiences that paved their way to the Olympic Winter Games Vancouver 2010, where the focused, ultra-prepared pair took the silver medal — and four years after that, when they were golden in Sochi.
“We had a lot of experience together on the ice preparing for competition, a lot of successes and also a lot of experiences in competition that we learned from that may not have necessarily gone the way we wanted,” Davis recalled this week, ahead of the ISU Grand Prix Final in Vancouver this weekend. “As we approached the Olympic Games, I think we took all those experiences, both positive and what would be perceived as negative, and learned from them.”
There were no missteps in Vancouver, where the duo, together since coach Seth Chafetz paired them up at ages 9 and 8, lived out their Olympic dreams on and off the ice. A silver medal for a pair who still felt the sun rising on their careers — before Vancouver, they had never won a world championships medal — was a stellar achievement, but not the be all and end all of what they were capable of.
“Following Vancouver we both saw how far we had come and the progress we had made and how great that was. I saw in so many ways that I was continuing to fall more and more in love with ice dance, this beautiful sport,” Davis said. “Charlie and I really always took a lot of time in just improving and putting one foot in front of the other and making progress from day to day, and I felt like we really were starting to take that to the next level. For me, it was a pretty easy decision (to continue after Vancouver). Maybe not, hey, let’s go to the next Olympics, but I really wanted to continue competing and skating competitively.”
Silver in Vancouver “was a setup for the mental game that we had to play for the next four years, which was probably the hardest part of it,” White agreed.
From 2010 to 2014, Davis and White bided their time as they grew into their full potential, accumulating world titles in 2011 and 2013, in addition to five career Grand Prix Finals titles and numerous grand prix wins. Nearly every step of the day, they dueled for top honors with training partners Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir of Canada, the 2010 and later 2018 Olympic champions.
In Sochi, four years after the early triumph in Vancouver, they added individual gold and bronze in the nascent team event. Looking back now, they did it by being true to themselves and weighing every decision by whether it would get them closer to what they wanted to accomplish.
“That’s something that Charlie and I learned to embrace over the years — to make things our own, and do things in a way that worked for us,” Davis said. “We really took every opportunity to say, how is this going to help us pursue our dreams? Between those four years of Vancouver and Sochi we took that incredibly seriously, and I think that was a big part of our being able to go from an Olympic silver medal to an Olympic gold medal in Sochi.”
The landscape will be different at this year’s Grand Prix Final in Vancouver. In the absence of 2018 Olympic champions Virtue and Moir and 2018 world champions Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron of France, the field is open for a new It couple — perhaps one of the two American teams, 2018 world silver medalists Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue, or Kaitlin Hawayek and Jean-Luc Baker? — to emerge.
Who comes forth as the winner will be the pair who can will be able to stay true to the way they’ve practiced and block out everything else.
“When the highest ranked skaters aren’t around, and it dawns on the other skaters that they have a chance to win, and some can handle it very well and some have a lot of trouble handling the mental game aspect of it,” White said.
“As teams move forward they have to learn how to win and the best way to learn how to win is not to overthink it, and focus on just what you can control. As dumb as it sounds, it comes down to how they’re preparing and practicing and how they’re thinking about themselves and thinking about competition. When they get there not allowing themselves to change too much, and that’s of course easier said than done.”
Which was something Davis and White excelled at.
“We weren’t inventing the wheel so to speak, but as Meryl says, we were making it our own,” White said. “It was still a wheel, but when you see it, you would say, ‘Oh that’s Meryl and Charlie’s.’”