Charlie White was about 10 and had been taking ice dance lessons for roughly six months when a young girl named Meryl Davis started skating with him.
At first, he was a little put off.
Why should he have to go back and do the easier dances just to help her out?
But quickly, he began to change his mind about the whole pairing.
“I was really impressed because she had never done it before and we were sticking like glue,” White said.
They have stuck together ever since, and 16 years later in Sochi, Russia, they were standing together as America’s first ice dance Olympic gold medalists.
They didn’t know they would one day reach this point back when they had childhood playdates in suburban Detroit. Nor did they know this moment would come when they started competing in novice-level events.
What they did know is that would stay together in this journey, no matter what the end game would bring them.
“In terms of our partnership there’s never been a moment of doubt since 1997,” Davis said.
It wasn’t a surprise the two would win the Olympic ice dance competition tonight, since Davis and White have been the most dominant and consistent team in the sport the last two years. They are two-time world champions and they had defeated their top rivals and training partners, Canada’s Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir – the 2010 Olympic gold medalists – in their last four meetings.
Yet even in a sport such as ice dance, where major shifts in placements are rare, you could feel the sense of relief from Davis and White once they knew the gold medal was indeed theirs.
Davis and White were the last to skate and they had the unenviable challenge of following up several strong performances by their rivals. Virtue and Moir already posted a season’s-best score, and the fans had been roaring with delight for two of their Russian teams when Davis and White took the ice.
They were hands-down the gold-medal favorites but they still had to compete.
“It’s probably the most nervous you’ll be in a lifetime,” White said.
What got them to overcome those nerves were their consistency and their incredible dedication to training.
“We didn’t say a whole lot,” White said. “We pretty much said, ‘We’re ready. Let’s do this.’”
They produced a memorable routine to Sheherazade, a piece created by a Russian composer, which their Russian-born coach, Marina Zoueva, knew would play well to the Sochi crowd. As an exhausted White stepped off the ice, Zoueva gave him a long embrace.
“I was exhausted, not because I wasn’t in shape but because we had tried really hard,” White said.
They used a combination of speed, dramatic lifts and textbook twizzles to produce a world record of 195.52 points to win the gold medal. Virtue and Moir, with whom they train in Canton, Mich., settled for the silver with 190.99 points and the Russian team of Elena Ilinykh and Nikita Katsalapov earned the bronze medal (183.48).
Davis and White now tie Beatrix Loughran for the most Olympic medals of any Americans in figure skating. They earned a silver medal in Vancouver and also were part of the U.S. team that earned a bronze medal in the team event in Sochi.
Madison Chock and Evan Bates placed eighth (164.64) and Maia and Alex Shibutani overcame a costume malfunction in the middle of a lift in their Michael Jackson medley to hold on to ninth place (155.17), marking only the second time the U.S. placed three ice dance teams inside the top 10 at the Winter Games.
Although the U.S. team of Colleen O’Connor and Jim Millns earned a bronze medal when ice dancing made its Olympic debut in 1976, it took 30 years for another American team to reach the Olympic podium in the sport.
For decades it seemed Americans were just resigned to finishing in the middle of the pack. Some American women would pair up with Russian men thinking that was their only ticket to the top.
Then a couple of Russian coaches started developing American skaters and that, combined with an overhauled judging system that rewarded athleticism and artistry, allowed the Americans to get into the game. In 2006, Tanith Belbin and Ben Agosto earned a silver medal in Torino, Italy. Davis and White followed that up with a silver medal of their own in Vancouver, British Columbia.
And now the Americans have a gold medal.
“It’s a historic day for U.S. figure skating,” said Mitch Moyer, high performance director for U.S. Figure Skating. “There was a group of people in the U.S. who were very passionate about dance, for them, this is their moment.”
For Davis and White, the reality of their dream still hasn’t sunk in.
“It’s not something that we’re really figuring out how to express,” White said. “We’re proud to represent our country, to become the first Americans to win the gold.”
“We weren’t really prepared for what may come after,” Davis said.
Their future together in this sport is not entirely clear. The world championships are set for next month in Japan, and their coach said she wants the two to continue on for several more years.
“As far as moving forward I don’t even know where I’m sitting right now,” White said at the news conference after the event. “We’re just going to enjoy our Olympic triumph.”
Amy Rosewater is a freelance writer and editor for TeamUSA.org. A former sports reporter for The (Cleveland) Plain Dealer, she is covering her fifth Olympic Games in Sochi. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post and USA Today.