Four years ago, Meryl Davis and Charlie White brought home a silver in ice dancing. This year, they're hoping for gold. (Adrian Dennis / Getty Images)
Meryl Davis and Charlie White left the ice in the Pacific Coliseum in Vancouver four years ago and walked down a long line of international media, stopping at microphones and cameras to discuss their first Olympic skate.
The young ice dancers from Metro Detroit, both students at the University of Michigan, looked happy and at ease, seemingly eager to embrace a new-found sense of belonging. It was almost as if they had arrived home.
Pausing as he patiently answered numerous questions, White smiled and said, “We had fun out there.”
They would win the silver medal, but Davis and White would not be second best in the world for long.
They entered the Games four years ago on the verge of something big. They arrived in Sochi as the dominant couple in the sport, reigning world champions and six-time U.S. champions — and showed why during last weekend’s team event, hitting the equivalent of a ninth-inning grand slam with a record-setting score of 114.34 in ice dancing to secure a bronze medal for Team USA.
Now, Davis and White enter their individual two-part event Sunday and Monday as the favorites to win Olympic gold.
With the considerable international success has come no small amount of fame, their position as premier American athletes at the Games has only been enhanced since they started. Major American athletes favored for gold medals like Shaun White, Bode Miller and Shani Davis have failed to garner any in their big events.
Defending gold medal skier Lindsey Vonn and figure skater Evan Lysacek are injured and not participating.
Davis and White may well emerge as the American darlings of the Games. NBC, in fact, uses their image to market Olympic programming — Davis, with her classic dark eyes, and White, with his easy smile topped with that mop of blonde hair, are superimposed over NBC’s Sochi logo.
They are a long way from Vancouver. But, in the firm embrace of family and friends from Oakland County and Ann Arbor, ushered by perhaps the best coach in the world, nurtured in the deep pool of talent training in Metro Detroit for two decades and at ease on and off the ice, Davis and White appear fairly unchanged.
“It’s easy for us to kind of take it as it is,” said Davis, 27.
“We walk down the streets in the Detroit area and on campus in Ann Arbor and people will stop us every once in a while. We see it less fame and more as respect for what it is we’re doing on the ice, all the years of hard work we’ve been putting in.
“But we’ve grown up in Detroit and we’ve been able to stay close to our family and friends. And so, I don’t think there’s ever really been any option for us other than staying grounded and really staying connected to who we are now, and who we’ve always been.”
In retrospect, White says, they were prepared for the big time.
“I think that we had two sets of parents who raised us in a way that when our moment came, you know, we weren’t affected by it, but rather just accepted it as part of the sport and what it is that we do,” said White, 26.
“The success has just enabled us to open up our world, and I think that we’re better people for all these opportunities.”
On the ice, their great accomplishments are rivaled only by the ease with which they seem to obtain them. A trait of the couple is the painstaking effort they expend making their programs look effortless.
It helps, Davis said, to have skated together for 16 years, since they were about 10 years old.
“A lot of our ability to kind of rise above the nerves from one competition to the next is very much dependent on our years together, and kind of our comfort level taking the ice no matter what circumstance, you know, kind of hand-in-hand as we have since we were young children,” she said.
“Of course, the Olympic Games are always a little bit more nerve-racking. But we’re approaching it as we always do, just like it was any other competition, relying on our comfort level, our confidence as a team and our years of practice together.”
White said the realization in Vancouver that they had what it takes still pays dividends.
“The biggest thing that we learned was that we can handle just any sort of scenario and no situation is too big for us,” he said. “We realized how much confidence we should have in ourselves, based on how hard we work.
“It’s sometimes hard to truly believe that until you test it on the biggest stage.”
They also believe growing up surrounded by internationally competitive ice dancers provided a solid foundation and an enormous lift.
“We were so fortunate coming up the ranks at the Detroit Skating Club when there were so many amazing American ice dance teams there,” Davis said, running down a list that includes Jared Swallow and Elizabeth Punsalan, Jamie Silverstein and Justin Pekarek, Naomi Lang and Peter Tchernyshev, and Tanith Belbin and Ben Agosto.
“We got the opportunity to take a look at everyone’s different skills, really kind of admire the growth that everybody was bringing and what they brought to the table.”
And, growing up in West Bloomfield Township and Bloomfield Hills, the Detroit Skating Club was “just 10 minutes away,” White said.
“We saw a lot and I think we were able to pick and choose, maybe not even knowing at that time what is was about or which individual team we liked.”
'Into the right place'
The coaches have helped greatly, drawing much of that ice dancing talent to their stables and training great skaters.
When Igor Shpilband arrived from Russia and was joined by Marina Zoueva, the region became a hotbed for ice dancing. Shpilband and Zoueva split as a coaching team in June 2012, and Davis and White stayed with Zoueva.
Davis said the couple’s confidence in Zoueva’s ability to see them through generates much of the ease and grace with which they perform.
“She is really great at talking with us and making us feel comfortable and having confidence in ourselves and in our material and kind of fitting us into the right place going into each and every competition,” she said.
They won their second world title in Sochi early last year, in front of President Vladimir Putin in the Olympic venue, the 12,000-seat Iceberg Skating Palace.
“The actual aesthetics of the rink were surprisingly beautiful, and I think both Charlie and I felt really comfortable there,” Davis said.
That Putin attended underlined something U.S. figure skaters are saying about performing in Russia: The Russians love and understand figure skating.
“It certainly shows how much the Russians care about figure skating, which I think is something that for Meryl and myself is exciting about these Olympics,” White said.
'It's our program'
What many fans find exciting about these Olympics is Davis and White. And it is not just their role as formidable favorites and exhilarating ice dancers.
Their free dance, the product of years-long thought and conceptualization, and polished throughout the season, is an absolute passion for the both of them. From its debut, observers were impressed. In a conference call last week, three veteran writers used the words “spectacular,” “fantastic” and “breath-taking,” while asking questions about it.
Set to the Russian composer, soldier and nationalist Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s symphonic suite “Scheherazade,” it just may send the dedicated Russian fans over the moon.
Davis said they saved it not only for a special competition, but also until they believed their skills matured enough to suit the performance.
“It’s a piece we’ve been dying to skate to for years now,” Davis said. “So finally it’s our program, it’s our piece of music that we’ve chosen. Charlie and I just like to embrace it.
“You know, when the music starts, there’s nothing like having that chill up your back, like the music really sinks into your soul. And that’s the way we feel with this music.”
White said it is “a great opportunity to pay homage to Russian culture and what it’s brought to the world.”
“We can count on Marina to do it justice,” he said. “It’s something the Russian people will be excited about.”
Zoueva and the world champions normally begin conceiving the idea for their next free dance immediately after the previous season.
“This season’s a little bit different for us because we really kind of set our minds on skating to this piece over a season ago,” Davis said.
As always, they do not consider a program fully formed until the very last time they skate it in competition.
“The nuts and bolts of it kind of get worked out as we go along, you know?” White said. “What’s comfortable? What looks good here? And, you know, obviously we may have to make a lot of changes to keep things perfect.
“But we really have her to thank Marina for this masterpiece.”
'Feeling very confident'
The couple has arrived at this juncture heavily favored for the gold medal and with an easy confidence based on years of practice and dedication.
They have a great Russian coach. They will skate to evocative music, composed by a great Russian composer and patriot.
Will Davis and White have a great performance in Russia? Unsurprisingly, they seem quite at ease about the prospect.
“All season long we’ve been talking about how much we love our programs,” White said. “I mean, both of them really mean a lot to us personally.”
“Charlie and I are feeling very confident, at this point,” Davis said. “We’re really excited and pushing ourselves in training. We’re feeling really strong and healthy and positive.”