February 16, 2014 at 8:15 pm

Journey nearly complete: Meryl Davis, Charlie White close in on gold medal

Meryl Davis and Charlie White complete their short dance program on Sunday. (Paul Gilham / Getty Images)

Sochi, Russia Meryl Davis and Charlie White took one giant step Sunday in a 17-year journey together, which seems destined to bring them to the first gold medal in the ice dance for the United States.

Gliding through a seemingly effortless short dance program and besting their Canadian rivals -- training partners and friends Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir by 2.56 points -- Davis and White clearly enhanced their status as clear favorites for the gold, heading into the free dance Monday.

It was a competition that demonstrated for the world, including the figure skating-obsessed nation of Russia the assembly line for international ice dancers located in Metro Detroit. At least 13 of the 24 dance teams competing in the 2014 Sochi Games were born in the area, live here now or train in Canton, Bloomfield Hills, Novi and Ann Arbor.

"I think we were really in the moment, enjoying it," said White, of Bloomfield Hills and Ann Arbor. "I don't think either of us was really thinking about pushing, but rather enjoying it and enjoying each other's company out there.

"So, it was really special for us."

White credited hard work and great coaching, by Marina Zueva.

"We've trained this program so hard, and Marina's done such a great job of preparing us, physically and mentally and emotionally even, for that moment that we can really focus on the performance, and letting the skating kind of go for itself."

Davis, of West Bloomfield, said each competitive skate is different, and conjures different feelings when finished.

"But I was telling Charlie that in the middle of the program, I just felt like I was in a dream," she said.

"You know, such a surreal experience, again even being here in our second Games, and to be here with our parents and just kind of feeling ready to go is a really wonderful feeling.

"I feel very lucky."

'Perfectly done'

Zueva, their coach at the Arctic Figure Skating Club, said she was happy that Davis and White, and indeed the other teams from her stable in the short dance, skated with ease and seemed utterly free of the pressures of competing on a world stage and in her native Russia, where figure skating has an enormous, knowledgeable following.

"Today was perfectly done, everything," she said of Davis and White. "And I really think it was because of the stretch of the week before the performance here."

Zueva was referring to the time off between the first team skating event in the history of the Olympics last weekend, and the performances Sunday.

Universally, the skaters competing across all four categories, men's, women's, pairs and ice dance, say that competing in the team competition first, helped set them up for better skates in their individual competitions.

All of Zueva's skaters, including Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir, of Ontario, who live in Metro Detroit when they train in Canton, and the sister and brother Maia and Alex Shibutani, were relaxed and self-possessed as they skated, she said.

"You could see they were very self-confident in the competition. I was really happy because you couldn't see them try. They didn't try, they just did it.

"They danced."

Virtue and Moir, the defending gold medalists and the only other dance team from North America ever to win gold, are in second place.

And while most observers believe Davis and White's path to the gold is unobstructed, the fact is Virtue and Moir are marvelously elegant skaters, whose performances are generally improving each time they take the ice at the Iceberg Skating Palace.

"We did what we needed to do tonight," Moir said. "We like our chances."

"We certainly felt more like ourselves out there tonight," Virtue said. "We created the moment we wanted to create.

"I don't think we could have done much better than we did tonight."

Words of wisdom

The so-called judging details for the competition revealed that Moir and Virtue received only slightly lower scores on each of the compulsory elements required in the short dance, except for the first section of the "Finnstep," which is essentially synchronized foot work.

Madison Chock, of California, and Evan Bates, of Ann Arbor, who graduated last semester from Michigan, are in eighth, after skating their season's best performance, scored at 65.46. Chock and Bates train in Novi, with Igor Shpilband.

"Season's best at the Olympics," Chock said. "It was incredible. I had so much fun out there."

The Shibutanis, who like Davis and White are students at Michigan, are in ninth, heading for the free dance, after also receiving a season's best score of 64.47

"I think it was the most fun we've ever had performing," said Maia, 19.

"I've been looking forward to having that moment for a very long time," said Alex, 22, whose humorous contributions to social media over the first 11 days of the Games have been popular.

The North American ascendancy in the ice dance almost complete domination by European skaters, beginning in 1976, when the event debuted as an Olympic sport.

Russian duos won seven gold medals and Britain and France each one.

But having skated together since they were first paired when they were 9, Davis and White are on the verge of becoming the first Americans to join the list.

Observers long ago pointed to them as a near perfect combination of art and athleticism. They have the stylish posture and positioning of Virtue and Moir, but they also have enormous speed and considerable dexterity.

More and more, the judges agree.

"Everything is coming together," Davis said. "It's not where we are in the standings, it's how we feel when we get off the ice."

"We're not skating," White said. "We're letting it flow."

Asked what Zueva told him just before their short dance, White said, "Smile and show how you adore Meryl."