Detroit — Four months out from the Winter Olympics, World Champion ice dancers Meryl Davis and Charlie White blew away the field at the 2013 Skate Ameria event Saturday, thrilling their hometown audience in one of the international meccas of figure skating.
With more than half of the eight contestants in the ice dance trained in Metro Detroit and Ann Arbor, the competition seemed a celebration of a sport that perhaps too often passes unnoticed, on a busy night for other sports in the city.
“I think we were really happy with what we were able to put out there; you know, definitely one of our best performances,” White said.
Davis and White’s 112.53 points in the free dance was 13 more than any other team, and they won the event by 20 points over Anna Capelllini and Luca Lanotte of Italy, who train in Novi.
Maia and Alex Shibutani, who like Davis and White are students at the University of Michigan and train in Canton, finished third.
By simple process of elimination, the only thing Davis and White have not achieved athletically is Olympic gold.
They are most likely to be favored in Sochi, Russia, in February.
Their free dance program, which they intend to refine to a sharp edge in the coming months beefore skating it in the Olympics, seems destined to be a tour de force.
It is set to the Russian composer Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s gorgeous “Scheherazade,” and it opens with an unorthodox approach to the curve lift that they have worked on for two years.
That element is already proving a fascination for some veteran observers.
“We kind of came upon it and we had a very hard time with it, at first,” Davis said. “It’s all about the timing and balancing each other and space distribution and things like that.
“It’s challenging, but we really love it. It’s exciting to do at the beginning of the program,” the graduate of Birmingham Groves said.
“It kind of sets the tone for just kind of the element of surprise, drama and excitement of our free dance program.”
The World Champs have been at it for years now.
Their parents are best friends and both children were participating in figure skating competitions by the time they were 10 or 11 years old. In 1997 or 1998, they became partners.
In the first year, they won a silver medal at the Junior Olympics in the juvenile division. They enjoyed success in juniors before leaping from 2006 Junior U.S. Champions to competing in the 2007 World Championship, one of two ice dance teams in history to make that jump.
Davis and White have now been World Champions (2011 and 2013), World silver medalists (2010 and 2012), Four Continents Champions (2009, 2011 and 2013), Grand Prix Final Champions (2010, 2011, 2012 and 2013) and U.S. Champions (2009, 2010, 2011, 2012 and 2013).
They already have won the only major international figure skating event at the 2014 Olympic rink in Sochi, Russia, the venue for the 2013 Grand Prix Final.
Before the Skate America Detroit event, White talked about the effort they have put into their free skate, which also will be their long program in Sochi.
“We paid special attention to the musicality and also the characters,” he said. “Just working on making everything as good as it can be, in terms of making everything really clean.”
Davis said that she and White considered the early-season, at-home event just like every contest they enter.
For example, International Skating Union rules require their presence in the hotel where other competitors stay for the competition. There was no driving in from Ann Arbor or their parents’ homes in Oakland County.
“As for treating it like a normal competition, absolutely,” Davis said. “I don’t know whether we’ve experienced it any other way.”
Both talk vividly of growing up in Metro Detroit, where several clubs train international figure skaters.
“I think we saw a lot and we were able to sort of pick and choose, maybe even unknowingly at the time, what it was about each individual team that we liked,” White said about arriving at their style, in part, while watching the other, older athletes.
As time went on, especially before bursting into prominence at the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics, Davis said their influences came from around the globe.
“I think we were definitely not limited to American ice dancers, and as we kind of fell more and more in love with the sort over the years, we definitely spent a lot of time looking at the ice dancers from around the world, as well.
“A lot, especially the Russian ice dancers, were so different that it was interesing to see everyone’s take on what’s most impomrtant to bring to the ice and what they’re most passionate about.”
In other action from a long day of figure skating at Joe Louis Arena, the men’s competition was full of surprises.
After 18-year-old Jason Brown of California placed second after the short program, besting two staunch Japanese skaters, Takahiko Kozuka and Daisuke Takahashi, his stumble in the free skate dropped him to fifth.
But Adam Rippon of Pennsylvania, who was third, moved up to second, despite hitting the boards immediately after his opening quad lutz.
And Max Aaron of Arizona rallied from sixth to third, getting by both Japanese men in the free skate.
They all finished behind Tatsuki Machida, who was considered the third best of the Japanese men entering the competition. The whole men’s event seemed topsy-turvy, especially for the many Japanese in town for the event, who appeared to constitute about a third of the spectators and four-fifths of the media in attendance.
They had arrived daring to consider the possibility of Japanese in all men’s medal positions.
In the ladies short program, Ashley Wagner, of Virginia and California, placed second with a 69.26 total score, almost four points behind Mao Asada of Japan, the Olympic silver medalist and two-time World Champion (2007, 2010).
At 23, Asada intends to retire at the end of this season, including the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics, and the Japanese fan and media following for her in Detroit is intense.
Wagner, 22, is the great USA hope for a ladies medal in Russia.
“I was just very, very pleased with how today went,” said Wagner, the self-described Army brat who was born in Germany, where her father was in the service.
She was especially pleased with a high score the judges awarded her for the opening triple flip and triple toeloop combination.
“It’s been a while since I’ve gotten the flip-toe out there. I believe I’ve never gotten it out there before, in my short program,” Wagner said. “So, to get that called clean was a huge accomplishment for me.
“That short program is so much fun for me to perform, and I hope that comes across and that as the seasons goes on, it only becomes stronger.”
The ladies’ free skate is at 4:15 p.m. Sunday and will be broadcast live by NBC.
In the pairs, the class of the field, 2013 World Champions Tatiana Volosozhar and Max Tankov of Russia, skated brilliantly, achieving their personal-best total score in the short program, at 83.05 to build a substantial 11.54 lead over Canadians Kirsten Moore-Towers and Dylan Moscovitch.
“We felt some uncomfortable feelings on some elements,” a cordial Tankov said afterward. “But we got all the (scoring) levels we planned.”
In a surprise, the second-ranked pair from the United States, Marissa Castelli and Simon Shnapir, bested Caydee Denney and John Coughlin in the pairs short program by a half-point, 62.56 to 62.06, for fifth and sixth place out of eight.
The pairs free skate is slated for 2:30 p.m. Sunday.
Although it is a dominating world power in ice dancing and has the reigning Olympic men’s gold medalist, Evan Lysacek, who chose not to compete in Skate America, the United States is striving to improve in the ladies and pairs events.