It was 1997 and Charlie White had poor posture.
He was eight years old and had been skating since he was three but after playing ice hockey he had developed bad habits. To improve his skating, White’s parents decided to sign him up for ice dancing lessons.
One town over in West Bloomfield, Mich., nine-year-old Meryl Davis was in a similar situation. She, too, had decided to take up ice dancing and was looking for a partner. The choice seemed obvious. The two young skaters had both trained at the Detroit Skating Club for years, and White’s single skating coach at the time, Seth Chafetz, thought to himself, “Why not give it a try?”
The way White, who grew up in Bloomfield Hills, Mich., and Davis came together couldn’t be further from a storybook beginning. Their first skating session was so insignificant at the time that Davis said she barely even remembers when she met her partner.
“I have absolutely no recollection of it,” she said trying to think back to the introduction. “I can only remember someone asking me to skate with this crazy kid and thinking that I had no idea what I was doing.”
But certainly what is most uncommon about Davis and White is that their partnership from its coincidental beginnings has endured 13 years later, leading them to the University of Michigan. What started out as an admittedly awkward practice session between Davis and White at such a young age has now grown into a wildly successful partnership that is currently the longest of its kind in American ice dancing.
Tomorrow, White and Davis, who won the gold medal in ice dance at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships three weeks ago — their second consecutive national title — will travel to Vancouver to compete in the 2010 Winter Olympics. The U.S. has never taken home a gold medal in ice dancing, but many think Davis and White are the couple to change all that.
“Everywhere we go people always want to know why we have always skated with each other,” White said after a recent practice session. “We’ve been asked a thousand times, ‘How is it you manage to stay together?’ and neither of us really have an answer. It’s just always worked out.”
An ice dancer’s life is rarely left to chance. Every move on the ice, every flinch is carefully calculated. Make no mistake, it’s incredibly rare for two ice dancers to skate together as long as they have, but for Davis and White, things do seem to have just “worked out.”
Considering the way Davis and White began their careers together, it was highly improbable the two would stay a team forever. It’s not unusual for high-performance ice dancers to cross the country, or even the world, in search of a partner to take them to the next level. And it takes an almost perfect combination of athletes with similar body sizes, skating ability and goals to make the right team.
Even after finding the right partner, it takes some ice dancing teams years to truly know whether they can succeed at the highest level together.
Davis and White are not one of those teams.
It wasn’t long after the two started skating together that they began their ascent through the ice dancing ranks. Six months after they met, in March 1998, the team reached the Junior National Championships — the highest competition in the sport at the junior level. And despite being small for their age and competing against teams who had been paired together and training for years, they shocked everyone and finished second.
“Generally what happens is, after a performance like that, you move up a level and it takes years to get used to the harder dances and maneuvers,” White said. “And if you progress well as a team then you’ve got a shot to medal.”
The following season Davis and White moved up to the intermediate level. The dancers were more skilled, the routines were more difficult and the competition was tough, but the pair not only qualified for the Junior Olympics, they won first place.
The secret to making “love”:
It’s difficult to categorize the relationship the two have. After suggesting and then rejecting several analogies to help describe the dynamic between them, Davis joked that she wishes “ice dancing partners” would be a Facebook relationship status.
“We’ve gotten really lucky,” Davis said. “We’ve been together since we were eight, so as opposed to a team that comes together at age 13, 16 or 18, there’s been no awkward moments between us where we thought, ‘Uh-oh, maybe I like them,’ or ‘Wow, they’re really bossy.’ ”
Anyone who watches one of their skating programs would think the two were madly in love. Their legs swish in unison, their hips sway in harmony and they anticipate each other’s movements while making flawless flips, twirls and spins. Their body language and facial expressions show a sense of emotional connection and passion that has impressed judges and audiences all over the world.
But spend an afternoon with them at their home training rink, Arctic Edge Ice Arena in Canton, Mich., and it’s clear how the energy between them is created. While many who have watched them dance wonder if their passion together on the ice is a product of a romantic relationship, the two maintain that has never been the case. What you see during their programs is nothing more than the product of hard work and showmanship painstakingly perfected over many years.
“It’s hard because we’re really close and we spend so much time together, but there is no romantic connection despite having to portray one on the ice,” Davis said. “It’s not a brother-sister relationship, although sometimes it takes that form. It’s a working relationship and yet, it is a friendship.”
White agrees. He doesn’t see a need to assign roles or place a label on their relationship. To him, after years of experiencing large amounts of pressure, stress, exhaustion and lots of success together as a team, the most important thing to him has been the strong sense of trust and comfort they have in each other.
“I never have to worry about whether one day my partner is going to go nuts and just lose it or suddenly just quit, because these things absolutely happen,” he said. “I know we’re in this for each other and not for ourselves which I can see isn’t something all teams can say.”
As far as practicing their “romance” on the ice, that’s something that has become almost second nature. Davis and White can be skating around the rink carefree and joking with friends one second, and the next second be in each other’s arms staring intimately into the other’s eyes as if they were the only two people in the world. In a typical practice session, they snap in and out of passionate gazes dozens of times. Both say it’s just a matter of discipline.
“It’s not hard anymore for us to just switch on and off the emotion and romance we need to display on the ice,” White said.
“We can get to that point today really fast because when you’re inches away from someone else’s face it’s hard not to be completely focused on what they are doing,” Davis adds. “We’ve learned not to spend time worrying about our connection because we’ve been together so long we have amazing trust in each other.”
Despite being one of the sport’s top teams, Davis and White remain relatively unknown to those outside the ice-dancing world and try their best to maintain a balance in life away from the ice. Davis is a member of the Delta Delta Delta sorority and White is an avid hockey fan. It’s difficult, though, to deny that their ice dancing careers have become a greater priority recently. Neither Davis nor White is taking classes this semester, choosing instead to dedicate their time and energy to training. And in the last four years, the only time they spent more than three weeks away from the ice was to give White time to heal from an ankle injury.
When it comes to preparing for competitions, Davis, White and their Russian coaches, Igor Shpilband and Marina Zueva, don’t let a single detail of their program go unscrutinized. Just to stay in shape, the team skates a minimum of four hours a day. They review films of previous competitions and practices and even attend ballet classes.
But Davis and White see themselves as more than just ice dancers. They are actors, really, telling a story and drawing their audience into a particular scene. Part of the challenge each ice dancer faces is captivating the audience with their performance. Ice dancing is as much about entertainment as it is about technical skating ability.
One of the programs the two will perform at the Olympics is based on an Indian dance. To become more comfortable with the style of dance, the ice dancers brought in an Indian dance instructor to help them learn more about where the dance comes from and its historical and cultural significance.
For as much success as they’ve had, the two have largely risen in the sport of ice dancing in the shadow of their more famous U.S. Olympic teammates and now rivals, Tanith Belbin and Ben Agosto. Belbin and Agosto had won five consecutive U.S. National Championships from 2004-2008, and won the silver medal at the 2006 Winter Olympics. In 2009, when Davis and White won their first national title, their achievement was widely overlooked because Belbin and Agosto had not competed due to injury.
This year’s National Championship competition, however, just three weeks ago in Spokane, Wash. appears to have changed the ice dancing landscape heading into the 2010 Olympics. For the first time in any competition, Davis and White defeated Belbin and Agosto.
To fans that haven’t watched the sport of ice dancing since the last Olympics four years ago, the victory was an upset. And while few would have guessed in 2006 that Davis and White would be Olympic gold medal contenders in 2010, their scores over the years have proven they had actually closed the gap between themselves and Belbin and Agosto long ago. White points to the “significantly higher” scores he and Davis had earned compared with Belbin and Agosto in non head-to-head competitions. On top of that, Davis stresses that being U.S. Champions is more important than beating any specific team.
“Going into international competition as your country’s top team is more important than beating Tanith and Ben,” she said. “It really makes a difference to the judges from other countries to hear us introduced as the U.S. national champions instead of just U.S. No. 2. And when you’re going up against the national champions from Russian and Canada, it was really important to establish ourselves at the top of our country.”
Over the last two generations, American ice dancing had been slowly gaining respect in a sport dominated by Russian teams. In 2006, when Belbin and Agosto won their Olympic silver medals, it had been 30 years since the United States had last won an Olympic medal in ice dancing. Still, no American has ever won the Olympic gold, leaving the door wide open for Davis and White to make history.
The sheer magnitude of the world stage at the Olympics is both the most exciting and slightly concerning part for the team as they take their final practices at their home rink. Davis compares going from a competition of just strictly ice dancing to a multi-sport event like the Olympics, to a football player going from a high school field to playing at Michigan Stadium.
“This is an incredible opportunity, but you don’t want to do any more or less than we’ve been doing, even though the audience is that much bigger,” Davis said. “I’m just excited about the chance to show the world what we’ve been putting our hard work and sweat into our whole lives.”
And what might be most daunting is after a lifetime of hard work, Davis and White will have just one shot at impressing the judges. That means just less than three minutes to make U.S. Olympic history.
But the biggest pressure for these Olympic rookies isn’t the chance to be gold medalists — it’s making sure not to miss out on any part of the experience in Vancouver.
“The only way to say it is it’s unbelievably cool,” White said. “The worst thing that can happen is that we miss out on the Olympic experience.”