Davis and White’s gasp-inducing performance in winning ice dancing gold

Sally Jenkins (c) 2014, The Washington Post.

SOCHI, Russia — As Meryl Davis and Charlie White glided around on the bright haze of ice, what with all their elaborate footwork and gasp-inducing lifts, at times you forgot they were on skates. But that was the point — the viewer was no more troubled by the skating of Davis and White than by a breeze, such was the spell they cast to win America’s first-ever Olympic gold medal in ice dancing.

These two childhood friends from Detroit practiced for 17 years to achieve the illusion they conjured up at the Iceberg Arena on Monday night. Their fleet, whirling performance of Scheherazade was a just a masquerade for two athletes straining to do something unimaginably hard: win in a sport historically dominated by Russians and Canadians, on Russian home ice. They made it seem effortless, but it was the furthest thing from it, especially “knowing that if you’re not perfect you can forget about your dreams,” White said.

They skated last and with a sense of pressure in the arena so heavy it almost had physical weight. They knew that their main rivals, defending Olympic champions Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir of Canada, had turned in an almost faultless waltz. And that Russians Elena Ilinykh and Nikita Katsalapov had provoked bedlam and an outpouring of flowers from the home crowd with their powerfully dark rendition of Swan Lake. “We had some awareness that everyone had skated well before us,” White said. “It’s probably the most nervous we’ll be in a lifetime.”

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It’s easy to denigrate the absurd outerwear of ice dancing. Over the course of the evening there were mock Roman centurions, principessa, clowns, and a guy in a sweater vest. This was a snippet of conversation in the press tribune.

“What’s she wearing tonight?”

“The green, I think.”

Actually, Davis wore purple. She was in chiffon, of course, and he was in a velvet and brocade getup that made him look a little like Sir Spamalot. But all the fabric was only meant to hide the athletic scaffolding. Most Olympic stars are in the business of showing off their muscle, not cloaking it. As the Olympics get ever larger and catch more air, ice dancing is the last event left that is about the little things; it’s needlepoint while other athletes are spray painting.

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Yet underneath it all, this is an utterly torturous discipline, in which it’s easy to be exposed as awkward, or effortful, or clumsy. Or boring — there were moments during some of the night’s performances when you found yourself wondering what might happen if her skate caught on his necktie? Sometimes you had to go thumbing through the program looking for the planned elements, to see if what you’d just seen was an accident or not.

Davis and White didn’t have to land impossible quads that might send them sprawling. Instead, their task was to deliver a flowing performance that hid the fact that every single moment of it had been carefully constructed, and required wrenching, heaving, twisting work. Each segment of which was noted by notoriously fickle and sometimes corrupt judges. Miss one step and it would be scored like a fall on a triple axel. Four years ago at the Vancouver Games they had learned that the hard way, losing to Virtue and Moir and taking silver. “That constant striving for perfection, you’ve got to look yourself in the mirror and figure out every day what it’s gonna take to get there,” White said.

They’d worked at it ever since they met as children back in Detroit, when they took their first skating lessons, and “knew each other as casually as eight year olds can,” she said. “We’ve grown up together in every sense of the word.” He was a gifted hockey player who was initially a little ahead of her as a skater, and annoyed while he waited for her to catch up. But when they danced they found “we were sticking together like glue,” he said. Yet the natural childhood affinity wouldn’t have amounted to anything without the long-term dedication.

All the years later, as their Sochi performance gained momentum, they skated so close together you worried his skate toes might clip their heels. On every turn and spin they found perfect synch.

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White swung Davis around like she was on a string. At times she stood balanced in the air with her skate atop her partner’s knee. At times he wrapped her around his neck like a scarf. At times he held her aloft and sailed her through the air like she was on the prow of a ship. At one point he dangled her from his wrist like a piece of jewelry. At another she hung precariously upside down in a headstand, with only a hand on the back of his neck to steady herself.

In the end, there was no question. There would be no judging controversy, no argument. As they whirled around entwined, never separated by more than two arms’ lengths, they finally achieved what they’d been looking for. In a competition in which the difference between the medalists can be imperceptible, Davis and White were visibly, perceptibly great. They had made it look easy.