In Russia, where the love of figure skating rivals that of hockey, and the reverence for dance is deeply embedded in the culture, a pair of ice dancers from suburban Detroit made figure skating history Monday, becoming the first Americans to win Olympic gold in their discipline.
Skating last among the 20 couples who qualified for the long program, Meryl Davis and Charlie White staged a technically jaw-dropping yet elegant free skate to fend off the best efforts of their Canadian rivals, Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir, to claim the gold medal in ice dance with a combined score of 195.52 points — the highest marks of what has been a brilliant 17-year career together.
Davis and White, who claimed the silver medal at the 2010 Vancouver Games, entered Monday’s free skate in first place, with a 2.56-point lead over the Canadians, who were attempting to defend their 2010 Olympic title. The lead was comfortable but hardly insurmountable, especially after Virtue and Moir’s elegant free skate, full of grace and power.
The Canadians scored a season-best 114.66, to finish with 190.99 point overall. But the Americans did even better, earning 116.63 for their performance to Rimski-Korsakov’s Sheherazade, to become the first American gold medalists in a a discipline that was added to the Winter Games in 1976 and has been dominated by skaters from Russia and former Soviet states.
Russia’s Elena Ilinykh and Nikita Katsalapov, performing to Swan Lake, took bronze, finishing with a total score of 183.48.
Among the other American couples competing, Madison Chock and Evan Bates finished eighth with 164.64 total points, and siblings Maia and Alex Shibutani finished ninth with 155.17.
For the past four years, Davis and White and Virtue and Moir have performed at a higher level than the rest of their global competition. They have swapped world championships the past four years, with the Americans winning the 2011 and 2013 titles and the Canadians winning in 2010 and 2012. And one couple or the other has claimed gold at 18 of the past 20 international competitions of consequence.
Ice dancing differs from pairs figure skating in that no jumps or throws are allowed, and the performances are meant to simulate ballroom dancing, rather than acrobatics. The skaters must remain no more than two arms’ length apart and execute their spins in tandem. Lifts are permitted, but none can involve hoisting a skater over the head. And couples are judged on the precision of their footwork, as well as their interpretive skills.