As they enchanted the world with their athletic interpretation of the Persian legend of Scheherazade, Meryl Davis and Charlie White weaved the ending of a new American fairy tale.
The Olympic gold medalists in ice dance — a first for the United States — have been in the upper echelon of ice dance for so long, that it is easy to forget what a remarkable journey they have undertaken.
Some 17 years ago, they homed in on a sport regarded as a joke. There was no compelling American ice dance team and no broader national interest. Ice dance was so unappealing that women often had to look abroad to find a partner to skate with.
Ice dancing was avant-garde and weird back then, and a young White refused to skate in anything but black, without so much as a single sequin. Imagine how people must have denigrated him for choosing that “sport” over hockey.
He ditched the Johnny Cash motif to become one half of the most technically proficient team in the world, with an equally strong partner, Meryl Davis. But, internationally, another couple was all the buzz.
Imagine constantly being an afterthought practically all of your competitive life to the rival, in this case, Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir. Even though Virtue and Moir represented Canada, they trained outside Detroit, in the same rink, with the same coach. The pressure was inescapable.
No one would have blamed Davis and White for quitting, or being satisfied with a silver medal after a stirring performance at the 2010 Olympics.
But they were not satisfied. They worked harder; they got better and eventually stole the swag of a venerable ice dance team. Unseating Virtue and Moir is essentially “Rocky II” on ice. Davis and White, an American inspiration.
It is the type of inspiration that the United States needs. Figure skating in the United States is a mess nowadays and the team is on track to deliver the least impressive showing at the Olympics in 20 years.
They all could learn from Davis and White. Jeremy Abbott is one of the best skaters in the world, but he crashes when the world is watching. Davis and White never crash. Ashley Wagner breaks down in four-minute long programs; but that’s Davis and White’s strong suit. Gracie Gold lands her jumps but doesn’t know how to enthrall an a crowd; Davis and White mastered that trick years ago.
To be sure, there were a series of fortunate circumstances that led to this moment. The revised scoring system helped propel American ice dance out of the doldrums, starting with 2006 Olympic silver medalists Tanith Belbin and Ben Agosto.
The decision of Russian coach Marina Zoueva to move to the United States after the fall of the Soviet Union infused an athletic and artistic prowess American ice dancers never had. And Davis and White got lucky that the International Skating Union eliminated the compulsory dance portion of the competition, by far Davis and White’s worst event.
But in the end, they were untouchable. The Canadians skated with tremendous detail and romanticism, putting on their best competition of the year. They had a minuscule problem on the footwork, but Davis and White made no mistakes. They performed masterfully, skating with such sprezzatura that their four-minute program flew by.
Give them the Wheaties Box and Jimmy Fallon interview. They deserve to be considered in the pantheon of iconic American skaters: Dick, Brian, Scott, Peggy, Dorothy, Kristi, Michelle. And now, Meryl and Charlie.
Watching Meryl and Charlie reminded me of watching Paul Wylie surprise the world when winning the silver medal in the 1992 Olympic Games in Albertville. Teeming with American pride, I remember how inspiring it was and felt skating would always be my favorite sport. I was seven.
I can only imagine how many young boys woke up this morning and told their parents they wanted to be like Charlie — a swashbuckling and heroic athlete who wins a gold medal by skating with a woman who looks like a princess in a Disney flick. Or the number of young girls who want to be like Meryl, strong and enthralling.
After 17 years of working together outside the city of Detroit, Meryl and Charlie might have done something that was once unfathomable. By mastering the sport that once isolated them, Meryl and Charlie have manufactured a newfound American appreciation of ice dance. Twizzle is the new twerk.