SOCHI, Russia — Back in fourth grade, when they were first paired together at the local ice rink, Meryl Davis was so shy she could hardly look Charlie White in the eye. And he stewed in silence because she had never tried ice dance, meaning he had to slow down so she could catch up.
Over 17 years of training together, their timing, footwork and competitive mind-set melded. So when they skated out to center ice Monday for the most important performance of their careers, the two-time world champions found the steadiness they needed with a single glance, promising without words to be there for one another and to do their best.
For the next four-and-a-half minutes at Sochi’s Iceberg Skating Palace, Davis and White skated as one, bringing to life the fairy tale “Scheherazade” through intricate footwork, jaw-dropping lifts and synchronized gestures. With it, the athletes from suburban Detroit made history, becoming the first Americans to win the Olympic ice dance title. And they did so with a record score of 195.52 points, earned in Russia, no less, where the love of figure skating rivals that of hockey, and the reverence for dance is deeply embedded in the culture.
Davis, 27, was quick to thank the Russian-born coach behind the achievement, Marina Zoueva, who chose their music (by Russian composer Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov), choreographed their steps and has instilled Russian culture in them these last years — all so their performance would not only showcase their talent but also pay homage to this Winter Olympics’ host nation.
In an arrangement that’s impossible to imagine in other sports, Zoueva also coaches the Canadian ice dancers who claimed silver, Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir, who train alongside Davis and White.
For the past four years, the two couples have traded every significant international title in ice dance. Virtue and Moir won gold at the 2010 Vancouver Games, where Davis and White took silver. On Monday, they swapped places, with the Canadians settling for silver (190.99).
“No athletes like it to sit in this position,” Moir said afterward. “We came here to win the competition. But it’s easier when we see them and know how hard these guys work.”
Russia’s Elena Ilinykh and Nikita Katsalapov took bronze (183.48), thrilling the crowd with their highly emotive performance to Tchaikovsky’s “Swan Lake” in which Ilinykh, overcome by exhaustion at the end, collapsed in tears into her partner’s arms, the very portrait of a dying black swan.
Ice dance was a Russian passion and point of pride long before the discipline was added to the Winter Olympics in 1976. Entering these Games, ice dancers from the Soviet Union or Russia had won gold in seven of the 10 Olympics at which the discipline had been contested.
But under Zoueva, 57, its epicenter has shifted to Canton, Mich., home of Davis and White, as well as Canada’s Virtue and Moir, and the promising American siblings, Maia and Alex Shibutani, who finished ninth (155.17) in their Olympic debut. Fellow Americans Madison Chock and Evan Bates were eighth (164.64).
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Just 2.56 points separated the front-running Americans from their Canadian rivals following Sunday’s short program, the first phase of the competition. What accounted for the biggest differential in the marks was a required step sequence, known as the Finnstep. The judges gave top marks to Davis and White, who set a short-dance record with their overall score, but found fault with the Finnstep of Virtue and Moir. A spirited debate quickly followed via social media about the fairness of the marks.
Despite an overhaul of figure skating’s scoring following the judging scandal in the 2002 Salt Lake City Games, the topic remains a flashpoint — particularly in ice dance, which is so deeply rooted in theatrics.
Ice dancers receive scores for the difficulty of the steps and lifts they perform, based on an established code of points. But they also receive so-called “component scores” that reflect subjective qualities, such as transitions, choreography and skating skill.
Virtue and Moir were the 17th of 20 couples to compete Monday. And they staged a romantic, elegant free skate to music by Russian composer Alexander Glazunov. Judges awarded them with a season-best 114.66 points, which theoretically closed the gap on the Americans.
Competing last, Davis, 27, and White, 26, took the ice in glittering costumes befitting a Middle Eastern king and temptress. And they created an exotic world of passion, spiced with a touch of sexuality, from their opening lift to their last. It was a performance that extended the boundaries of ice dance with its physicality and pace. And it showcased the primary way in which Davis and White have matured since their silver medal showing in Vancouver, capable of weaving a story through dance rather than stringing together synchronized steps.
Six-time U.S. champions and two-time and defending world champions, Davis and White hadn’t been defeated since 2012. They wouldn’t be this night, either, leading every category of the complex scoring and earning perfect 10.00s for choreography and interpretation.
After paying tribute to Zoueva, they thanked Virtue and Moir for pushing them daily and for pushing the sport.
“We’re linked forever,” White said. “This moment, and all the moments that have brought us together, will keep us together forever.”
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