SOCHI, Russia - Seventeen years.
Seventeen years of skating together, learning together, growing up together.
Seventeen years since an 8-year-old and a 9-year-old were thrown together as an ice dance team, a pairing that irritated the younger member, Charlie White. He already had been doing it for six months, and Meryl Davis was just starting, so he was back to dance Square One while she caught up - quickly.
Seventeen years during which Davis said there never was doubt about whether they should stick it out.
Seventeen years leading to a free dance so physically and mentally demanding it left them looking as if they had spent 17 years of energy on the four minutes of skating, unable to do anything but collapse into each other’s arms when it was over Monday night at the Iceberg Skating Palace.
Seventeen years for a moment, the moment when the scores were announced and two kids from Michigan realized all that work and time with each other had made them the first U.S. skating couple to win an Olympic gold medal, either in dance or pairs.
“You dream of the opportunity, and being able to put in the work every day to make it happen is a tribute to our partnership,” White said.
“We prepared ourselves so well for what we wanted to put onto the ice and focused so hard on that we weren’t really prepared for what might happen,” Davis said.
Such relentless effort was needed for Davis and White to beat the 2010 Olympic champions, Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir of Canada, who had become not only fierce rivals but friends during the decade they have trained together under the same coaches in Canton, Mich.
“The struggles, the rivalry, knowing if you’re not perfect then you can forget about your dreams, with that constant striving for perfection, you have to look in the mirror and figure out every day what it is going to take to get there,” White said. “You mature a lot quicker under that kind of pressure.”
Virtue and Moir had been the first North American ice dancers to win Olympic gold. Both couples had become so good they would lose only to the other in the four years beginning with the Vancouver Olympics, when Davis and White were the silver medalists.
“We’re linked forever,” White said.
But he and White have separated themselves from the Canadians in the judges’ eyes. Skating the free dance to music from the ballet “Scheherazade,” the U.S. couple continued a dominance over Moir and Virtue that has reached six competitions in a time span fast approaching the 1,001 nights in the story Rimsky-Korsakov put to music.
Davis and White won both the short and free dances with season bests, their total score of 195.52 beating Virtue and Moir by 4.53 points.
“No athlete likes to sit in this position,” Moir said, referring to second place, “but it is easier when you know how hard these guys worked.”
Virtue and Moir have said this will be their last season as competitors, while Davis and White have made no decision. Both U.S. skaters have been intermittent students at Michigan.
The next great dance team clearly is going to be Russians Elena Ilinykh and Nikita Katasalapov, who took third with the most compelling free dance of the night. Their interpretation of “Swan Lake,” full of poses and movements that turned the arena into the Bolshoi Theater, was utterly balletic and seamless.
The intensity of the “Scheherazade” sections coach Marina Zoueva chose for Davis and White suited perfectly the power and athleticism that have come to define their skating. The most striking feature of the way they performed it was a feeling for tempo, their skating changes of pace matching the shifts in the music’s speed. That is an understanding White said they had not developed until three years ago.
Virtue and Moir’s free dance music was an unfortunate mash-up of Russian classical pieces cut and pasted into something that would have confounded even Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire. No matter that they skated exceptionally well Monday, no matter that they were supposed to be interpreting the turbulence of life, a sense of fragmentation prevailed.
Davis and White skated last. Two Russian couples had gone immediately before them, sending the crowd into its usual partisan paroxysm.
“The moments before we take the ice are difficult,” White said. “It is probably the most nervous you will be in a lifetime.”
Or at least in 17 years.