SOCHI, Russia – His shaggy blond hair flew, her porcelain body floated, the two friends leaned on each other, spun off each other and moved together in the synchronicity of a lifetime.
On a chilling Monday night at the Winter Olympics, Americans Meryl Davis and Charlie White won the gold medal in ice dancing by dancing as if there were no ice.
Their skates were slippers, the Iceberg Skating Palace was their ballroom and their jukebox blared “Scheherazade” for four minutes that represented a triumph of 17 years.
In winning the first U.S. Olympic skating gold medal in dance or pairs, Davis and White made history and dodged controversy in a victory so emotionally exhausting that White ended it on his knees, on the ice, seemingly unable to stand.
“It wasn’t because I wasn’t in shape,” he said later with a grin. “It was because I tried really hard.”
When White finally found his skates, the Americans celebrated history precisely the way they made it. The dancers skated a victory lap in tandem, each holding part of the American flag, each holding a bouquet of flowers. When they stopped at center ice, Davis noticed that the flag was upside down, so they quickly fixed and held it aloft again, together and perfect.
When they finally left the ice and were forced to separate to walk through the tunnel into the interview area, they seemed lost.
“We prepared so well for what we wanted to put out there on the ice, we don’t know how to react now,” Davis said. “Now that it’s over, where do we go, what do we do?”
For starters, they can take pride in defeating their close Canadian rivals, defending Olympic champions Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir, who were in second place entering the night and skated a solid performance shortly before Davis and White took the ice.
But the final four minutes ended any debate. Skating as the final group, Davis and White were so artful and athletic and together, it wasn’t even close.
“This is not something we have yet figured out how to express exactly,” Davis said.
It can perhaps be best expressed in something much larger than skating. One of the reasons given for the longtime failure of American skaters to win Olympic gold in dance or pairs is that the American ego is too large. Unlike champion skaters in Canada or Russia, many Americans skaters are supposedly too worried about their own glorification to successfully work in tandem with another skater.
Davis and White are different. They began dancing together in 1997 at a rink in suburban Detroit. Davis was 9, White was 8. She was so shy, she wouldn’t look him in the eye, so their teacher put a sticker on his forehead. He was a hockey player who wondered if she would ever be tough enough.
Said White: “I had been doing dance for six months, she hadn’t done it at all, I was a little annoyed.”
Said Davis: “We’ve grown up together in every sense of the word.”
They’ve grown through two world championships, through a 2010 Olympic silver medal, through careers that are so intertwined, even their mothers sit next to each other at every big event. It was, then, no surprise that before the skaters took the ice Monday night, they huddled with each other for one last ounce of strength.
“The moment before you skate, it is the most nervous you’ll be in a lifetime,” White said. “Just being able to look at each other and express that we’re there for one another really calmed us down.”
Then they calmly flew through a program that contained not only their usual speed and flow, but also the artfulness that their program had once been lacking. They left every bit of those 17 years on the ice, a testament to gritty teamwork in a sport built on individual sequins.
“They just keep setting the bar higher, higher, higher,” said Marina Zoueva, who coaches both the American champions and Canadian runners-up at the Arctic Edge rink in Canton, Mich.
So where do they go from here? Hate to break any illusions, but if it doesn’t involve skating, it probably won’t be anywhere together.
They don’t discuss their private lives because they think it helps the perception of their skating to create the illusion that they are a real couple, but they are not. White, who is so popular his hair has its own Twitter account, is dating former U.S. Olympic ice dance silver medalist Tanith Belbin.
Davis is still so shy, she quickly turned off the news conference microphone Monday night when she worried she had said something silly. White is loud and laughter-filled and peppers his conversation with a very un-skater-like, “Awesome, man.”
When they finally learned of their victory while sitting in the kiss-and-cry area, they both sighed with exhausted smiles, and Davis immediately leaned into White for a giant hug. Or was that White leaning into Davis? Or maybe, on this night of all it nights, it just didn’t matter.