It took nearly 60 years, but it finally happened. American teams had come close before, dancing into second on eight previous occasions.
But it was Meryl Davis and Charlie White who skated into the history books at the 2011 World Figure Skating Championships, the first American ice dancers to claim the top step of the podium.
Coming off two second-place finishes at the 2010 Olympic Winter Games and the World Championships, Davis and White knew they would have to step up their skating game to claim the top step of the podium in Moscow.
The duo set the stage early in the season, dancing into first place at every event they entered. After claiming gold at both Grand Prix assignments, Davis and White captured their second Grand Prix Final title, and danced to their third consecutive U.S. title. They followed that up with a win at Four Continents.
The success Davis and White enjoyed in the first half of the season stirred rumors that they could take it all at Worlds. “We never really let any outside influences into our skating. The only time that winning was ever brought up was in interviews,” White said. “Meryl and I never talked about it. We knew that our best opportunity to win was to go out and skate our best, and in order to do that, we couldn’t freak ourselves out too much.”
Following the short dance at the 2011 World Championships Davis and White stood in second place behind Canada’s Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir. It all came down to the free dance, and when the final results were posted, Davis and White stood in first place.
“We weren’t thinking about how much of a letdown it would be for the U.S. if we didn’t win, we just thought about our own performances, which is what we could control,” White said. “We knew that our best chance was to go out and do our job like we do in practice .… We really wanted to feel that when we left the ice we had put everything out there. If we did that, then we could hold our heads high whether or not we won.”
White recalled the medal ceremony. “I was just enjoying the moment, being on top of the podium with Meryl,” he said. “Hearing the national anthem was amazing. I was just trying to soak it all in.”
Davis agreed. “Winning was so exciting. We did everything we could to make it happen, which made us so proud of ourselves. It was less about us being the first to win, but more about all of the work that the teams before us put in so that moments like this can happen.
“To say it is an honor being the first to break through is an understatement,” she added. “It’s really just humbling. We will keep this with us for a very long time.”
Davis and White went into the 2010 Olympic Winter Games as heavy favorites for a medal and they did not disappoint.
“Going into the Olympics, not only were we excited about competing, but we also knew we had a great shot not just at medaling but winning,” Davis recalled.
“Once we got to the village and the Opening Ceremonies were over, the pressure and nerves transformed into something different. Any athlete will tell you that being part of the Olympic Games, you really feel like you are part of something bigger. It was such a thrill for us, and we had the time of our lives.”
White agreed. “When we competed the compulsory Tango, we were both a bit nervous. But as we came off of the ice, we realized that Olympic competition was no different than any other, and we were then able to relax for the rest of the event,” he explained.
“We couldn’t have asked for more. We were extremely excited about our (silver) medal, and the whole experience was everything that we had hoped it would be.”
A month later they captured silver at the World Championships.
White, a budding hockey player, started skating at age 7. At his coach’s suggestion, he began taking ice dance lessons to help correct habits he had developed in hockey.
“I had a tendency to pitch forward at the waist, and I wasn’t very graceful,” he said. “I worked on the solo dances by myself for a while. My coach noticed that Meryl was a really strong skater, and he decided to put us together to see what we looked like. She was 9 and I was 8 at the time.”
Davis recalled being introduced to White and what it was like to skate with her partner for the first time.
“It was less about Charlie himself, but more about skating with a boy,” Davis, 24, said with a laugh. “I was so shy when we were little, and the first time we actually danced was off-ice at a Detroit Skating Club banquet.
"I remember the whole idea of dancing with a boy, looking at him and letting him touch me and hold my hand was such a foreign concept to me. It took us a long time to even look at each other.”
With just a few short months under their tiny belts, Davis and White won the silver medal at the juvenile level at the 1998 Junior Olympics (now the U.S. Junior Championships) in Plano, Texas.
“It was just four or five months after we had gotten together,” White recalled. “We had no idea what we were doing, and we ended up placing second. I think it opened our eyes to the possibilities.”
Encouraged by their promising start, the duo continued to work their way up the ranks, winning the gold medal at the Junior Olympics the following season at the intermediate level. They made their novice debut at the 2000 U.S. Championships, at the ages of 13 and 12, respectively.
“By the time we got to novice, we kind of understood what was going on,” White said. “We realized that we had potential and that we were getting pretty good. However, we were competing with kids who were much older, and they made us look very tiny.”
They placed sixth at nationals that season and repeated the result in 2001, leaving some to question if Davis and White would continue to skate together.
“At that time, we were still being scored under the old judging system that rewarded maturity in skating, and we were still growing in that area as a team,” White said. “We understood what it took to get the top, and we knew that took time. We had no problem waiting for that to happen — we were in no rush.
“We were so young; we were going to school full-time, and we had other activities. It was more about making progress, and we knew that was happening for us.”
MOVING ON UP
Davis and White transitioned into the junior ranks, which both realized was a huge step to take on such tiny legs.
“The teams were of a higher caliber and much more mature, and we were still kind of shy,” White said. “Our skating ability was definitely there, but being able to connect to each other and with the audience was still a little lost on us.”
Davis and White debuted on the Junior Grand Prix circuit in the fall of 2002 with modest results and danced into seventh at the 2003 U.S. Championships.
They finished fourth at both their Junior Grand Prix events later that year, and a silver-medal finish at 2004 nationals set them up for a run at the junior title the following season.
Two bronze-medal finishes on the Grand Prix circuit in 2004 boded well for the following season, but it was not to be.
Shortly before sectionals White broke his ankle while playing hockey. As U.S. Figure Skating no longer permitted injury byes to nationals, Davis and White had to sit out the season. “We were ready to go, but we had to play by the rules,” White recalled.
Both skaters took a year off between high school and college and made the switch to train with Igor Shpilband and Marina Zoueva in Canton, Mich.
“We spent more time in the rink than we ever had, and as a result, we won the 2006 U.S. junior title and placed third at Junior Worlds,” White said. “We really positioned ourselves well heading into the senior ranks. Having to miss part of the previous season had a huge influence on the rest of our career. It really helped us to understand the kind of work that was needed to take our skating to the next level.”
Davis and White made their senior Grand Prix debut in 2006, earning a pair of fourth-place finishes and claiming a bronze medal at senior nationals in their first appearance in 2007. The podium finish earned them a trip to the World Championships.
“After moving to Canton we saw how dedicated all of the other teams were,” Davis said. “Not just in competitions, but how much they put into training every day, and that really helped us to step up our game. We were able to make the transition from junior to senior much easier because of the training environment.”
An impressive seventh-place finish at the 2007 World Championships marked the
beginning of Davis and White’s rise. But it came at a price. “We had a very rough off-season,” White said. “I had a slight injury to my ankle, and we got behind in choreographing our new programs.
“We were not ready for our first Grand Prix, and ended up fourth. It was very disappointing, but we were able to rework our programs before our next event in Paris where we finished third.”
The duo placed second behind Tanith Belbin and Ben Agosto at the 2008 nationals and moved up to sixth at Worlds.
MAKING AN IMPACT
Later that year, Davis and White won Skate Canada and captured bronze at Cup of Russia, earning their first trip to the senior Grand Prix Final. They followed up a third-place finish at the Final with a win at the 2009 U.S. Championships.
“Ben injured his back, so he and Tanith were unable to compete,” Davis said. “Going into nationals, we were ready to contend for the title, and I think that’s when we really started to feel confident. We were ready to do whatever it took to stand on the podium.”
They headed to the World Championships in Los Angeles as medals favorites, but settled for fourth. “We felt like we had a shot at a medal,” White admitted.
“The three teams ahead of us were all coming off injuries, and we were the healthiest. We placed fourth in the compulsory dance, which wasn’t a surprise, because we knew that if we were going to make a move, it was going to be in the original and free dances.
“The original dance wasn’t our best, which is probably what held us back, but our free dance was probably one of the best that we had ever skated. We missed third by .04 of a point. We didn’t feel slighted, but it still hurt.”
That disappointment fueled Davis and White, who tore through the first half of the 2009-10 season by winning every event they entered, becoming the first American dance team to win the Final.
They claimed their second national title a month later, defeating longtime rivals Belbin and Agosto. “I think that the free dance from 2009 Worlds gave us a taste of a perfect performance. For the first time we had a feeling of utter contentment after that performance,” Davis explained. “Getting a taste of that is what fueled us to compete so well the following season.”
OFF THE ICE
Davis and White took much needed vacations following their victory in Moscow.
White and his girlfriend went to Mexico. “From there, we went to South Carolina to vacation with my entire family. It was a really nice time,” White said.
Davis and her family spent time in Boulder, Colo. “We went up to a lodge in the mountains and did some hiking, horseback riding and other outdoorsy type things,” she said.
Exciting opportunities have presented themselves since their historic win.
“On May 24, we got to throw the first pitch at a Detroit Tigers game,” White said. “Meryl threw the ball from the pitcher’s mound to me halfway between the mound and home plate. I threw it to Tigers’ catcher Ramon Santiago.”
In early June, Davis and White paid tribute to Japan with a performance in “A Magical Night for Japan Red Cross Tsunami Relief” at the Detroit Skating Club.
Later that month, the duo were honored by officials in Canton who declared the city “The Ice Dancing Capital of the World.” A parade was held in the skaters’ honor.
USA Today named Davis and White Olympic Athletes of the Week in early May and Shpilband and Zoueva were named coaches of the year for 2010-11 by the Professional Skaters Association.
But there is one invitation White is still hoping for. “I really like ‘The Daily Show with Jon Stewart,’ and I would love to be a guest,” he said with a laugh. “I know nothing about politics, and I really don’t know why I would be asked to be on the show. But I still want to do it, and I am coming up with a plan that will get his attention so that maybe he will invite me.”
Originally published in August 2011