In an Olympics where American favorites have been hit or miss, Meryl Davis and Charlie White have been the one sure thing for the U.S. team so far in Sochi.
On Monday, they delivered. Davis and White won ice dance Olympic gold in decisive fashion, setting a world record in defeating their training partners and closest rivals, Canadians Scott Moir and Tessa Virtue, 195.52 to 190.99 points.
Their dominance over the past two years, where they’ve established an edge over Moir and Virtue, the 2010 Olympic champions, made it easy to forget this is the first Olympic ice dance gold in U.S. history.
"We wanted to fight for the best performance we could give and we did that. You dream of this for so long, work so hard, and they worked hard, too," White told reporters, speaking of Virtue and Moir. "They always have been with us, pushing us, and we couldn't have done it without them."
In 2010, White and Davis matched Tanith Belbin and Benjamin Agosto’s 2006 Olympic silver as the best American showing at a Games. Colleen O’Connor and Jim Millns also won bronze in ice dance in 1976.
Gliding to skating staple "Scheherazade," White and Davis won Monday with a free dance display of power,—witness White’s lift of a ramrod-straight and upside-down Davis—grace and a sublime synchronicity that none of the other 19 pairs in the field could match.
Skating in the final pairing, the duo scored a free dance record 116.63 to win. Davis was visibly spent afterward. But mission accomplished.
"That in itself justified 17 years of hard work," White, 26, told reporters.
A day earlier, White and Davis set a world record of 78.89 in the short program to lead by 2.5 points over the Canadians, their training partners in a rink near Detroit. The foursome also share a coach in Russian Marina Zoueva, underscoring the international flavor of ice dance.
The Russian team of Elena Ilinykh and Nikita Katsalapov, third after the short program and under pressure to maintain Russia’s streak of ice-dance medals in every Olympics, won bronze with a score 183.48.
The U.S. team of Madison Chock and Evan Bates maintained their position in eighth place, posting a career-best 99.18 points in their free dance to finish with a total 164.64. The other U.S. team, siblings Maia and Alex Shibutani, had a 90.70 score to finish ninth, with a total 155.17.
Figure skating’s shady past—ice dancing was part of the pairs judging scandal that engulfed the 2002 Olympic Games and prompted an overhaul of skating’s scoring system—surfaced after Sunday’s short program, with Canadian publications questioning scores and reviving unsubstantiated rumors from the start of the Sochi Games, when French newspaper L'Equipe raised the issue.
The gold is not the only precedent-setting title for the American pair—they also won the U.S.’s first world title in ice dance in 2011.
In other sports, as well as in the Olympic medal count, pitting country against country is an inherent part of the game and a way to fuel rivalries. In ice dance, at least in its upper echelons, the world’s top two teams were not only training partners over the years, but friends and measuring sticks.
We have likely seen the last of this agreeable rivalry. Moir and Virtue have said they expect to retire sometime after the Olympics, per Steve Buffery of the Toronto Sun.
In what appears to be their final Olympic performance, they skated brilliantly to the waltz, "Petit Adagio," prompting TV commentator Tara Lipinski to say of the program: “That sparkle was there...It wrapped up their entire skating careers.”
Yet White, with his trademark blond mop flopping, and the perpetually-smiling Davis performed flawlessly despite the crushing amount of pressure that can unhinge gold-medal contenders at the Olympics.
Pre-Games favorites like Shaun White, Shani Davis, Bode Miller and cross-country skier Kikkan Randall are all Olympic veterans, but each performed short of expectations at the Sochi Games.
Not this White and this Davis. They were the closest to a sure thing in Sochi, and pulled it off with not one, but four sparkling performances. They were the rock in a team competition when teammates faltered, boosting the U.S. to a bronze medal by winning the short program and free dance, and by providing moral support from the sidelines.
You almost felt sorry for Moir and Virtue, who skated a record free dance, scoring 114.66, but still could not overtake White and Davis, who would break that record minutes later. As good as they were, the Canadians were slightly out of sync on some spins and didn’t seem to have the flow as White and Davis.
"There can be a lot of distractions on this stage at an Olympic Games they're everywhere. Distractions are everywhere," Moir said to USA Today's Nancy Armour. "Our job was to focus on each other and focus on having a great Games. … and we did that for sure. We're really happy with the way we executed."
Both pairs came into the competition as the established 1-2 ice dance teams in the world, and have been for years. Each held two world championships and one Olympic medal.
But after the Canadians held the edge with a style deemed more “classical and romantic” than the athletic White and Davis, the Americans set out to raise the bar.
They had an extensive foundation, built on having skated together for 18 years. Taking their first strides on ice together while still in elementary school, they grew up 10 minutes apart in Royal Oak, Mich. Their families are friends.
"The closest we came to breaking up, I can't pinpoint one because there hasn't been one," Davis, 27, told reporters. "Certainly there have been struggles. It hasn't been easy to get where we are. ... It's a partnership which I couldn't have asked for more.
"Charlie and I are very different. We used those differences to balance it out. There has never been a moment of doubt."
The history-making partnership started after one girl was too shy to take White’s hand, launching a search for another partner, who turned out to be Davis. They clicked right away.
There's nothing like a sure thing when you see it.