Davis, White capture ice dance gold
SOCHI, Russia -- Everyone wants to know how it worked, how the two best ice dance teams in the world managed to train under the same roof, with the same coach, and didn't implode personally and competitively.
We might never really know, but it's hard to argue with their career strategy. In this discipline that has too many moving parts for most mortals to track with the naked eye, it's likely Meryl Davis and Charlie White wouldn't have made history Monday night if they hadn't been pushed to the limit by Canadians Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir.
Davis and White became the first Olympic ice dance gold medalists from the United States, taking the baton in Sochi from defending champions who resisted relinquishing it with all their might.
The Americans skated last before a capacity crowd at the Iceberg Skating Palace that had just consumed most of the oxygen in the building cheering for back-to-back Russian entries. Davis and White didn't let that vacuum affect their energy level, executing their "Scheherazade" free dance with verve, crisp timing and fluidity, then sagging onto each other afterward, flushed and almost hollow-eyed with exertion. The effort extended their lead after the short dance to 4.53 points overall, 195.52 to 190.09.
Summing up a goal achieved after 17 years in a few neat sound bites was the one task for which Davis and White didn't appear fully prepared. "It's not something we've figured out how to express," White said.
First paired as children, Davis and White were compatible in their common drive and uncommon appetite for the detail work required by ice dance. Most athletes who work in that kind of proximity for that long would admit to moments when they contemplated divorce, but Davis looked genuinely stumped when the question arose. "There honestly has never been one," she said.
At the medalists' news conference, the four athletes exuded fatigue and relief as they bantered with each other between questions. But the gazes of Virtue and Moir, who were indisputably superior four years ago on home ice in Vancouver, were softly backlit with understandable disappointment. They said they had conceded nothing, even after Davis and White had opened up a gap the day before.
"No athlete likes to sit in this position," said Moir, who later walked out onto the freshly resurfaced ice alone in his street shoes and knelt to kiss the Olympic rings. "Our goal was to come here and win this competition. But it is easier when you see how hard these two work day to day."
Ice dance, more than other skating disciplines, remains an appealing but often murky stew of objective ingredients and aesthetic taste. A minor tempest erupted over the scoring in the short dance when Virtue and Moir were docked on a mandatory pattern called the Finnstep, after the nationality of its creator, Petri Kokko.
That algebra didn't account for the entire difference between the Canadians and their rivals. But coming on the heels of an unsourced, unconfirmed report of score-fixing in the French daily sports newspaper L'Equipe, speculation ballooned in some quarters.
Davis and White's commanding margin Monday should quiet talk of a conspiracy, but it's unfortunate that 12 years after the judging scandal at the Salt Lake City Games, there are still question marks in thought balloons floating over the sport.
The revamped international scoring system introduced for the 2004-05 season rewards greater athleticism in ice dance, but as with other skating disciplines, it shields the identities of judges. The move was designed to ease pressure to vote in political blocs, but some prominent voices in the sport, such as American coach Frank Carroll, think that part of the reform has backfired.
"I think it needs a lot of work,'' Carroll said last week in a general observation not related to any specific competition here. "This anonymous judging is, like, for the pits. They wanted to get rid of cheating, well, what better way than to know who's not cheating?"
Davis and White and Virtue and Moir were still in their formative years when the no-longer-new system was implemented, and they are the first generation to have truly mastered it. "We feel over the last six years our two teams here have really been able to take it and run in a positive direction," White said.
It's certainly more possible to make an impact on merit than it was in the old days, when standings shifted about as quickly as sediment becomes bedrock, and major championships were as much coronation as competition. Leading U.S. ice dancers in the 1980s and '90s, such as Elizabeth Punsalan and Jerod Swallow, gamely slogged through that era, and 2006 silver medalists Tanith Belbin and Benjamin Agosto straddled it.
Moir said he is grateful their prime years have been governed by the current rules.
"The four people sitting at this table have benefited,'' he said. "I think it did give ice dance more credibility. I think you're seeing a lot more of an athletic sport. That's something we're extremely proud of. Having said that, there's another side to it as well. There's more that has to go into judging what would be the artistic side."
Virtue agreed. "We have great respect for Meryl and Charlie, and it's been an interesting relationship over the years," she said. "We weren't really competing against them. We're competing against the system. We were doing our job, they were doing theirs and it came down to preference, and we don't hold any bitterness against them at all."
There were hugs and backslaps and high-fives among the quartet before they received their bouquets. Everyone wants to know whether they really get along. They're unlikely to give up the whole truth.
Virtue smilingly said they might not chat by phone daily, but when it comes to the sweep of recent years, they are a closed club of four. No one on the outside could really comprehend the frustration and satisfaction of making the maddening math add up or assigning decimal points to style.
They have been partners, in a greater sense, with edge.
"We're linked forever," White said.