2009 pre Nationals article

January 18, 2009
Davis and White heat up the ice

BY JO-ANN BARNAS
FREE PRESS SPORTS WRITER
She was up at 5:45 a.m., and by the time Meryl Davis was out the door of her sorority house in Ann Arbor, she had showered, eaten a healthy breakfast of fruit, yogurt and granola, and applied a dab of lip gloss to her exquisite face.

Davis was halfway through her stretching and warm-up exercises when her ice dance partner strode through the double doors of the Arctic Figure Skating Club in Canton.
Charlie White's cheeks were pink. He was up at 6:20 a.m. It took him longer to get to the rink because he had to free his Ford Escape from the ice and snow in the parking lot of his apartment in Ann Arbor.

He wore sweatpants and a zip-up gray sweater. He had eaten breakfast (cereal and toast), but he would need refueling after the team's first training session: a package of Animal Crackers from the vending machine.

For Davis, 22, and White, 21, it was just another early-morning midweek practice, nothing different from the hundreds of other cold starts they've endured.
Davis and White have skated together for almost 13 years, since Meryl was 9 and Charlie 8. Their partnership is the longest of any current competitive dance team in the country, a group that includes their former teammates, 2006 Olympic silver medalists Tanith Belbin and Ben Agosto.

When Belbin and Agosto formed their partnership in 1998 at the Detroit Skating Club, Davis and White already had been at it for a year. They were so small their heads were barely visible above the boards.

When Belbin and Agosto withdrew last week from the U.S. Figure Skating Championships, which begin Monday in Cleveland (Agosto has a back injury), it guaranteed that a new national champion will be crowned next weekend for the first time since 2003. Belbin, 24, and Agosto, 27, were gunning for their record-breaking sixth consecutive U.S. title.

Belbin and Agosto had been training partners with Davis and White -- who are the defending U.S. silver medalists -- for nearly the entire decade they were in Michigan until last spring, when they split with Arctic FSC coaches Igor Shpilband and Marina Zoueva and moved to Aston, Pa., after failing to win a medal at the world championships.

On Jan. 8, the day Davis learned of Belbin and Agosto's official withdrawal from nationals, she sent a text message to Belbin, whom Davis considers one of her closest friends.

"What am I going to do at nationals without you?" Davis wrote.

The response came quickly.

"Win," Belbin replied.

Getting them ready


So are they ready?

According to Shpilband, their coach, Davis and White are so prepared to become national champions he believes that they could have beaten Belbin and Agosto in Cleveland this week.
"Yes, they're ready to win the gold medal," Shpilband said.

He smiled at a memory -- and its irony. Shpilband, who has coached 11 of the past 15 U.S. champions in ice dance, remembers the 1994 U.S. championships, when he believed he had Elizabeth Punsalan and Jerod Swallow primed to overthrow defending champs Renee Roca and Gorsha Sur. As it turned out, Punsalan and Swallow gave Shpilband his first U.S. title that year -- but they did it without going against Roca and Sur. They had withdrawn because of injury.

The same thing happened at the 2004 nationals. Shpilband was looking forward to having a well-trained Belbin and Agosto going head-to-head against five-time defending champions Naomi Lang and Peter Tchernyshev, one of Shpilband's former teams. However, Lang and Tchernyshev withdrew before the original dance, also because of injury, and Belbin and Agosto had their first senior title.

And now, entering this year's nationals, Shpilband knows that Davis and White are trained and polished enough to have potentially knocked off the defending champions ... but won't face Belbin and Agosto.

Even without the Olympic silver medalists, Davis and White realize that earning their first senior national title won't be easy. Among the chief competitors are fast-improving Emily Samuelson and Evan Bates of the Ann Arbor FSC, who took fourth last year in their first senior nationals.
Bates and White happen to be roommates, along with several other male figure skaters, at an apartment off-campus at the University of Michigan.

In the ISU point standings, Davis and White -- 2006 U.S. junior champions and bronze medalists at last month's ISU senior Grand Prix final -- have the world's seventh-best total score this season (178.89, gold at Skate Canada), while Samuelson and Bates have the eighth (175.66, fourth at Skate America).

Davis and White were sixth at last year's world championships in Sweden. Detroit SC coach Pasquale Camerlengo, who coached Italians Federica Faiella and Massimo Scali to a fifth-place finish at the same event, said Davis and White this year have performed and matured their way into the elite ranks.

"They will win" in Cleveland, Camerlengo said. "They're excellent. They're a really good team, and I really like him. Charlie has a huge amazing skating scale, meaning it seems like there's nothing he can't do. They're a very good match together."

At last year's championship in St. Paul, Minn., fewer than three points separated Davis and White from Belbin and Agosto after the original dance. But Belbin and Agosto lengthened their lead to an easy victory after their poignant free dance, which brought down the house.
Davis and White, skating immediately after Belbin and Agosto, felt the pressure but delivered their own inspiring free dance to "Eleanor Rigby." They, too, received a standing ovation.

"I think that performance was a realization for us that we really have what it takes to put our best in front of a large audience against great competition," White said. "It would have been a good story line going against Tanith and Ben at nationals but, really, it wouldn't have changed the way we competed."

Growing together

There's no surprise that Davis and White consider the other skater to be the better ice dancer.

"Meryl has always been stronger at expression than I have been," White said.

"Charlie can handle everything so well because he's so level-headed," Davis said.

This year, they've taken their skating to another level, thanks largely to Zoueva, who has challenged them artistically with a free dance in which they portray Samson and Delilah -- the story of love and betrayal.

White said Zoueva continues to work with the two -- especially White -- in teaching them how to commit emotionally to their programs.

"She wants us to show not just love but, like, passion -- that when we look at each other, we want people to wonder if we're a couple or not," White said. (They're not).

The families of both ice dancers -- especially the parents -- are extremely close, said Jacqui White, Charlie's mother.

"I feel like Meryl is my daughter, and Charlie is their son," she said. "I often think our kids are a lot alike because the parents are so much alike. That's part of the reason why they get along so well; they're very respectful of each other's feelings."

Ironically, Meryl and Charlie were born 10 months apart at the same hospital -- William Beaumont in Royal Oak.

Although they've been skating together for 12 seasons, they had their first encounter (from afar) five years earlier, when Jacqui and her husband, Charlie White, took their children to the Wallace Ice Arena at Cranbrook for open skating.

When they arrived, they saw a tiny girl in the middle of the rink wearing a skating dress. She was performing spins and jumps with ease.

Their son, Charlie, who was 4 at the time, told his mother excitedly: "Mom, that little girl is the best skater I ever saw!"

Little did they know: The girl was Meryl Davis.

Both skaters, on their own, did freestyle and solo dance at the Detroit SC when coach Seth Chafetz had a hunch and decided to partner the two in 1997. Charlie, who eventually became a U.S. novice bronze medalist in men's singles, also was a hockey player.

"It took no more than a few minutes to know they were going to be a great team," Chafetz said.
Davis and White won a regional competition in juvenile right off the bat that year. More victories followed as they rose up U.S. Figure Skating's divisional ladder.

Chafetz coached Davis and White until 2005, when they left for the Arctic FSC to be trained by Shpilband and Zoueva.

Charlie White, whose father is past president of the Detroit SC, still represents the club although he trains in Canton. He grew up in Bloomfield Hills and graduated from Roeper High in 2005; Davis, who grew up in West Bloomfield, graduated from Birmingham Groves, also in 2005.
Both are currently sophomores at Michigan.

"I would say that this couple, their personality, they wear it right on their sleeves," said Swallow, Detroit SC's director of skating and a past five-time U.S. champ with Punsalan, his wife. "That outgoing personality you see in Charlie, that's who he is. And Meryl, with her sophisticated elegance, that's who she is.

"And they're still growing -- just as we watched Ben and Tanith grow all the way to the silver medal in Moscow (at the 2005 world championships), I think Charlie and Meryl are growing into breaking into the upper echelon at worlds. I think they're on a great track to be competitive at the Olympics."

First things first, though: Cleveland.

Contact JO-ANN BARNAS at 313-222-2037 or jbarnas@freepress.com.

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