Nationals article

Davis and White poised for new title at nationals
CLEVELAND (AP) — Twice Igor Shpilband had up-and-coming ice dance teams poised to finally upset the longtime U.S. champions. And twice they had to win by default, the favorites knocked out by injury.

Please, Shpilband thought, not again this year.

Meryl Davis and Charlie White had given Tanith Belbin and Ben Agosto their biggest challenge yet at last year's U.S. Figure Skating Championships. With the youngsters making big strides this season and the Olympic silver medalists still settling in to their new training environment, the gap had narrowed even further, and many thought Belbin and Agosto were ripe for an upset this week.

But just as before, the showdown wasn't meant to be — not yet, at least. Belbin and Agosto withdrew two weeks ago, with Agosto still not recovered from the back injury that forced them out of last month's Grand Prix final.
"It would have made a great competition," said Shpilband, who also coached Belbin and Agosto until last spring. "For Meryl and Charlie, they were ready to go and compete with Tanith and Ben and give them a good competition. Who knows what would have happened?"

As expected, Davis and White won the compulsory dance Wednesday, opening a sizable lead on reigning world junior champions Emily Samuelson and Evan Bates. Davis and White scored 39.93 points with their classy Viennese waltz, while Samuelson and Bates had 36.28 points.

The original dance is Thursday.
"It's a little bit different from past nationals," White acknowledged. "But when you're out there, you're thinking about so many other things."
Ice dance is a discipline that prizes experience. It takes years for the top couples to develop the chemistry and seamless timing that make them appear to really be waltzing or doing the tango, not to mention express the passion and emotion that is as much a part of dance as the steps themselves.

But too often in the United States, couples would break up the minute they hit a rough patch or didn't do as well as they'd hoped in competition. Not Davis and White. Together since 1997, their partnership has lasted longer than some marriages.
"They did grow up together, and they grew together as athletes, so of course it helps," Shpilband said. "But it's also a very unique situation where you see two skaters develop equally and grow into such a fine athletes. I think it's pretty unique. ... These two are just a perfect match, if you can use that term."

Davis, who turned 22 on Jan. 1, and White, 21, made a steady climb up the lower ranks. By 2002, they were second in novice, the lowest division at the U.S. championships, and it was clear they were a couple to watch. Four years later, they won the junior title, and were third at the world junior championships.
They went to their first world championships as seniors in 2007 and finished seventh. If that doesn't sound impressive, consider it took Belbin and Agosto three tries before they cracked the top 10, and they're the most successful ice dancers the United States has ever produced.

"If you could see these guys train, they'd blow your minds," Belbin said in 2007. "They're going to have great things in their future."

At that point, Davis and White had been training alongside Belbin and Agosto for two years. Canadian champions Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir were also at Shpilband's rink outside of Detroit.

"Coming up, when we first turned senior, it was good to have them there," White said of Belbin and Agosto. "They really set the standard, especially in America, and we had someone to look up to."
By last year, though, the proteges were closing in on their mentors. Sure, they finished 10 points behind, but that's closer than anyone had ever gotten to the five-time champions. They also moved up a spot at the world championships, finishing sixth.

But after worlds, Belbin and Agosto announced they were leaving Shpilband and moving to Aston, Pa., to train with Natalia Linichuk and Gennadi Karponosov, the Olympic gold medalists in 1980.
"Especially at the beginning of the year, it was weird," White said. "We do miss their companionship."
Added Davis, who considers Belbin one of her closest friends, "We still have great support system here, although we've lost two of our best friends."

If Davis and White felt the loss, it hasn't shown on the ice. They won Skate Canada and were third at Cup of Russia — actually finishing ahead of European champions Oksana Domnina and Maxim Shabalin in the free dance. That put them in the Grand Prix final for the first time, and they took home the bronze medal.

"They're still very young. But I think probably technically and with their skating ability, they could be one of the best in the world right now," Shpilband said.
Always technically sound, Davis and White have worked particularly hard this season on improving their emotion and expression. While other couples looked, at best, as if they were doing the Viennese waltz on ice Wednesday, Davis and White were so fluid, you could actually imagine them in a grand Austrian ballroom in the late 1800s.

"We've come into our own, definitely," White said. "I think we're just more comfortable with what we're able to do."


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