Four ice dancers dominate at nationals
By Katie Field
Daily Sports Writer On January 25th, 2009
Four University students skated to the top tiers of the podium at the United States Figure Skating Championships in Cleveland on Saturday afternoon.
Sophomores Meryl Davis and Charlie White won ice-dance gold for their first U.S. senior title, and freshman Emily Samuelson and sophomore Evan Bates glided into the second-place ice dance slot.
Davis and White, who represent Canton’s Arctic Figure Skating Club and the Detroit Figure Skating Club, respectively, secured their victory with a 99.82 point free-dance performance Saturday. They finished the competition with total of 201.68 points.
“We came to nationals really well-prepared,” White said. “We were able to do well out there and not hold back, so we’re really happy.”
With five-time defending champions Tanith Belbin and Ben Agosto absent from the Championships due to Agosto's lingering back injury, Davis and White's path to the podium was a little clearer. But the pair still earned their title.
Davis and White won the original dance on Thursday with the 1920's-inspired performance “Happy Feet,” opening up a commanding eight-point lead on the field. On Saturday, the pair came out and extended their advantage with a passion-filled interpretation of “Samson and Delilah” that lit up Quicken Loans Arena.
Long-time friends off of the ice, Davis and White have had a strong presence in the senior ice-dance field ever since their debut three seasons ago. In their 12th year skating together, Davis and White said their long partnership is a major factor in their success. A coaching switch in 2005 to Igor Shpilband – who now has coached 12 of the past 16 U.S. ice-dance champions – has fueled their progression in the sport.
Although their elaborate costumes don't include a block "M," the four skaters aren’t shy about the colors that they support. At the 2008 U.S. Championships, where Davis and White finished second, White held up a Michigan sweatshirt in the kiss-and-cry room as the pair awaited their marks. Davis pointed to the yellow letters emblazoned on the shirt and cheered.
“I definitely feel like wherever I go, I represent the university,” Bates said. “We’re in Cleveland right now, and almost every single day I was wearing a Michigan T-shirt or something. There are so many Ohio State fans here that are giving me a hard time. (Samuelson) and I did a promo that they played on the Jumbotron that was all about how we go to Michigan. We said, ‘Go Blue,’ and the fans started booing us.”
On campus, Davis and White live relatively normal college lives. Davis is a member of Delta Delta Delta sorority. White, who previously helped coach the Michigan women’s synchronized skating team, enjoys living in an off-campus apartment with fellow skaters. At Nationals, White stood atop the podium with his roommate and friend, Bates, next to him on the second tier.
“It’s pretty funny, honestly,” Bates said. “We’re doing press conferences together and we’re laughing through the whole thing. We had to be separated. He’s one of my best friends, so it’s really cool to be going through this experience and to share it with somebody who you’re good buddies with.”
In only their second senior ice-dance season, the Ann Arbor Figure Skating Club’s Samuelson and Bates are relatively new to the sport's highest level. But with a solid 181.64-point finish this weekend, the pair is another step closer to making a name for themselves.
“It’s surreal to be here because this is the place that they were last year,” Samuelson said of Davis and White. “You look up to the people who were here last year and you think, ‘Oh my gosh, they’re such good skaters.’ Now that we are the silver medalists of the United States, we see that we deserve to be here at this level and that we’re great skaters.”
Both pairs learned that they made the U.S. World team Sunday morning. Belbin and Agosto, who received the third spot, will join them in Los Angeles as what is undoubtedly the strongest U.S. World dance team in recent memory. There they will focus on securing the U.S. spots for the 2010 Olympics.
Davis and White strike gold, take first senior title
BY JO-ANN BARNAS
FREE PRESS SPORTS WRITER
CLEVELAND -- It was their moment, but it wasn't coming fast enough.
In the anxious minutes before Meryl Davis and Charlie White performed the free dance that gave them their first U.S. senior title Saturday, their coach noticed how White seemed a bit wound up.
"Charlie couldn't wait to go on the ice," Igor Shpilband said. "He was like, 'Why is it taking so long to give the marks to the first team?' "
The coach found it amusing -- and telling.
He knew they were ready.
Shpilband said: "I told them, 'OK. Just listen to the music, enjoy the moment. It's a great moment, so just take your time and connect to the music and go for it.'
"And that's what they did."
To their coach, Davis and White, who train at the Arctic Figure Skating Club in Canton, had been ready to step into the spotlight and become gold medalists even if five-time defending champions Tanith Belbin and Ben Agosto had been able to compete at the championships.
Belbin and Agosto, who trained under Shpilband and Marina Zoueva until leaving the Canton club last spring, were forced to withdraw from the nationals two weeks ago because Agosto has an injured back.
"Even though they (won), their main competitors weren't there," Shpilband said. "It was against themselves in a way."
The final results at the Quicken Loans Arena certainly indicated that it was a one-team race. Davis and White entered Saturday night's free dance with a seven-point lead over eventual silver medalists Emily Samuelson and Evan Bates of the Ann Arbor Figure Skating Club. They then widened the margin after their dramatic and sweeping performance to "Samson and Delilah." They scored 99.82 points for the free dance and finished with 201.68 total points.
"It's kind of surreal right now," said Davis, wearing a necklace that Belbin gave her for Christmas. "We said the other day that this is something we've been dreaming about for years. But it's still amazing."
White said: "It's a great feeling, and to be able to come out there and skate three great programs adds to it."
Samuelson and Bates, clearly the competition's second-best team after the original dance (and in just their second senior season), finished with 181.64 points.
Kimberly Navarro and Brent Bommentre won their second straight U.S. bronze medal with 176.30 points.
The three top teams likely will be named to the U.S. world team that will compete at the world championships in late March.
Davis, 22, and White, 21, have skated together for almost 13 years. Their partnership is the longest of any current competitive dance team in the country.
They are sophomores at the University of Michigan.
"Charlie and I grew up basically 10 minutes away from each other," Davis said. "I think the main asset we have as adults is knowing each other so well."
Davis and White, who also represent the Detroit Skating Club, were U.S. silver medalists last year. As bronze medalists at last month's ISU Grand Prix final, Shpilband said he believes that the team could challenge for a medal at the world championships.
Samuelson and Bates, world junior champions last year, didn't perform their best free dance of the year Saturday night, but the team exhibited potential with innovative lifts and artistic flair.
"Coming out of the warm-up was a challenge for us," Bates said. "But even with waiting around, we went out there and did what we had to do. We went out there and felt comfortable."
Fourth place went to another promising team, brother and sister Madison Hubbell and Keiffer Hubbell of the Ann Arbor FSC. They placed fourth in the free dance and fourth overall.
The Hubbells made their senior debut at the nationals.
"I'm actually thrilled," Keiffer Hubbell said. "That's the cleanest we've skated. I don't think we stood out as the so-called junior team. I was happy how we fit in."
Trina Pratt and Chris Obzansky of the Arctic FSC finished seventh, and Lynn Kriengkrairut and Logan Giulietti-Schmitt of the Ann Arbor FSC were eighth.
Jennifer Wester and Daniil Baranstev of the Detroit SC withdrew before the free dance because Baranstev has a back injury, according to U.S. Figure Skating.
Contact JO-ANN BARNAS
articles from icenetwork: Shpilband says Davis, White ready for U.S. Title
Fast, happy feet put Davis, White in Drivers Seat
Davis, White win first U.S. dance title with ease
Davis and White poised for new title at nationals
By NANCY ARMOUR
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."
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."
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
Find out more about Meryl in this great interview done by lifeskate.com.
Here's a snippet...
Who were your skating idols growing up?
"Growing up skating at the Detroit Skating Club, there were so many amazing skaters that inspired me! Even before I made the transition from freestyle to dance, I always loved watching the ice dancers. Liz Punsalan and Jared Swallow, Naomi Lang and Peter Tchernyshev, Tanith Belbin and Ben Agosto, Jessica Joseph and Charlie Butler, and Jamie Silverstein and Justin Pekarek were quite the training mates for Charlie and me at the age of nine."