Red, White (and Maize) and Blue
When Meryl Davis signed up for her Introduction to Anthropology lecture at the University of Michigan in 2007, she knew she would never make it to class.
To attend the lecture, Davis needed to be on the Ann Arbor campus at 11 a.m.
To make it to the Olympics, Davis needed to be at the Arctic Edge Ice Arena in Canton, Mich., from 7 a.m. to 1 p.m.
In classes without mandatory attendance policies, students can often get away with skipping lectures if they are willing to put in the effort outside of the classroom. But Davis never thought her professor would learn about her success with partner Charlie White on the Grand Prix ice dancing circuit. But around the middle of the semester, when he tried to congratulate her in front of the 250-person lecture hall, the professor learned about her perpetual absence from his class.
"It became such a joke that he played our YouTube videos on the big screen in front of the lecture hall every day," Davis said. "So if I was out [in Ann Arbor] on the weekend, people in my class would be like, 'You're that figure skater that never comes to my anthro class!' "
Such is life for the reigning U.S. national champions, who walk virtually anonymous amid Michigan's 26,000 undergraduate students. "It's hard for a Michigan fan to fit any more sports into their consciousness," White said. "There's no room for a figure skating team."
During the next three weeks, though, the pair will be hard to miss. After winning the 2010 U.S. national championships in Spokane last month, Davis, 23, and White, 22, are favored to medal in Vancouver. The compulsory part of the ice dance competition begins on Feb. 19, and the gold medal will be awarded on Feb. 22.
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Growing up in suburban Detroit, Davis, who graduated from Groves High School in Beverly Hills, and White, who graduated from the Roeper School in Birmingham, had always wanted to be both students and athletes. But four years of attending high school and skating in the afternoons (White also played on his school's ice hockey team and took violin lessons) proved to be exhausting. Before enrolling at Michigan in '06, they decided to follow the lead of most high-level skaters and focus completely on ice dancing.
During their year away from school, the two began working with coaches Igor Shpilband and MarinaZoueva at the Arctic Edge Ice Arena in Canton, Mich. Davis and White had always been technically strong skaters, but Zoueva taught them to improve the energy and emotion behind their performances.
"Until they came to Marina, coaches would tell Charlie, 'We want more expression.' He thought that just meant to put a bigger smile on his face," said Jacqui White, White's mother. "Charlie was like most boys -- he didn't want to look silly or over the top. He didn't know he had to have the expression with his whole body, his whole being."
The year off from college did wonders for their skating development. At the '07 World Championships, Davis and White finished seventh, the highest of any first-year, senior-level U.S. pair since 1980. But it didn't take long for both to realize they longed for a college experience. Their friends were freshmen in college, and the two were sick of just skating and watching television.
"Not going to school gave them an awful lot of free time, and I don't think they were sure how to fill it up," said Jacqui White. "Charlie told me his brain was turning to oatmeal."
In Ann Arbor, Davis and White quickly found a balance between training for the Olympics and living as part-time undergraduate students. Davis, now an anthropology major and Italian minor, and White, who is still undecided, chose not to take classes this semester to concentrate on the Olympics. They generally take four to eight credits per term, and Davis estimates the two will graduate in about two and a half years.
Even with Davis's constant practices and international competitions, housemate Meredith Zingle said most members of the sorority didn't learn about Davis's sport until after the end of rush. On the morning of a Michigan football game last season, during a Delta Delta Delta tailgate, Davis had a fitting for an ice dancing dress. Unbeknownst to most of her sisters, she slipped away from the pregame, made the hour-long drive and made sure she was back in Ann Arbor in time to join her friends in the stands.
"It keeps me grounded and it keeps me sane," Davis said. "Although we don't have the most normal college experience, I think we'll be able to look back when we're 30 and say we didn't miss out on college."
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While Davis found a "normal college experience" by joining her sorority, White's identity as a student has been defined by his passion for Michigan sports.
Five days after Davis and White's gold-medal triumph at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships, Michigan Athletic Director Bill Martin presented the two with personalized, maize hockey sweaters before the ice dancers took a tour of the Michigan Stadium locker room. Inside the iconic structure, White, wide-eyed, lingered far behind the rest of the group. He paused to snap pictures with his BlackBerry of the slogans emblazoned on the walls and doors of the locker room: "STRENGTH" and "SHOW NO MERCY."
The next stop on this tour was Crisler Arena, where the Michigan basketball team was just finishing its practice. As a photo op, Davis and White were asked to do one of their signature lifts at center court.
"No, man, come on," said White, clearly embarrassed. "You're really going to make me do this in front of all these guys?"
Only in Ann Arbor would one of the country's most elite athletes worry about what members of a basketball team with a .500 record thought of him. But with White's father, Charlie, a diehard football fan and university alum, there's no way White has ever been able to root for any other school.
"When he found out he was accepted at Michigan, nothing else mattered," Jacqui White said.
Davis and White's ability to get into character and sell their program to the crowd is one of the duo's biggest strengths. Their showmanship was particularly evident during this season's original dance program, an Indian-themed program with music from the Bollywood movie Devdas. Davis and White worked with a professional Indian dancer for four months to make sure their hand and body movements reflected authentic dance moves.
In international competitions, it's difficult for pairs to gain respect from judges without being the best in their country. At the most crucial point of their career, Davis and White finally have that advantage after beating '06 Turin silver medalists Tanith Belbin and Ben Agosto at Nationals. They'll face their fellow Americans again as well as the teams of Oksana Domnina and Maxim Shabalin of Russia and Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir of Canada. Domnina and Shabalin are currently ranked first in the world, while Virtue and Moir finished third at the '09 World Championships and will have the support of the home crowd.
Davis and White finished fourth at Worlds and have never finished higher than Domnina and Shabalin in a competition. In December, though, they beat Virtue and Moir to win the Grand Prix Final in Tokyo.
Of course, Davis and White have already experienced victory in Vancouver. They finished first in the Four Continents Championship last February at the Pacific Coliseum.
One year and two weeks later, they'll be competing at the same arena -- but on a much bigger stage.
"We're confident in our ability to not have to second guess anything going in, which is really important for being able to enjoy the whole process," White said. "You do think about [the Olympics] a lot -- there's a high risk factor and it doesn't take much to blow your shot. But we don't dwell on it."
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