Big plans for Meryl and Charlie (article)

GREENSBORO, N.C. — Organizers of a semester-long series of activities at Michigan were brainstorming last year when someone mentioned Olympic silver medallists Meryl Davis and Charlie White were students at the school.

Maybe, organizers thought, the ice dancers would want to be involved in the project.

"I thought it was actually very impressive that they answered our emails," said John Chamberlin, a professor of political science and public policy. "It had to have been one of thousands of emails asking them if they wanted to be involved in something."

As Chamberlin quickly discovered, however, doing the atypical is the norm for Davis and White.

All but a lock for their third straight title at this week's U.S. Figure Skating Championships, Davis and White have positioned themselves to become the first American ice dance team to win the world title. With Olympic champions Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir sitting out the Grand Prix season while she recovered from October surgery, Davis and White easily won the NHK Trophy, Skate America and the Grand Prix final.

Oh, and they did all this while still going to school at Michigan.

"Charlie and I have always had an understanding that academics and school and having a life outside the rink every day was something we really valued," Davis said. "It's really a big part of who we are and our success on the ice and what we're able to bring to the sport."

Senior competition begins Thursday at the Greensboro Coliseum with the women and pairs short programs. The men and dance competitions start Friday.

It wasn't too long ago that American ice dancers, no matter how good, could do little more than crack the top 10. The sport was dominated by Eastern European countries, and results were so predictable the joke was that medals could be given out before the competition even began.

But the move to a computer-based judging system shook up the staid, stodgy old world of ice dance. Tanith Belbin and Ben Agosto were the first U.S. team to win the approval of the international judges with silver medals at the 2005 world championships and Turin Olympics, and there's been such a massive shift in the balance of power that the top dance teams are now North American.

Canadian and U.S. teams claimed three of the top four spots in Vancouver and at the 2009 world championships. Americans have won two of the last three junior world titles, with the United States going 1-2 in 2009.

"I think it's going to be really exciting over the next few years," Davis said. "The sport is totally different than it was when Russia and Europe was dominating. I think that struggle for power between the different countries is going to be really interesting to watch."

As big of strides as Americans have made, however, they've yet to claim that coveted gold medal, something Davis and White would like to change this year.

They beat Virtue and Moir, their good friends and training partners, in the free dance at last year's world championships. And while Virtue and Moir are still playing catch-up from the time they missed last fall — they skipped the Canadian championships last week to continue training — Davis and White have looked formidable. They won the Grand Prix final, which has the toughest field outside of worlds, by almost 10 points.

"It would be very, very meaningful" to win the world title, White said. "I think it's almost incredible that Americans haven't won a world gold in ice dance so far. But I think now's the time to change that trend. We're really ready and we feel like this is it, this is a good year for it. We've just got to keep our heads down and keep training, and let our skating speak for itself."

Their programs have their usual speed and energy, but they have raised the intricacy and maturity of their skating. They're also skating with a confidence that comes with an Olympic medal, tangible proof they can compete with anyone in the world.

"Your mindset does change a little when you experience success like that," White said. "You start to understand what it really means when you look back at all the hard work."

And that hard work isn't all on the ice.

Unlike most elite athletes, who put their education on hold during their competitive careers, Davis and White have managed to juggle academics and athletics. They did take off the spring semester last year and usually have lighter loads than their fellow students — both are taking one online course this semester — but the college experience is just as important as their skating careers. (If you want to get the famously easygoing White riled up, ask him about Michigan's football team.)

That's why they readily agreed to be part of Michigan's "theme semester" last fall. The theme was "What Makes Life Worth Living?" and posters of Davis and White in T-shirts that read "Possibility" and "Competition" were displayed across campus — including on a few banners hanging from light posts.

"Single-minded pursuit of something that gives your life meaning was just one of the many ways that students could answer that question," Chamberlin said. "That idea of, 'I want to be the best at something, focus my energy and really go after a goal,' is something we hoped students would internalize in their own ways — most having nothing to do with ice skating, athletics or world championships."


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