Steve Mesler interview Meryl and Charlie


 Meryl Davis and Charlie White at Skate America
Meryl Davis and Charlie White skate in the exhibition event during
Skate America at the ShoWare Center on October 21, 2012 in Kent,
Wash.
With Meryl Davis and Charlie White set to skate onto the ice in Omaha tomorrow for the 2013 U.S. Figure Skating Championships, they’re not trying to get better. You don’t get better days before competition starts. If you still feel you need to get better at that point, it’s probably too late.
I know what they mean – any athlete that has competed at the top level understands that at a certain point you have to stop concerning yourself with fixing the problems to get better and just focus on succeeding at the event that’s in front of you.
The 2010 Olympic silver medalists and 2011 world champion ice dancers know the ‘worst’ of it is behind them. They’ve just spent the last two weeks doing run-through after run-through of their program, and their coach Marina Zoueva’s program is about to call for them to relax just a bit. They’ve done this three week run-in training program before. After over 15 years together they could do it with their eyes closed at this point, but that doesn’t stop them from being eyes wide open as they look towards capturing their fifth consecutive national championship.
Their focus and dedication to ensuring they are prepared to compete is perhaps only equaled with their desire to pay it forward.
Full disclosure time here - they are both Athlete Mentors in Classroom Champions, a non-profit program that my sister and I began when I was still competing as a bobsledder and now I consider them both good friends. Between training sessions and around competitions, Meryl and Charlie film video lessons for their students on subjects ranging from goal setting to community service, and I couldn’t be prouder of the work they are doing off the ice, let alone on it!
With this in mind, I Skyped with ice dancing’s most dominant pair. I wanted to learn something myself from them about how they prepare to compete. We ended up chatting about what ‘game day’ preparation is like, five hour naps, Moscow traffic and who’s really in charge on their team.
As a bobsled push athlete my main job was five seconds of explosive aggression. Yours is upwards of four minutes of focus and passion.
What does preparation look like for you the day of a big competition?

Charlie White: The morning of the free dance (the last day of competition), there's a warm-up session at the competition rink that usually lasts for about 30 minutes. You're out there with the four other skaters that will be out there for your competition warm-up. As you’re out there, they play your music and we usually want to do about two-thirds of our program, maybe even less. We just get a feel for the ice and get a feel for how our legs are feeling that day. We get in touch with how we feel with each other and whether our elements are going smoothly. The rest of the time out on the ice we’ll take it easy and just talk about what we want to focus on when we're competing.
Meryl Davis: So after the 30-minute practice, the amount of time we have before competition really just depends on the competition. Sometimes we have two hours and sometimes we have eight. Charlie and I, in particular, really just like to sleep as much as we can in between. If we have 8 hours, I usually sleep for about 5 hours (she says with a soft giggle). Just do your job in the morning, go back to the hotel, sleep and then wake up just in time to get ready and go back to the rink is what we like to do.
I remember most competition days would never quite go as planned - is there one specific time when your pattern got thrown off?
CW: The very first time we competed in Russia, we were in Moscow and that was when we learned just how bad traffic can be there. Our hotel was probably 30 minutes away from the rink with no traffic. But due to traffic it was taking close to two hours. We had to leave way ahead of time to go to the rink for a practice that was at like 7:30 a.m., so we had to leave at like 5:30 a.m.! We didn’t have time to go back to the hotel because of the traffic – so we were just stuck at the rink laying there doing nothing for hours! This was also the competition where the day before I probably skated the worst of my life, right? (Turning to Meryl)
MD: Yeah. (With the same giggle and smile)
CW: The day before I was all over the ice, just embarrassing! People were asking "Is there something wrong with your leg?!" (As Meryl fully laughs this time) You know...it just all fell apart. So then the next day having to deal with staying at the rink all day long, not getting a chance to relax in our hotel was a little tricky. We were able to pull through and actually skated really well that day and got a bronze medal. I remember that being very stressful.
Yeah, it’s never easy to come back the next day after a rough outing and just wait around to have to compete again.
et’s step back for a minute - for the big competitions how far in advance do you begin to buckle down and focus?
MD: Three weeks before each competition is when our training starts to focus less on just getting better and more on that competition in particular. Our coach Marina has a really specific kind of training regimen in terms of how much we're doing on which specific day – and that regimen starts three weeks before competition.
CW: We always skate for five hours a day. But in this three-week period it becomes much more intense in spurts. So because of how intense doing this back-to-back program training can be it's really important to focus on sleep, diet, pretty much anything that can make us feel as good as possible. We get to the rink and we're nervous because we know how lousy we're going to feel at the end of the day but we also understand that's what it takes. We go three weeks back from the competition, for two weeks we have super intense training and then the week before the competition we ease off a little bit...not mentally but we don't do quite so many programs, not so many run-throughs. Then the week of the competition you’ve been able to relax a little bit, you’re mentally prepared and at that point you’re just ready to do your best.
Ok – so now it’s time to see how much bobsled and ice dancing have in common!
You've seen bobsledders doing their funny looking driver ‘dance’ where they'll visualize the run 10-plus times the day of competition.
How often are you doing that? Are you going through your whole program over and over again in your minds the day of competition?
CW: I think occasionally, but it's not really something we sit down and do. I think the difference comes in because we're always doing the same thing whereas most bobsled runs are different from each other, right? So when a bobsledder is at the track and you understand what the run is going to be, you need to internalize it more as fast as you can. So for us, we've been doing that for the entire season.
Wow - that’s a pretty good explanation; I’m impressed with your ability to compare the two!
So then the motor skills are already there and everything is automatic?
CW: Exactly. A lot of the time, it can be good for us to shut off our thinking a little bit because if you think too much that's when we can, as figure skaters, sort of throw ourselves off. A lot of time it's better for us to let our bodies do what they know what to do at that point.
That makes a lot of sense. So I just have one last question for you two. The four of us were a family on Team Night Train and we would get on each other’s cases to ensure we were all doing our jobs throughout the course of the season.
You two have to operate as a family, so honestly, who is in charge of making sure the other one is getting stuff done?
CW: (Laughing) We’re pretty good at keeping track of ourselves and when it comes to training we really are fortunate to have a coach that we trust and we can put all of our faith into. So when she tells us to jump, we just ask, “how high?” We've never had any issues where Meryl is taking it easy and I'm saying, "Ah! We've got to get ready Meryl, come on!"
MC: And honestly, not once in our 15-year partnership have we ever had anything like that happen.
Come on, you two can tell me the truth – no one will find out, I promise!
CW: Really, definitely one of the reasons why we've been able to have such success is because we're on the same wavelength. It is rare.
MC: And actually it's a good point that I haven't really thought about before, but I think that’s part of the beauty of the balance Charlie and I have with our coach. Charlie and I are always so excited and so ready to work that she is more pulling back the reigns than trying to get us going. It's never really a problem that he or she isn't motivated, it's more that she tells us that we have to slow down and take a breath.
CW: "You actually don't have to kill yourself today" is something we hear from Marina all the time.
MC: During those last weeks heading into a big competition, sometimes, often times actually, I'll say to Charlie, “do you feel like we haven't done enough today?” And Charlie says, "This is always what happens!”
And lately, what always happens is this kind of preparation and camaraderie leads to Meryl and Charlie forcing their competition to take an ever closer look at how they prepare.
I hope by exposing Meryl’s tendency to take five-hour naps on competition days and Charlie doing his best not to be a bobsledder, I haven’t somehow managed to give up all of their tricks.
Best of luck in Omaha you two and try to avoid Moscow traffic while you’re there!

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