SOCHI, Russia — When Meryl Davis and Charlie White began skating together in suburban Detroit, she was 9 and he was 8, awkward ages when a girl is not yet comfortable looking into a boy’s eyes, even for the theatricality of sport.
So their coach devised a clever training solution for Davis’s shyness, redirecting her gaze to a smiley-face sticker placed on White’s forehead.
“We were clueless what we were getting into,” White said recently.
More than 17 years later, their relaxed and reliable familiarity resulted Monday in the first Olympic gold medal for the United States in ice dancing.
With a refined sense of performance and tempo to accompany their speed and power, Davis, 27, and White, 26, finished with great energy and defeated their training partners and chief rivals, Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir of Canada, the 2010 Olympic champions.
While a number of favored Americans have not fulfilled their hopes in various sports at the Sochi Games, Davis and White performed with consistency and resourcefulness. They won the long program with a season best of 116.63 points and an overall score of 195.52.
Davis and White helped lead the United States to a bronze medal in the team competition as the Games opened. And they prevailed in the separate dance event with bubbly fluidity in Sunday’s “My Fair Lady” short program and with the dramatic tension of love and escape in Monday’s free skate to “Scheherazade.”
In finishing second with 190.99 points, Virtue and Moir displayed ease and elegant unison, exploring the way a relationship changes over time while skating to music by the early 20th century Russian composers Alexander Glazunov and Alexander Scriabin. Their only obvious flaw was a lack of harmony on a second twizzle, or traveling spin.
The bronze medal went to Elena Ilinykh and Nikita Katsalapov of Russia, who performed a dynamic version of “Swan Lake” and drew thunderous flag-waving support from a home crowd. They finished with 183.48 points.
Even as American prominence in figure skating has ebbed, and popularity and power bases have shifted to Japan, South Korea and a rejuvenated Russia, ice dance has become a North American stronghold, though with Russian coaching.
Davis and White took silver at the 2010 Vancouver Games, while White’s companion, Tanith Belbin, and her dance partner, Ben Agosto, finished second at the 2006 Turin Olympics. The Canadian stars Virtue, 24, and Moir, 26, now have a gold and silver medal in their Olympic jewelry collection.
And the Arctic Edge ice arena in Canton, Mich., outside Detroit, where Monday’s top two finishers train with Coach Marina Zoueva, has become the center of ice dancing. A number of other top skaters also train in the area. Whatever financial ills have stricken Detroit, and whatever prestige it has lost as an automotive center, it has emerged as perhaps the figure skating capital of the world.
As performers, Davis and White and Moir and Virtue provided the judges with a compelling difference in style from which to choose. Among skating’s four disciplines, none provides such a tug between art and sport as does ice dancing, a strain that makes it engaging for many and extremely difficult to resolve objectively.
Dance has also been tainted by a perception of outcomes decided in advance. Even as the Sochi Games began, L’Equipe, a French sports newspaper, wrote of a supposed plan by Russia and the United States to fix the ice dance and other skating competitions here. The International Olympic Committee dismissed the brouhaha as groundless gossip.
But another dust-up occurred Monday, when Moir and Virtue were downgraded for a dance sequence known as a Finn step. No skating official bothered to explain the mistake. And the inventors of the sequence said that the Canadians were judged too harshly.
On some level, the outcome of any ice dancing competition seems to distill itself to preference as much as skill and performance.
Moir and Virtue are classic ballroom dancers with a lyrical, romantic connection. Davis and White are more gracefully athletic, evidenced by their first lift Monday, when Davis swooped from her back, low and parallel to the ice, to White’s shoulder. Slightly more effort was needed than usual, but not enough for any real disruption.
Later, White held Davis in an inverted position as he glided across the ice. And the concluding 40 or so seconds of the four-minute program were performed with enormous stamina and vitality, a strategy designed to impress the judges with resilience in the face of exhaustion.
Davis and White whirled across the arena, then she placed her left skate on White’s right thigh and wrapped her free leg around his neck before plunging toward the ice, head first, in a final kinetic maneuver as the program concluded musically and thematically.
“You’ve got to leave a lasting impact and cap it off with an exclamation and make sure everyone remembers that we put it all out there,” White said.
Four years ago, in Vancouver, athleticism was something both to recommend and restrict Davis and White. Now they are more complete performers and believable storytellers, having been pushed by their training partners and having worked diligently to build emotion, charisma, mood, love, passion.
“Especially this year, they grow as actors,” Zoueva said. “They hear music very well. Now the body can explore what they hear.”
Davis possesses a striking look with wide-set eyes that draw attention to her hypnotically and gives her what White calls an ethnic ambiguity, allowing her to portray various exotic roles.
She has worked at times with a mime to aid her expressiveness. And Davis consulted a dancer and choreographer from “Dancing With the Stars” to refine the light and flowing fox trot and quickstep routine in the short program.
In the free dance, Davis worked with a Persian dancer to prepare for the role of “Scheherazade,” the sultan’s wife whose enchanting and unending stories distract her husband from his aberrant habit of marrying a new wife each day and having the previous one put to death.
“She’s not only trying to save her life because she’s in this situation,” Davis said. “She’s not a victim. She inserts herself into it to prevent the sultan from continuing his ways.”
With mystery, intrigue and the contrast of changing fortune shown through music and movement, Davis and White won the gold medal. She was far from the shy girl who learned to skate because she lived near a lake that froze in winter and was partnered with a boy into whose eyes she could not look.
“Having been together 17 years plays a huge part in how comfortable we are on the ice and in big moments,” Davis said after the short program. “We’ve been through so much together. When we took the ice, we felt calm.”