Jeff Seidel: Moms of Olympians Charlie White, Meryl Davis lend support with traditions, superstitions
SOCHI, RUSSIA — They can’t change anything. Not now. No way. Not with a gold medal at stake.
When Meryl Davis and Charlie White perform their short dance program today in the Winter Olympics, their mothers will be sitting together in the Iceberg Skating Palace.
They always sit together.
Jacqui White (Charlie’s mom) will sit on the left; Cheryl Davis (Meryl’s mom) will sit on the right. They’ve been sitting together, in this order, for so long that they can’t even remember when it started.
Jacqui White, who lives in Bloomfield Hills, will be wearing her lucky gold earrings, her lucky Olympic necklace and her lucky Ugg boots that are about 7 years old.
Not that she’s superstitious or anything.
“I’ve been wearing the same pair of Ugg boots since before Vancouver (in 2010), even though they have a hole in them now,” Jacqui said. “I don’t know if they are going to make it through this one. I’m telling you, I don’t care if it’s 80 degrees out, I wear them to every competition.”
After other teams compete, Jacqui will read the scores out loud and Cheryl, who lives in West Bloomfield, will write down the results. They work in tandem, just like their kids. Even though the scoreboard will list the results. This is what they have always done.
Now, if you happen to be in Russia today and if you happen to see the two moms at the rink, don’t you dare go up to talk to them. It would be like poking a bear with a stick. In general terms, the two moms are wonderful, polite, generous, giving, engaging people. But not when their kids are on the ice.
“I feel like I’m a relatively nice person, but I’ll give death stares to someone who is talking to me during a competition,” Jacqui said.
Hmm. You wonder where Charlie and Meryl get their silent, subtle intensity?
It starts with their mothers.
Now, the two fathers have their own rituals and superstitions. As in, they get so nervous they can’t watch.
When Charlie and Meryl competed in the Vancouver Games, Paul Davis sat in the nosebleed seats far away from his wife because, well, he isn’t part of the mom routine.
And he was so nervous he closed his eyes.
“I didn’t watch,” he said. “I’m always very proud. But it’s very frightening to me. They are both such perfectionists. Any little mistake could ruin their whole season. I find it too stressful to watch.”
Charlie White Sr., the skater’s father, did not go to Sochi. He stayed in Michigan. He gets too nervous to go to an event in person. He will turn on the TV and pace around, refusing to watch, listening to the music. When the music ends, he will look at their faces to see how they did.
That’s his tradition.
Because four years ago, Charlie and Meryl were competing in an event on TV and Charlie Sr. made an absolutely huge mistake and watched. His son fell. He got back up and fell again. And then, he fell again. “No one had ever fallen three times in a minute,” Charlie White Sr. said.
There is no scientific evidence that Charlie Sr. caused this to happen by watching on TV. But he’s not going to risk it. “Ever since then, I haven’t watched live,” he said. “I’ll walk out of the room when they have to skate. Over the last three years, Paul Davis has evolved to the same thing.”
“De-evolved,” Jacqui White said.
“He’s at the same place where he can’t watch, either,” Charlie Sr. said. “He has to walk out.”
Now, all of this might sound crazy.
Both of these families are smart, highly educated and intelligent. Paul Davis works in real estate, his wife is a retired schoolteacher. Charlie Sr. owns a fuel distributorship in Detroit, and his wife works in the office with him.
But there are countless parents who do the same thing, whether their kids are playing youth hockey or youth baseball or anything else. The parents end up sitting in the same places, with the same people, or they wear the same clothes for luck.
Over time those habits become traditions.
After 17 years of ice dancing competitions, things get set in ice, so to speak.
And when your kid gets all the way to the Olympics — heck no, you aren’t changing anything!
But here’s the funny part.
Charlie, 26, and Meryl, 27, aren’t superstitious.
“Charlie says he makes his own luck,” his mother said.
“He makes me sick,” his father said.
The two moms have traveled all over the world with their children, growing extremely close, and they have developed several traditions and routines during a competition.
For the most part, the two dads have stayed home to work or take care of their other children. The two dads concede they are not part of the Charlie-and-Meryl, mom-and-mom routine.
One time at U.S. nationals, Paul Davis saw his daughter waiting for a bus before the competition. He hid behind a pillar in a hotel so that she wouldn’t see him.
“I don’t think it would bother Meryl,” Cheryl said.
“I’m not messing with it,” Paul said. “She has her mind-set.”
“She is so focused,” Cheryl said.
“My presence is not part of the team,” Paul said.
At almost every news conference, during just about every interview, Charlie and Meryl say the same thing: “We could not have done this without the support of our parents.”
It sounds so cliché. Almost every Olympic athlete says the same thing.
But in this case, the two mothers have played a central role in their careers.
Cheryl Davis helps design her daughter’s costumes, takes her to fittings and carries her costumes on the plane. Always carry-on. Meryl carries her skates.
Cheryl and Meryl meet with the dressmaker about once a week. Meryl will take several costumes to every competition, deciding at the last minute what to wear.
Cheryl and Meryl will go through magazines to get ideas for new costumes, and they buy the material at Haberman Fabrics in Royal Oak. Usually silk.
The dresses are made by Luanne Williams, who lives in Grass Lake.
And Stephanie Miller, who lives in Traverse City, does the stoning.
Quick note to dads with daughters not in dance: This is how they make the costumes all sparkly.
Yes, these skaters were Made in Michigan.
And the dresses are Made in Michigan, too.
“The costumes that turn out the best are ones without a sketch,” Meryl said. “They have the music and find some pictures and take it to Luanne and they sketch it out and it comes together.”
Now, there is one other tradition.
Before every competition since Charlie was young, his mother has given him a hug.
We’re talking every single time. It has to happen or the sun will not rise the next day.
“We always joked that we don’t know if it’s more for us or for them, because they get nervous,” Charlie said
One time, at nationals, Charlie and his mother couldn’t meet up and he didn’t have his hug yet, so she gave him a hug over the boards.
“A few times, it’s been hard,” Jacqui White said. “You can’t always get to him, especially at the Olympics. A few times, I’ve texted him and he’s had to come up to the concourse, so I could give him his hug.”
Then, Jacqui will say: “I love you. Skate good.”
And yes, for all the grammar police, that’s not exactly proper English. “It’s kind of an inside joke,” Jacqui said. “I deliberately say ‘skate good.’ And he laughs. It’s our inside joke.”
After every competition, the two moms go out to eat with their children and coaches. Always. They have to. It’s tradition.
“This goes way, way back,” Jacqui said. “When they were really little, Meryl didn’t eat much before a competition because she was really nervous. It’s become a tradition.”
Support from the start
In many ways, ice dancing has consumed both families.
When Meryl was about 12, her parents wondered whether they were doing the right thing. Was this crazy? The sport was taking over their lives. It was jaw-dropping expensive and extremely time consuming.
“Are we doing the right thing for our child?” they asked each other. “Are we living through our child? Or does she really want this?’
Meryl was very hard-working, always driven. Even when she was sick, she still wanted to practice. She just loved the cold. Being out on the ice. She loved practicing.
“We aren’t sure we are doing the right thing,” Paul Davis said. “We knew she loved the cold and was very athletic. She was about 12 and we went up north skiing. We had a long weekend.”
Meryl had a blast.
Paul said to Meryl: “You know, this is a great lifestyle. I grew up skiing. And it’s a great family sport. We can do it together. The money we could save, if you weren’t a competitive skater, we could buy a cottage and it would be great. And you have to think about if you want to do a course correction in your life.”
“It’s too late,” Meryl said.
It was in her blood.
At about the same time, the Whites had a similar conversation with Charlie.
There was no question. He wanted to keep skating. There would be no “course correction.” They were headed down a long road to Sochi.
No messing with karma
What do Charlie and Meryl think about all of these traditions and all of these superstitions?
Jacqui White said: “Charlie told me one time, when he heard me talking about this, he said, ‘Really mom? It’s all about you? What about all the stuff I’m doing every day? The work? The practice? Doesn’t that count for anything?’ ”
She smiled. “I’m not going to do anything that will mess up the karma,” she said, “or whatever it is.”