Detroit Freep: Meryl and Charlie's story

Jeff Seidel: Michigan ice dancers Meryl Davis, Charlie White make perfect pair

A photo team from Time magazine set up four light stands on the ice at the Arctic Edge in Canton.
Ice dancers Meryl Davis and Charlie White, America’s best hope for a gold medal in figure skating at the Sochi Olympics, skated through a wash of bright light, holding a pose, as a photographer snapped several pictures.
They did it several times, showing their trademark focus and determination. Trying to get it perfect.
This is what makes them great. They have been skating together since they still had baby teeth, and they have perfected the ability to repeat the same move, over and over, while injecting chemistry and a spark. Like it’s the first time, every time.
With a chance to become the first American figure skaters to win more than one medal at a single Olympic Games — thanks to the addition of the new team figure skating event that begins this week in Sochi, Russia — Davis and White are primed to become the face of these Olympics.
Charlie, 26, with that flop of big blond hair. Surfer style. He’s a free-spirited, live-in-the-moment, refusing-to-worry, guy next door. He’s majoring in political science at the University of Michigan. At his core, he is honest to a fault, fun and lighthearted, a big sports fan, and as loyal as a yellow Labrador retriever.
Meryl, 27, with that perfect smile and porcelain skin. Petite and reserved. A lover of history and literature. She’s majoring in cultural anthropology at U-M. At her core, she is a thinker and a traditionalist at heart. On Christmas Eve, she slept at her parents’ house in West Bloomfield so that she could get up to see what Santa brought and spend the holidays with her family. Hey, you are never too old for Santa.
Charlie and Meryl have a wholesome quality with gold-medal smiles and a squeaky-clean image. They already have filmed a commercial for Visa with the Red Wings’ Pavel Datsyuk at Joe Louis Arena. (Charlie played hockey until he was 18. “I wouldn’t say I schooled him,” Charlie said, breaking into a laugh.)
They have sponsorship deals with Ralph Lauren, Kellogg’s, Visa, Procter & Gamble, Puffs, AT&T, MK Blades and a Japanese mattress company. Seriously. They are huge in Japan.
If everything goes as planned, they are going to be huge in America, too.
And that is why that photo team from Time spent several hours with them a few weeks ago.
Charlie and Meryl skated in front of the camera and looked at each other locked in an intense, passionate, seemingly lost-in-love gaze. Every single time.
Which is, well, an act. As much as they are known for being gifted athletes — mainly for their speed and power after years of hard work on and off the ice — they are also talented actors and performers, forever playing characters in different programs. Not to wreck the illusion, but there is no romance between them.
“We are very forthright about our relationship,” Meryl said. “We have made it very clear that we are not dating. Our relationship is very complicated.”
They are teammates. Business partners. Lifelong friends. And they share an immense respect and admiration. Not to mention the same goal: a gold medal.
Charlie and Meryl have been together for so many years that something magical happens when they are on the ice. They don’t look like they are skating. They seem to float along with the music. Everything in sync. Lost in the emotion.
“They were kismet,” said Jacqui White, Charlie’s mom. “Some things were just meant to be. That’s what Meryl and Charlie are. They were meant to be. From the very beginning.”

'The best skater'

Meant to be.
Meryl was about 5 when she would skate at the Wallace Ice Arena on the Cranbrook campus in Bloomfield Hills, wearing a hand-me-down, oversize skating costume. The costume came from her babysitter, and it was enormous on this petite, shy girl from West Bloomfield.

Meryl’s mother, Cheryl Davis, pinned up the costume, and Meryl went on the ice and let the fabric flow. She loved skating. She loved the cold weather. And she loved playing dress-up.
“She would call them spin dresses,” Cheryl Davis remembers.
On the ice at Cranbrook. That’s where Charlie White first saw Meryl.

They lived a few miles away from each other — Charlie grew up in Bloomfield Hills — but they had never met.
After Charlie looked at Meryl for the first time, he said to his mom: “She is the best skater I’ve ever seen!”
At least, that’s what the parents remember.
Charlie doesn’t recall the first meeting, but he does acknowledge: “That sounds like me.”

One simple skate

Charlie and Meryl started taking skating lessons at the Detroit Skating Club in Bloomfield Hills, although they weren’t in the same classes.
Seth Chafetz, a coach at the club, wanted Charlie to try ice dancing to improve his posture.
“He was skating like a hockey player, bent over with both arms swinging,” said Jacqui White. “He wanted to learn some dances. You learn to keep your head up, back straight.”
So Charlie tried out with a little girl with blond hair.
Yes, believe it or not, there was actually someone before Meryl.
But the girl was too shy to hold Charlie’s hand. She giggled and fell down and couldn’t do it.
So Chafetz put Charlie with Meryl, a strong skater who was training as a traditional figure skater, or freestyler, not an ice dancer.
“She loved skating,” said Cheryl Davis. “She would try anything.”
Meryl was 9; Charlie was 8. She took his hand and they skated around the rink.
This is how an Olympic dream began. With one simple skate.
Jacqui White and Paul Davis, Meryl’s father, watched these two little kids. They were both small for their age and seemed to match up perfectly. Right from the start.
“It looks good,” Chafetz said.
“Paul and I said, ‘Yeah, that looks really cute,’ ” Jacqui White remembered.
Later, Chafetz talked to the parents.
“He said, ‘I think, if we work together, we could have them do some competitions, and there is one in Lake Placid that they might be able to do this year,’ ” Jacqui White said. “Paul and I were like, wow, that’s great. We had no idea what we were getting into at all.”
Now, Charlie remembers it a little differently. He remembers the first few skates with Meryl being, well, a little disappointing.
“With Meryl, I vividly remember having to do a dance that was several levels down from what I was working towards,” Charlie said with a smile. “For me, it felt so basic.”
But she quickly caught up to him. “After about a week,” Charlie said, smiling again.

Great connection

Meant to be.
There were so many factors that lined up perfectly. Their proximity. Their drive. Their goals. Their work ethic. Their love of skating. And, perhaps more important, their ability to get along.
“Both of them were very academic,” Cheryl Davis said. “I feel like there is such a great connection between them. They don’t argue; they don’t fight. They know how important it is. If they have problems, they don’t hold it inside. They talk right away. It’s impressive to see.”
The two families share the same values and the same parenting styles. They stressed education and balance, afraid of focusing on a single sport or event.
Meryl continued to train as a freestyle singles skater.
And Charlie played youth hockey on travel teams, trained as a freestyle skater and played the violin. On some days, he did all three.
“I would pick up Charlie from school,” Jacqui White said. “We had an SUV. He would eat in the back of the car, change his clothes. Sometimes fall asleep for a few minutes. Sometimes read homework in the back.”
One day, Charlie had a violin recital coming up and a hockey tournament on the weekend, and he had to be at the rink for a skating lesson. Jacqui burst into tears. “I can’t keep up with this anymore,” she said.
But Charlie said he enjoyed being active and pushed for more practices, more games.
“Steve Yzerman was his favorite player,” said Charlie’s dad, who has the same name but goes by Big Charlie. He owns a fuel distributorship in northwest Detroit. “When Charlie was young, 6 years old, he picked up that whenever Yzerman would score a goal, he never acknowledged it. He never made a fist pump. Never went down on his knee. Putting it to the other team or the goalie. Never. And that impressed him. To this day, they have never given a fist pump when they competed or knew they skated great.”
Charlie and Meryl started traveling around the world. Serbia. Germany. Japan. Romania. Even though they were only practicing 1½ hours a day, they started getting results at the junior level, finishing 13th at the 2004 World Junior Championships in the Netherlands.
“They were not anywhere near full-time competitive skaters,” said Paul Davis, Meryl’s father, who works in real estate. “When they hit the world rankings as junior level skaters, and they had been around a long time, everybody thought they had been around forever. And they were as good as they could be.”
While their growth may have been stunted, for a short time, while competing against some athletes who were home-schooled and spent far more time on the ice, Charlie and Meryl never burned out.
Meanwhile, the two families grew close.
The two mothers became best friends, sitting together at the rink, year after year, and traveling together to different competitions.
They were both highly involved in everything. To this day, both moms help design their children’s costumes.
“It doesn’t take over your life,” said Cheryl Davis, who retired as a schoolteacher to follow Meryl around the world. “You wrap your arms around it, but it’s not a burden. It’s a daily part of what you do. I’ve never thought of any moment of it as a sacrifice.”

A break in the action

When Charlie was a senior in high school, he was playing hockey in Toronto and caught an edge while being checked. He suffered a broken ankle.
“It was a freak play,” Charlie remembered.
The injury forced Charlie and Meryl to miss an entire year of competitive skating. And they lost momentum.
During that one year, Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir, a team from Canada, passed them by.
But Charlie and Meryl gained something else. They were able to live like normal kids for their final year of high school. In 2005, Charlie graduated from Birmingham Roeper and Meryl from Birmingham Groves.
“After I broke my ankle, skating was out of the picture,” Charlie said. “We were able to focus on school. We were able to have a senior year. At the same time, we both realized how much we missed skating.”

Time for a change

They were both accepted at Michigan but deferred enrollment their freshman year to concentrate on skating.
That’s when everything changed. They started training under Marina Zoueva at the Arctic Edge in Canton. Because it was closer to Ann Arbor. But it was something else. In retrospect, it was a perfect time for a change after years of concentrating on their technique and skills. “We were ready for an artistic point of view,” Meryl said.
They slowly climbed up the world rankings. Seventh at the world championships in 2007. Sixth in 2008. Fourth in 2009.
“For years, they were competing against kids who had been home-schooled for years,” Paul Davis said. “All of a sudden, they burst on the scene. It shocked people. They came out of nowhere. But wait a minute. They had been skating together since they were 8 years old.”

Nearly unstoppable

At the 2010 Vancouver Olympics, they finished second to Virtue and Moir, who also train in Canton under Zoueva.
After Vancouver, Meryl and Charlie went on vacation.
“She wasn’t positive Charlie wanted to continue,” Paul Davis said.
But that vacation ignited a spark in Charlie.
“Meryl said he hit the ice with such drive and dedication,” Paul Davis said. “She was astounded by how enthused and fired up he was, and it fired her up. They continued going since then.”
Over the last few years, Charlie and Meryl have been nearly
unstoppable. They have won six straight national titles and two of the last three world championships. The only two events they haven’t won in the last four years were captured by Virtue and Moir.
“Charlie and Meryl are so graceful and humble people,” said Marissa Castelli, an American competing in Sochi in the pairs event. “They are such great athletes and so great, wonderful people. I love them both.”
All three U.S. dance teams that will compete in Russia are from Michigan. Davis and White and Alex and Maia Shibutani — a brother-sister team from Ann Arbor — train at the Arctic Edge, while Evan Bates and Madison Chock train at the Novi Ice Arena under Igor Shpilband, who used to work with but broke away from Zoueva.
The gold medal is expected to come down — again — to White and Davis versus Virtue and Moir. And the drama between them is certain to dominate NBC’s coverage.
But make no mistake. Both of those couples have helped the sport of ice dancing soar in popularity.
“I think it is attributable to ‘Dancing with the Stars,’ ” Meryl Davis said. “And kind of the general public being aware of dancing as a whole and the whole rise of the success of American ice dancing.”
Those two little kids who saw each other on the ice at Cranbrook —“She is the best skater I’ve ever seen!” — are now favorites to winthe gold medal in Sochi.
It’s amazing really. It is a story of perseverance and consistency and friendship and treating each other with respect. It’s about working hard and dreaming big. They were meant to be, all right, from the very beginning.


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