Americans hope to end gold medal drought in dance
The American women have more titles than a royal family. The men once held the world figure skating title for 12 straight years. Even the pairs have a couple of gold medals from the world championships in their trophy case.
Ice dance is the only discipline in which the United States has failed to win a world or Olympic title - an oh-fer streak Meryl Davis and Charlie White are determined to end next week.
''We've made no secret that that's our goal, to be on top of the podium this year,'' Davis said.
The world championships begin Monday with qualifying, and the ice dance competition begins Friday. Worlds were originally supposed to be held last month in Tokyo, but were moved to Moscow after the March 11 earthquake and tsunami that left 27,000 people dead or missing.
The Americans won 16 medals in the 25 years after ice dance was added to the world championships in 1952, including a silver-bronze finish in 1966 by Kristin Fortune and Dennis Sveum and Lorna Dyer and John Carrell. Colleen O'Connor and Jim Millns were bronze medalists at the 1976 Games, when ice dance made its Olympic debut.
As the sport's balance of power shifted East, and politics and personal allegiances came to matter as much as talent, however, U.S. ice dancers became less and less relevant. Aside from Judy Blumberg and Michael Seibert's three straight bronze medals from 1983-85, Americans wouldn't be seen on the podium for almost three decades. They were such a non-factor that cracking the top 10 was considered a good result.
But the move to a computer-based judging system upended ice dance's staid, stodgy order. Tanith Belbin and Ben Agosto were the first U.S. team to win the approval of the international judges, taking the silver medal at the 2005 and '09 world championships as well as the Turin Olympics. Davis and White won silvers at both the world championships and Vancouver Games last year.
''When we were younger ... we knew we had something a little bit different than most of the teams that were on top at that time,'' Davis said. ''Over the last several years, that's changed, and Charlie and I would like to think we've had some input on that turnover.''
Indeed, the sport has changed so dramatically the top dance teams are now from North America, not Eastern Europe. Canadian and U.S. teams claimed three of the top four spots in Vancouver and at the 2009 world championships. Americans have won three of the past four junior world titles, with the United States going 1-2 in 2009.
''The organization, the coaches and the athletes in the last 10 to 15 years have really developed a great program and worked hard on this,'' said David Raith, executive director of U.S. Figure Skating. ''The silver medals won by Tanith and Ben and Meryl and Charlie at the last two Olympics has shown how important this discipline is to us. And how good we are at it.
''But it would be nice to win the gold medal at the world championships.''
What set Davis and White apart initially was their athleticism. Their programs have great speed and energy, and they have the strength to pull off some daredevil-like tricks. They had one lift last year in which White skated backward on one leg while crossing the other behind him, using it to support Davis' entire body.
But Davis and White have also raised the maturity and intricacy of their skating. Their free dance this year, a tango, is so fiery it's sure to raise the temperature in the arena a few degrees.
''We've always had strong skating skills and pretty decent programs,'' White said. ''With the maturity that came (with) the Olympics, we felt even more comfortable with the position we're in. We're able to push ourselves because we're excited about this.''
Davis and White's biggest obstacle for the world title is a familiar one. Canadians Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir, who edged Davis and White at both the Olympics and world championships last year, have trained alongside the Americans in Detroit for several years, and the four are good friends.
''It's no secret that despite the fact we all really care about one another, we all really want to be on top of the podium,'' Davis said.
With Virtue and Moir sitting out the Grand Prix season while she recovered from October surgery, no one came close to challenging the Americans. They won the Grand Prix final, which has the toughest field outside of worlds, by almost 10 points.
Virtue and Moir returned for Four Continents and edged the Americans by .39 points in the short dance. But the Canadians had to withdraw when Virtue felt tightness in her left quad during the free dance.
''We don't take it for granted that we get to train with our toughest competitors every day,'' Virtue said. ''It's a very interesting dynamic but when we step on the ice, we're competitors. We want to compete against the best, so we want Meryl and Charlie at their best. And they're looking great, so they will be.''
These past five weeks were a huge bonus for Virtue and Moir, who got much needed time to perfect their programs and ''catch up'' to everyone who'd had a full season of training. But Davis and White made good use of the extra practice, too, and White said they head to Moscow in the best shape of their careers.
And ready to finally capture those elusive gold medals.
''We're just excited to get out and compete,'' White said. ''We want to have the chance to prove to the world that we're the best.''