Linda Robertson: Real rivalry, real affection as US, Canada pairs finish with gold, silver

02/17/2014 6:34 PM

02/17/2014 6:54 PM

They harbor no secrets, hold no grudges. How could they? American ice dancers Meryl Davis and Charlie White train together every day at the same rink in Michigan with their Canadian counterparts, Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir.

They know each others’ music down to the last note, could imitate each others’ programs blindfolded. They share a coach. They have shared so many medal podiums they’ve lost count.

The two teams were together again at the Sochi Olympics, only this time it was Davis and White on the top step, bending down to hug Virtue and Moir.

The affection was not fake, even in a sport of heavy makeup and frozen smiles.

Davis and White, waltzing across the ice with dazzling speed and daring acrobatic lifts, defeated their rivals by a convincing 4.53 points Monday in figure skating’s equivalent to ballroom dancing.

“We’re linked forever,” White said of the Canadians, who won gold at the 2010 Vancouver Games, where the Americans took silver.

Davis and White made history by becoming the first U.S. couple to win an Olympic gold medal in a discipline other than singles skating. The U.S. has won a record seven men’s and seven women’s gold medals, but never gold in dance or pairs.

Davis and White’s victory was also the first for the U.S. here outside the mountain Extreme Park venue, where Americans have won four golds in slopestyle skiing and snowboarding — referred to dismissively as “trash sports” by traditionalists.

Ice dancing is only marginally a sport, too, but the Americans and Canadians, coached by their envelope-pushing mentor Marina Zueva, have led the evolution of the discipline from one that was mocked for its campy costumes, simple twizzles and preordained placements by deal-brokering judges to one of legitimate athleticism.

Working to outdo each other daily, Davis and White and Virtue and Moir mastered tougher tricks and forced the opposition to raise the level of difficulty.

Davis and White whirled through their long program Monday to “Scheherazade” by Rimsky-Korsakov, he the sultan wearing deep purple, she the princess spinning 1,001 stories in a lilac dress adorned with gems. On one lift, he slung her around his back. On another, around his neck. He held her upside down with her feet in the air. He twirled round and round while she did the splits in his outstretched hands. She balanced with her left skate blade on his right thigh.

It’s not an event for anybody squeamish about severing their femoral or carotid arteries.

The Canadians skated three places earlier, evoking a beautiful but exhausting romance. They gazed into each other’s eyes with aching devotion, then she flipped backward into his arms as he raised her onto his shoulders for six dizzying revolutions.

While some Canadians complained that the fix was in, Virtue and Moir did not. They’ve seen their training partners practice and perform hundreds of times. While the Canadians emote better, the Americans skate with more power and agility.

Watching the drama unfold with mixed feelings was Zueva, a native of St. Petersburg, Russia, a former ice dancer and choreographer of the incomparable pairs team Ekaterina Gordeeva and Sergei Grinkov until Grinkov’s untimely death in 1995.

Zueva, 57, who moved to Michigan in 2001, deserves a medal podium of her own, on which she would have to straddle the top two steps. Her two teams have traded gold and silver in 18 of the past 20 major competitions. Her pupils’ styles are different, and she knows how to play to their strengths.

“Tessa and Scott have special chemistry,” she said. “When they were boy and girl, very natural together. Now man and woman.

“Meryl and Charlie are more muscular. I try to make them more artistic, more dramatic. I work with them and they are more actors now.”

As the Americans and Canadians posed with their medals and their flags, Zueva stood in the middle, beaming.

“I always enjoy for the team who wins and cry for the team who loses,” she said. “I keep my heart in both.”

Davis, 27, and White, 26, and Virtue, 24, and Moir, 26, have trained together at the Arctic Edge rink in Canton, Mich., near Detroit since they were teens.

“They grew up together,” Zueva said.

What’s remarkable is their harmony. It’s as if Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal decided to train at the same court under the same coach. Zueva is like co-manager of the Yankees and Red Sox, flitting from dugout to dugout. It works because it’s not a contact sport.

“I don’t like to compare ourselves to Meryl and Chuckie,” Moir said. “Kurt Browning told me once – you don’t have to defeat your opponent. You can have different moments.”

Both teams formed when the skaters were in elementary school, when they were put together on play dates, Davis said. White, then 10, was initially “annoyed” to be paired with a girl who was below his skill level.

“But it was pretty obvious she was going to hold her own no matter what we did,” he said. “We were sticking together like glue.”

Nothing has come between them, even though the shy Davis and gregarious White are very different personalities. Nothing has eroded their friendship with Virtue and Moir, even in a sport of tumultuous partner-switching, cold mornings, tedious workouts, frustrating falls.

Zueva has kept them together, yet distinct as all five – four North Americans guided by a Russian – pledged to build respect for ice dancing.

“We’ve used up all our unison,” Moir joked as he and Virtue interrupted each other in praising their rivals. “Nobody likes to sit in this position, but it is easier when you see how hard they work every single day.”

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