U.S. ice dancers poised for gold rush
SOCHI, Russia — With just one exception, the days at these 2014 Winter Olympics have dawned cool and clear.
Meryl Davis and Charlie White find those beautiful Sochi mornings serene.
When the curtains are drawn in their separate athletes' village rooms, the American ice-dancers like to peer out at the Black Sea.
Then, walking to the cafeteria for breakfast, they pause to view the palm trees and the jagged white tips of the breathtaking Caucasus Mountains.
"It's just incredibly beautiful," Davis said.
Perhaps it was their status as three-time Olympians and current world champions that earned them such proximity to this resort's natural splendor. Or maybe it was just good fortune.
Whatever the reason, Davis and White appreciate that their living conditions provide them an opportunity to start each day here relaxed and focused.
Those two things are important for every Olympian, but maybe even more so for Davis and White. Like the black scarf the pale and petite Davis wore Friday, gold medal expectations have been draped around their necks.
The Michigan pair arrived in Sochi for their third Winter Games as figure-skating's surest bet for a gold medal. Nothing that's happened since has changed that.
Earlier this week, in both the short-program and free-skate portions of the team competition, Davis and White finished first by wide margins.
It was as though the new event were a sparring session for the main event, the ice-dance competition, which begins Sunday and concludes the next night .
If so, no one laid a glove on them.
They skated strong and confidently, technically and freely, in each session, easily outdistancing the Canadians, Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir, who are both their closest rivals and training partners.
Russian teams were third in each segment.
Asked Friday whether their role in the U.S. team's bronze-medal performance would help them now, White said, "Honestly, it feels like that was forever ago.
"The team event was a real thrill for Meryl and myself. To get to compete on an Olympic ice surface is always real special. Being able to go out there and support your team with your skates is awesome. Being able to sit and cheer for them is also special. We really bonded as a team and put our hearts out on the ice."
If there were any questions remaining about Davis' and White's heart, those impressive skates on an Olympic stage, before a Russian crowd vociferously behind its own skaters, should have put them to rest.
Still, the position they've been sitting on for several long days is not an easy one to occupy. Shaun White found that out Wednesday.
The pressure is always more intense when you're trying to stay on top than when you're hungry and have little to lose.
After all, when the whole world expects you to win, it's your only option.
Davis and White can't be noble in defeat again, as they were in finishing second to Virtue and Moir in Vancouver four years ago. With two tough defeats in succession, what's to distinguish them from, say, Mary Decker-Slaney?
The fact that they're reigning world champions and have a resumé that lacks only Olympic gold can be both a blessing and a curse.
Win, and they've merely met expectations. Lose, and they become part of the growing narrative about the U.S. team here: If it weren't for its freaky snow athletes, America's medal count would be as embarrassing as the local water supply.
Naturally, any kind of suggestion that they're overwhelming favorites leaves them uneasy, especially given the home-ice advantage the Russian dance teams will enjoy at the Ice Berg Skating Palace.
"It's very competitive," White insisted. "And there's a lot of great talent that can rise to the top. You have to skate great if you want to be able to win, and that goes for every team.
"There are no shoe-ins," he added. "There's nothing like that. And that's not how anyone should take it. It's a real competition, and that's how we like it."
If, as nearly everyone else expects, Davis and White finally win their Olympic gold medal, the Russian setting will be an appropriate one.
Like most world-class ice-dancers, they have been schooled by coaches from the former Soviet ice-dance factory that churned out world and Olympic champions.
Their coach in Canton, Mich., is Maria Zoueva. Before her, it was Igor Shpilband.
"We've been very fortunate to get to work with some of the great Russian talent in ice dancing," Davis said. "Maria's talent and expertise comes from the great history of Russia in the sport of ice dancing. We feel like we've been able to grow with her."
Even if you never saw them skate, you'd know that Davis and White belong together on the ice.
She is 5-foot-3, rail-thin, almost doll-like delicate. Her jet-black hair and dark eyes contrast dramatically with her alabaster skin.
The 5-9 White is blond, wiry, athletic, all coiled energy to his partner's elegant calm.
Together since 1997, their moves are in such synch that you sometimes forget they are not attached to one another.
It's the kind of harmony that is priceless in their sport.
The kind they find each morning in Sochi in the mountains and sea that flank them.