Not so long ago, when the dancers came on, folks went out for an early dinner. Most casual fans couldn’t tell a twizzle from a swizzle and they figured that the Americans probably weren’t much good at one anyway. No US couple had made the Olympic podium since the Ford Administration, when everybody was wearing the “Dorothy ’do.”
All of that changed in Turin eight years ago when Tanith Belbin and Benjamin Agosto won an historic silver behind the Russians. “Getting that 2006 silver, personally, made us feel like it would be possible for us,” says Charlie White, who did the same with Meryl Davis in Vancouver four years ago. “They sort of paved the way for all of us.”
American ice dancing is now the global gold standard. Davis and White are world champions and next month in Sochi they’re favored to dethrone Canadian defending titlists Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir and become the first Yanks to claim the Olympic crown. At a time when the US men, women, and pairs have vanished from the world podium, the dancers have become their country’s best hope. “This has been a long time coming for ice dancing,” muses White.
The medals have inspired a group of eager contenders who’ve made this week’s national championships the most competitive in history. After Friday afternoon’s short dance at TD Garden, a half-dozen couples had a realistic chance of collecting the three tickets to the Games. While Davis and White are poised to win a record sixth consecutive title on Saturday afternoon and Madison Chock and Evan Bates, last year’s runners-up, again were comfortably positioned behind them, there figured to be a spirited jostle for third among former world medalists Maia and Alex Shibutani, Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue, Alexandra Aldridge and Daniel Eaton, and Lynn Kriengkrairut and Logan Giulietti-Schmitt.
Going into the free dance, fewer than 7 points separated third from sixth. That’s a margin more typical of singles skating but it’s an indication of how much depth has been developed in the dance ranks in recent years.
“With the change in the judging system the US was able to capitalize on what the tech panel was looking for and what the judges were looking for,” says White. “It came at a time when we had a lot of talent surface. We’re really fortunate that we had Tanith and Ben breaking the mold for us.”
Bates, who competed with Emily Samuelson at the last Games, found himself at a career crossroads after her skate sliced open his Achilles’ tendon and cost them the following season. After they subsequently split up Bates took up with Chock and they quickly clicked. “Things have changed quite a bit in my skating career since then but my experience with that has given me a great respect,” he says. “I’m very grateful.”
The Shibutanis, who were juniors in 2010, won a bronze medal at the following year’s world championships. But there now are enough contenders that the Shib Sibs will have to be up to the mark to assure themselves of a place at Olympus. “It was OK, definitely not our best,” Alex said after he and his younger sister had posted a 68.00, which put them 5.41 points behind Chock and Bates. “We left some points out on the ice, unfortunately, but I think we were so happy to get the competition underway.”
The Shibutanis never have missed the medal stand since they first turned up as juveniles and they figure to make a squad that should be comparable to the Vancouver trio that finished 2-4-11. This time, though, the Yanks have the goods for gold. Davis and White are on form, as they showed with their “My Fair Lady” number in the short dance that earned them a tally of 80.69.
“Obviously we got a great score,” said White. “We really want that, especially at home. We certainly are looking to become the national champions and lead this US team into the Olympics and we took a really good step in that direction today.”
In 1994 in Lillehammer, the US team was one couple who finished 15th. In 2002 in Salt Lake City there were two, neither in the top 10. The Turin silver was a priceless breakthrough and while it hasn’t yet created a gold rush, it’s created the expectation for a medal of a different color and made this team uncommonly difficult to make.