SOCHI, Russia — For a couple of decades it seemed that Soviet ice dancing would be as unassailable as the Kremlin wall. The style had the classic Bolshoi sensibility, the coaches were expert technicians and the well-matched couples stayed together for years upon years. Pakhomova and Gorshkov. Moiseeva and Minenkov. Bestemianova and Bukin. Klimova and Ponomarenko. Grishuk and Platov. Krylova and Ovsyannikov.
The Kremlin didn’t crumble but the USSR did and its sporting diaspora ended its dancing dynasty as well. On Monday night inside the Iceberg Skating Palace, the country that gave you Fred and Ginger finally pulled off the American Revolution on ice as Meryl Davis and Charlie White became the first US duo to win the Olympic gold medal since the discipline was added to the program in 1976.
“It’s a dream come true to skate how we did under all of that pressure,” White said after he and Davis had dethroned Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir, their Canadian rivals, friends and longtime training partners, by a margin of 195.52-190.99, which amounts to a cakewalk.
Even if you can’t tell a twizzle from a swizzle you could tell the Yanks were the best in this five-ringed show. Their feet were faster. Their lifts were more intricate. Their passion and polish were palpable.
On the five program components that make up the former artistic mark, Davis and White outpointed Virtue and Moir on all of them, scoring perfect 10s on choreography/composition and interpretation/timing. “I’ve never skated and visualized the performance at the same time and tonight that’s kind of how it felt,” said Davis after she and White had set a record with their total score.
All it took was 17 years together in the rink, dozens of trips to Tokyo and Paris and Moscow and Calgary and Beijing and Los Angeles and Boston, dancing to everyone from Verdi to the Beatles to Bobby Darin to Queen to Strauss to JLo. And for the last eight years, close encounters with Virtue and Moir every day in practice at their suburban Detroit rink.
That’s how the Canadians won their gold medal four years ago in Vancouver ahead of Davis and White and that’s how the Americans did it this time. “We have been pushing each other and learning from each other not just for the last four years but since 2006,” Davis observed. “We learned so much from Tessa and Scott and the training on a daily basis is what’s been pushing us.”
There’s no classified manual involved. The couples trained under Russian coaches who’d competed themselves — first with Igor Shpilband and Marina Zueva, now with Zueva. They received intensive technical training and artistic inspiration. And like the old Soviet entries, they stayed together season after season after season. It’s no accident that the last 16 US dance titles have been won by only three couples -- Davis and White, Tanith Belbin and Benjamin Agosto, and Naomi Lang and Peter Tchernyshev.
By contrast, Marissa Castelli and Simon Shnapir, the Skating Club of Boston pair, are the first national titlists in the event to retain their crown in five seasons. Since 2002, 10 different pairs have stood atop the podium. It is no coincidence the Americans haven’t won an Olympic pairs medal since 1988 and never a gold.
This one was a long time coming. After Colleen O’Connor and Jim Millns won a bronze at Innsbruck in 1976, there wasn’t another US couple on the Olympic podium for three decades. The breakthrough finally came in Turin, when Belbin and Agosto claimed the silver behind the Russians. When Davis and White became the first Americans to win a world title in Moscow three years ago, the stage was set for what happened here.
While the collapse of the Soviet system obviously helped the North Americans take over the top two steps of the podium — they’ve been 1-2 at the last two Games and the last four world championships — the new scoring system adopted in the wake of the pairs judging scandal in Salt Lake City has made a significant diffference as well.
Dancing once was all but written off as unjudgeable. The order after the compulsories might as well have been carved in granite. The new system, which assigns specific values for every step and lift and twizzle, provides clear benchmarks. “The reason we stayed for the Olympics is to try to push the sport,” said Moir. “We wanted to come up with new ideas, to push ourselves and the judging system.”
Davis and White, who skated their short dance to “My Fair Lady,” chose “Scheherazade” for their free skate. Seventeen years came down to four minutes. “The moment before you take the ice is difficult,” White said. “We didn’t say a whole lot. We just said, ‘we’re ready.’ ”
Before the team event on the opening weekend, a French sporting daily reported the Americans and Russians had cut a deal that would help Davis and White win. It was nonsense. The Russians didn’t need any assistance claiming the team gold and Davis and White did fine on their own. The US had its best Olympic dance night ever with Madison Chock and Evan Bates placing eighth and siblings Maia and Alex Shibutani ninth. When all of this is over down here on Sunday, maybe the Yanks can give an exhibition in Red Square. It’s not far from the Bolshoi.