Four years after earning gold, ice dancers Meryl Davis and Charlie White are excited to welcome the figure skating community to the Motor City this winter.
By Stephanie Steinberg
Photography by Allison Farrand
When the U.S. Figure Skating Championships comes to Little Caesars Arena this January, attendees may spot Olympic ice dancers Meryl Davis and Charlie White — but not on the ice.
The Metro Detroit natives who became the first American ice dancers to win gold at the 2014 Olympics will be honorary co-chairs for the biggest figure skating event in the country Jan. 19-27. It’s an event they know well, having won it six times.
Now, Davis, 31, of Birmingham, and White, 30, of Ann Arbor, can’t wait to welcome their figure skating community to Detroit. The U.S. Championships — which serves as the final qualifying event for the World Championships every year and the Olympics every four years — was last held in the Motor City in 1994.
“We really want to highlight the best of Detroit,” Davis says, “so we’re really excited to show off what an incredible place Detroit is now.”
Since winning the gold in Sochi, the pair has embarked on a professional ice dancing career. Perched on high-top chairs at Arctic Edge Ice Arena in Canton — where they’ve practiced since 2005 — the two take a break from choreographing a routine for a “Friends on Ice” tour in Tokyo. A few weeks prior, they wrapped up a nationwide “Stars on Ice” tour.
They’re on the road a lot, but their faces resemble the gratification of nailing a twizzle when they chat about home.
“We have spent so much time away and so much time traveling, seeing the beauty of the world, getting to meet new people, see new places, but Detroit is always home for us,” Davis says.
And specifically, this rink.
When training for the Olympics, they were here five days a week, sometimes six hours a day. They sacrificed their social lives, family time and degrees at the University of Michigan. “We’re on the 12-year plan,” Davis jokes, adding she plans to graduate this May.
While the pressure of winning an Olympic medal is lifted off their shoulders, they still feel the pressure to maintain excellence.
“When practicing for shows, we look up here at the medals that they’ve put up,” says White, pointing to a banner with their names above the rink entrance, “and we’re like, ‘OK, we really need to try.’ ”
But now, the ice means more than competitions and shows. Both have taken to the rink to give back to a sport that’s given them so much. “The things we’re most grateful for from figure skating are the lessons that we learned,” White says. “… and it’s taught us a lot about ourselves.”
White now travels across the country, helping younger skaters, while Davis has poured energy into an organization that’s won her heart: Figure Skating in Detroit.
Figure Skating in Detroit is the first branch of Figure Skating in Harlem that started 21 years ago in New York. Davis says the organization wanted to expand to a new city to positively impact youth, and she helped convince the CEO to come to Detroit.
The second year of the after-school program starts this month, and about 50 girls are enrolled. Davis explains figure skating can teach girls the skills they need now and later in life.
“It’s not about necessarily making Olympians or the most successful figure skaters, but figure skating is a platform and a tool with which to teach girls things like setting goals, picking themselves up when they fall down, persevering through challenges, supporting one another,” she says.
Figure Skating in Detroit Director Lori Ward says Davis is “hands on” — leading clinics, talking to parents and stopping by to work with the girls whenever she’s in town.
“It gives the girls a warm feeling to know that this is somebody who’s leading a very busy life, but yet she still takes time to come and actually participate with them and get to know their names,” Ward says.
For Davis, she says it’s been rewarding to watch the program grow “from the ground up.”
“To see the girls from that initial session we had, and not really knowing what to expect, to just these flourishing young ladies who are friends and support each other and really grasp these very important life concepts, is really spectacular.”
It’s not lost on the ice dancers that their medals have allowed them to have such an impact on others and the sport itself.
“Being able to stand on the (Olympic) podium and recognize what that means for ice dance moving forward,” White says “… it’s even hard to put into words.”
Davis chimes in to elaborate: “When we were young, very few people outside of the committed figure skating fans and family knew what ice dance even was, so to see people with really no connection to figure skating, even know what ice dance is, was really important for us.”
She describes a surreal moment when they flew to New York from Sochi for press interviews before heading home.
“We were walking on the streets of the city,” Davis recalls. “There would be random groups of middle-aged businessmen saying, ‘Oh, you’re the ice dancers! We loved watching you!’ ” Sweat, blood and bruised knees got them to that point. Yet they admit they did have “some luck” meeting in the first place — back when they were 8 and 9 years old, when White grew up in Bloomfield and Davis in West Bloomfield.
“Finding each other just 10 minutes away in ice dancing is very rare,” says White, whose wife, Canadian ice dancer Tanith Belbin White, came to the U.S. in search of a partner. Tanith found Ben Agosto and trained at Arctic Edge as well. They came in fourth at the 2010 Olympics while White and Davis took silver. “Finding a partner that has a similar work ethic,” White continues, “that is respectful, just like in any team sport, you have to be able to mesh and even more so when it’s just two of you — that plays a crucial role.”
That’s not to say they’ve never competed against each other. Right after the Olympics, the two competed in ABC’s “Dancing with the Stars” — in the middle of a “Stars on Ice” tour. Tuesday through Saturday they skated throughout the U.S. They’d take the redeye to L.A. to record the reality show on Monday. Then they hit the road again. The adrenaline from winning the Olympics kept them on their feet, White says.
“We really were living on the energy of the audiences every night,” adds Davis, who won the season with dance partner Maksim Chmerkovskiy. “We wouldn’t have survived, if it wasn’t such a fun experience and people being so supportive, because we were exhausted, for sure.”
Four years later, the duo are quite content going at their own pace and enjoying all that Michigan has to offer. Davis and her fiance can be spotted trying new Detroit restaurants (Selden Standard is one of her favorites) or hanging out downtown in the artistic alley the Belt. “I just love that whole area,” Davis says. “I think it just really shows the efforts of what’s happening in the city now.”
White, meanwhile, jokes that he rarely leaves the house because he has an 11-month-old son, but you might see him around Ann Arbor. “Main Street in Ann Arbor is honestly one of my favorite places in the world,” he says.
One thing is certain: You can catch them both at LCA this January, and they encourage all Metro Detroiters to come see the most elite skaters in the U.S.
“It’s just an incredible experience to get to watch these hardworking athletes go after the opportunity to represent their country on the world stage,” Davis says.
“We’re looking forward to being able to watch — no pressure for us,” White adds, laughing.
To buy tickets for the U.S. Figure Skating Championships, visit 313presents.com.