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Amy Donaldson: The key to the longevity and success of gold-medal contenders is kindness

Published: Monday, Oct. 21 2013 12:54 p.m. MDT

This Jan. 23, 2010 file photo shows Meryl Davis and Charlie White posing with an American flag after winning the ice dance competition at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships in Spokane, Wash. (Elaine Thompson, Associated Press) This Jan. 23, 2010 file photo shows Meryl Davis and Charlie White posing with an American flag after winning the ice dance competition at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships in Spokane, Wash. (Elaine Thompson, Associated Press)

Meryl Davis and Charlie White move across the ice with speed, skill and strength.

But when you watch the best U.S. ice dancers compete, it isn’t actually their athleticism that’s most impressive.

It’s their partnership.

It began when they were in grade school and has grown into the most successful U.S. ice dancing partnership in history. Together the Michigan natives have earned five U.S. championships, two world championships and, in 2010, an Olympic silver medal. Just this weekend, they dominated the Skate America competition in Detroit, winning with a score of 112.53, which was 20 points ahead of the field.

For 17 years, the anthropology major (Davis) and the political science major (White) have created the kind of chemistry that makes almost anything possible. It’s the kind of chemistry that takes talent and hard work and turns it into one of the world’s best teams, among the favorites, if not the favorite, to earn gold in the 2014 Winter Games this February.

Meryl Davis and Charlie White won the Skate America competition this weekend and are among the favorites to earn a gold medal in Russia at the 2014 Games. (Courtesy of Meryl Davis and Charlie White) Meryl Davis and Charlie White won the Skate America competition this weekend and are among the favorites to earn a gold medal in Russia at the 2014 Games. (Courtesy of Meryl Davis and Charlie White)

Their journey began with a bit of luck.

White was a 5-year-old hockey player who also took figure skating lessons. His coach decided that he should take up ice dancing to bring some “elegance” to his hockey-infected skating.

“A little bit into his young ice dance career, his coach thought he should partner with someone his own age and size,” Davis told the Deseret News Sunday morning, as the duo met with media members following the announcement of their partnership with Puffs facial tissues. “His coach asked my mom if I’d be interested in partnering, not really knowing what we were getting into. Seventeen years later, we’re still enjoying it.”

That was 1997, and while no one could foresee the success the two would go on to have, the foundation for their longevity had already been laid.

Meryl Davis and Charlie White show off their first place medals after their ice dance free dance routine at the Skate America figure skating competition in Detroit, Saturday, Oct. 19, 2013. (Carlos Osorio, Associated Press) Meryl Davis and Charlie White show off their first place medals after their ice dance free dance routine at the Skate America figure skating competition in Detroit, Saturday, Oct. 19, 2013. (Carlos Osorio, Associated Press)

Chemistry is important in any team sport. But when the team is actually a duo, the energy between the two individuals becomes even more critical.

Consider that Davis and White navigated their rise to world competitors as they dealt with the tumultuous ride from childhood to adulthood. If they can stay together and be successful through middle school, the chaos of high school and very different college experiences at the University of Michigan, they can probably agree on choreography and costumes rather seamlessly.

“It’s a lot of hard work,” said White. “It’s practice. We don’t have a lot of disagreements. We don’t waste a lot of time bickering.”

The pursuit of Olympic gold requires their best. And as the sport grows and the competition increases, they require more of themselves and each other.

The two push themselves, and in turn the sport they love, by constantly challenging themselves. That means getting comfortable with imperfection. They fail, they fall, and always, they lean on each other.

Ice dance gold medalists Meryl Davis, left, and Charlie White, of the United States, perform their free dance at the ISU Grand Prix of Figure Skating Final, Sunday, Dec. 11, 2011, in Quebec City. (Paul Chiasson, Associated Press) Ice dance gold medalists Meryl Davis, left, and Charlie White, of the United States, perform their free dance at the ISU Grand Prix of Figure Skating Final, Sunday, Dec. 11, 2011, in Quebec City. (Paul Chiasson, Associated Press)

Davis said she believes one thing that helps them persevere hard times is their similar upbringing.

“Our families have very similar philosophies on what they wanted us to be and how we interacted with other people,” she said. “That base helped get us through challenging times. We were both always taught to have respect for one another, and that’s kind of at the root of everything we do.”

White acknowledges their good fortune in finding each other at such a young age.

“We talk about that a lot,” White said, “how grateful we are to have one another. It’s so important in a sport like this to have the same goals, the same drive, and that’s something both Meryl and I have.”

Even the way Davis and White conduct an interview indicates the kindness and consideration they have for each other. They alternate answering the questions, never interrupting or cutting each other off.

Maybe more than their skill and their success, it’s their grace toward each other, and those who support and help them, that is the real reason they’ve navigated 17 years of life while competing at the highest levels possible.

The world may consider them front-runners for a gold medal in Sochi, but they do not see it that way.

“We definitely consider ourselves among the favorites,” Davis said. “But we don’t take anything for granted. We’ve worked for 17 years for this, and we’re so grateful and proud of what we’ve accomplished so far. But we still have things to work on and things we want to accomplish. … Really, it’s working on perfecting our craft and being the best we can be. That’s really it.”

And when they’re done competing, what will happen to one of the most successful partnerships in the sport’s history? “We’re definitely tied together for the rest of our lives,” White said. “We know each other better than we know pretty much anyone else in the world. We will always have a special relationship. … It’s definitely a life-long relationship.” But, and they are clear about this, it’s not a romantic relationship. It’s simply a friendship, a partnership, a team formed on a principle that is often lost in competitive sports — consideration.

And in being kind to each other, they’re able to compete with the kind of drive and results that only the world’s best can boast.

Twitter: adonsports Email: adonaldson@deseretnews.com

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