Hail to the victors! Davis, White win Olympic goldVirtue, Moir earn high marks, snag silver; Ilinykh, Katsalapov bag bronze
Meryl Davis and Charlie White's 17-year journey to Olympic gold ended in triumph at the Iceberg Skating Palace on Monday night, with the six-time U.S. champions setting yet another world-record score for their mesmerizing free dance to Rimsky-Korsakov's Scheherazade.
The Michiganders are the first Americans to win the title since ice dance became an Olympic sport in 1976. Colleen O'Connor and Jim Millns won bronze in 1976, and Davis and White's former training partners, Tanith Belbin and Benjamin Agosto, won silver in 2006.
"It's something you dream about -- having the opportunity, and we put in the work every day," White, 26, said. "To make it happen is a tribute to our partnership.
"It's been an amazing journey, but we couldn't be more proud."
Davis found it hard to believe the journey had ended.
"We prepared ourselves so well for what we wanted to put onto the ice and focused so hard on that, we weren't really prepared for what might happen," she said.
The skaters once again proved to be more than a match for the master storyteller Scheherazade, the young bride who fends off execution for 1,001 nights by weaving cliff-hanging tales for her husband, a jealous king.
This outing of the program began a bit cautiously but quickly gained momentum with intricate steps, several changes of speed and direction, and a newly romantic middle section. Everything was light and fast, building to the dazzling ending with back-to-back lifts.
The free dance earned 116.63 points, a new record, and Davis and White ended their second Olympics with 195.52 points, also a record.
Skating to Rimsky-Korsakov's classic had been Davis and White's goal for years, but the skaters and their coach, Marina Zoueva, saved the music for this Olympic season, when they felt they could do it justice.
"The music and the story of Scheherazade was something we can connect with and have been in love with for a long time," White said. "It was a process of being able to embody those characters and the music and be bigger than the music -- not let it overcome us.
"It's taken the last four years and day in, day out practice. And working with Marina and having her show us the way," he continued.
The victory came at the expense of long-time Canadian rivals and training partners Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir, who defeated Davis and White for gold at the Vancouver Games. Both teams train in Canton, Mich., under primary coach Zoueva and her associates, Oleg Epstein and Johnny Johns.
Virtue and Moir, too, had a stunning free skate, choreographed by Zoueva to Alexander Glazunov's "The Seasons," with a bit of Alexander Skriabin's "Allegro Moderato."
The program tells the story of their career and was more introspective and less dramatic than Scheherazade. It set off the couple's smooth skating and Virtue's lovely positions in the lifts, and their 114.66 topped their personal best.
Both couples received straight Level 4's for their elements. Davis and White scored a bit higher on both grades of execution, as well as the five program components scores, and defeated their rivals by 4.53 points overall.
"We knew we had a chance," Moir, 26, said. "It's sport at the end of the day. We really focus when we compete, not about placements so much but just on having our moment. We love that program, so we wanted to make sure we went out and did it justice."
Four years ago in Vancouver, Virtue struggled with the pain of chronic exortional compartment syndrome in her legs. In Sochi, she looked relaxed and happy.
"I think this whole experience has felt different," Virtue, 25, said. "I'm healthy, we're happy, we love our programs, we were prepared coming into this."
Zoueva refused to analyze the result, deferring to the judging and technical panels.
"I can't make criticism of nine judges and three callers; it will be not right for me," she said. "So far, as I can see, both teams were really equal. Maybe you should interview judges. You are asking the wrong person this question."
Born nine months apart in the same hospital, Royal Oak's William Beaumont, Davis and White are throwbacks to an earlier age of sport: respectful, hard-working, diplomatic. In their years in the spotlight, they have never put a foot wrong.
Asked the secret to their success, White once said, "We were born in the same area, we grew up a few miles away from each other. Neither of us ever had to move anywhere. Our heights stayed a good fit. We share the same work ethic."
The skaters were coached by Seth Chafetz at the Detroit Skating Club from 1997 to 2005 before relocating to Canton in 2006 to work with Igor Shpilband and Zoueva at the Arctic Edge. Shpilband and Zoueva parted ways in June 2012, with both teams remaining with Zoueva.
Early in the rivalry, the Canadians dominated; Davis and White did not secure their first senior-level win over the Canadians until the 2009 Four Continents Championships.
After the Vancouver Games, the Americans picked up steam. The following season, they won the first-ever U.S. world ice dance title and claimed the crown again in 2013. Virtue and Moir won it in 2010 and 2012.
While results have sometimes been close -- and controversial, at least from a Canadian standpoint -- Davis and White have won the last six matchups, including the Sochi team figure skating event.
The top two couples were nearly upstaged by the bronze medalists.
Russians Elena Ilinykh, 19, and Nikita Katsalapov, 22, ignited the crowd with an electric performance to Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake, filled with drama and highlighted by spectacular lifts and Ilinykh's balletic grace. The European silver medalists gained 110.44 points, by far a personal best, and ended with 183.48 points.
The young Russians, who are coached by Nikoli Morozov in Moscow, won the world junior title in 2010. Although long considered the potential heirs to the great Russian ice dance tradition, serious mistakes at major competitions -- including, most recently, a fall at the European championships -- have limited their results. Not here.
It was a disappointing end to a fine career for Nathalie Péchalat and Fabian Bourzat, who arrived in Sochi with high hopes for bronze. Their avant-garde routine, while winsome and well-skated, could not compete with the compelling program presented by the Russians, and they placed fourth in the free and fourth overall with 177.22 points.
Another Russian team, 2013 European champions Ekaterina Bobrova and Dmitri Soloviev, was fifth.
Reigning Italian European champions Anna Cappellini and Luca Lanotte were sixth, and Canadian silver medalists Kaitlyn Weaver and Andrew Poje placed seventh.
U.S. silver medalists Madison Chock and Evan Bates had an outstanding performance of their romantic free dance to music from Les Misérables, gaining a personal-best 99.18 points for a program crammed with difficult transitions and exciting lifts. They were eighth overall.
"Our coach, Igor Shpilband, has really planned an entire training regimen for months at a time, and we've stuck to the plan even on days when we've not felt up to par," Bates, 24, said. "We felt so prepared; personally, I knew we would skate well."
"This is just great encouragement for the future, showing how much we've accomplished in our short time together, two years," Chock, 21, said. "The more time we have, the better we will get, the stronger we will be and the more we will push ourselves."
A costume malfunction hurt the score for Maia Shibutani and Alex Shibutani's entertaining, high-energy free dance to a Michael Jackson medley.
The siblings ran into trouble on their combination curve and rotational lift when Maia's skirt snagged on some crystals on Alex's shoulder. With a one-point deduction for an extended lift plus some lower grades of execution, they scored 155.17 points to finish in ninth place.
"I flip up to his shoulder," Maia, 19, said. "I was trying to come down to flip again and I just got stuck. We worked through it. We still did a lift."
"Things like this happen; thankfully, we were able to salvage it," Alex, 22, said. "Maia was really quick in her thinking and she was able to probably save a bunch of points, so I'm thankful for that. At the same time, everything prior to that in the program was really strong."