SOCHI, RUSSIA – The import of history seemed to be lost on most of the spectators at the Iceberg Skating Palace on Monday night. As Meryl Davis and Charlie White embraced after their free dance, exhausted from an energetic performance of “Scheherezade,’’ the overwhelmingly Russian crowd began a chant of “Ro-ssi-ya!’’
This night belonged to the United States, which won its first Olympic gold medal in ice dancing courtesy of Davis and White. Though they skated to Russian music and were groomed by a Russian coach — and put on a show that received a record score of 195.52 points — many fans apparently longed for the old days, when the Russians owned this event.
The home country did get a couple of its own on the podium, continuing Russia’s streak of winning a medal in ice dancing in every Olympics since it was added to the program in 1976. But the epicenter of the sport now resides at the Arctic Edge Ice Arena in Canton, Mich., where the intersection of two long-running partnerships has pushed it to a new level of legitimacy. On the Sochi podium, Davis and White stood one step above silver medalists Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir of Canada, their friends, rivals and partners in lifting ice dancing from a purely artistic pursuit to a more athletic one.
Davis and White were overwhelming favorites to leapfrog Virtue and Moir, the Olympic gold medalists in 2010. The Canadians finished second with 190.99 points, and the uber-dramatic Russian pair of Elena Ilinykh and Nikita Katsalapov won bronze with 183.48.
“We have been pushing each other and learning from each other not just for the last four years but since 2006,’’ Davis said. “We learned so much from Tessa and Scott, and that training on a daily basis is what’s been pushing us.
“We’re so excited, we’re kind of in shock. I’m not sure what we’re feeling. It all came together for us.’’
And to think, it took only 17 years. That’s how long it’s been since they were paired up as a couple of 10-year-olds, with Charlie annoyed that Meryl had no experience in the rhythms and footwork of ice dancing.
Virtue and Moir also have skated together for 17 years. The two couples train under Russian coach Marina Zoueva in a Detroit suburb, and they have traded titles for the past few seasons. Virtue and Moir were world champions in 2010 and 2012; in Vancouver, they beat Davis and White for the Olympic gold medal. For the past two seasons, Davis and White have had the upper hand, adding a 2013 world title to the one they won in 2011.
Davis and White have the ability to make incredibly difficult moves appear light and effortless, and their artistry has evolved in the four years since Vancouver. All three of the medalists displayed vastly different styles: the classic Russian elegance of Ilinykh and Katsalapov, the romanticism of Virtue and Moir, the strength and athleticism of Davis and White.
All three also chose Russian music. Virtue and Moir showed off some innovative lifts during their skate, and Ilinykh and Katsalapov got the crowd going with their balletic take on “Swan Lake.’’ Davis and White, up last, were nearly perfect.
As the music built late in their program, they whirled faster and sped up their intricate footwork. When they finished, they shared a long embrace at center ice. “We prepared ourselves so well for what we wanted to put on the ice,’’ Davis said. “We were so focused on that, we weren’t prepared for what may come after. I think it will take a while to sink in.’’
Though it seemed preordained that Davis and White would win, both struggled to express what it meant to them to have the first American gold in Olympic ice dancing. Moir said he and Virtue were not resigned to finishing second. Though he was disappointed at not grabbing the gold — “No athlete likes to sit in this position,’’ he said — Moir also acknowledged that he and Virtue could not have performed any better.
After the competition, Moir and Virtue arrived before their rivals at the room where the medalists conducted the post-event interviews. “We were first to the press conference!’’ Moir shouted, eager to take his victories anywhere he could find them.
Davis and White, though, repeated that they could not have achieved what they did Monday without the constant pressure from their friends and training partners. Both couples said they will always be connected through their joint legacy to ice dancing, which gave the silver medalists some solace.
“The reason why we stayed in for the Olympics until 2014 was to try and push the sport,’’ Moir said. “We wanted to come up with some new ideas and really challenge ice dancing in this judging system. We’re really proud.’’