The Golden Touch
Olympic medalists Meryl Davis and Charlie White are taking a break from competitive skating this year, but are keeping busy with Thanksgiving parade grand marshal honors, college studies, and more
Photography by Martin Vecchio
The Arctic Edge Ice Arena in Canton is a cavernous waiting room for frozen dreams. Most days, dozens of pixieish girls and lithe boys mill around its common areas waiting for their moment to attack an ice surface. They’re skating, training, and most of all, dreaming — of perfect scores, national and international glory, and maybe, just maybe, Olympic gold.
Somewhere amid this teeming swarm of hopefuls are metro Detroiters Meryl Davis and Charlie White, the arena’s reigning dream owners. After dazzling viewers worldwide in February as the first Americans to capture the gold medal in ice dancing at the 2014 Sochi Olympic Games, the duo’s public image and subsequent string of personal milestones have soared like — well, like world-champion skaters.
They were invited to compete on ABC’s hit series Dancing With the Stars and Davis won the whole shebang, bringing home the coveted, hokey DWTS trophy and giving her professional dance partner Maksim Chmerkovskiy his first victory in the show’s 18 seasons. “Your local hero got what she deserved,” Chmerkovskiy said in an online video interview. “Meryl was brilliant. That shine on that disco ball is all hers.”
For these victors, the spoils continue. Grand marshals for the NASCAR Pure Michigan 400 in August (where their genteel “Drivers … start your engines” call was booed by rowdy race fans). A halftime tribute at the home football opener for the University of Michigan, where both are undergraduates. They’re slated to be grand marshals for the 88th America’s Thanksgiving Parade this month down Woodward Avenue. A Stars on Ice tour of Japan. And White proposing to his longtime girlfriend, retired ice dancer and Olympic silver medalist Tanith Belbin, during a romantic Hawaiian vacation.
“A wedding is going to be stressful, of course,” White allows, “but it pales in comparison [to competing in the Olympics].”
Davis, from West Bloomfield, and White, a Royal Oak native, trained at Arctic Edge, and you’d think they would be easy to spot. They should be glowing, or somehow floating above this gaggle of rosy-cheeked wannabes. Yet the pair blends in so naturally that Davis has to break from the crowd to introduce herself. “Hi, I’m Meryl,” she smiles, dressed in a gray tank top adorned with a Patrick McCarthy quote: “If I had known how soon it would end, I might have enjoyed it more.”
The takeaway: For all their years of grueling work and the resultant torrent of success, Davis and White seem so … normal.
Given all they’ve accomplished while still in their 20s, one might expect an air of self-satisfaction in their bearing. One would be wrong. Realizing how quickly the cheers could fade, they’re giving themselves a year off from competing to consider what the next chapter of their lives might bring.
A break would appear in order, since the two have been performing together since 1997, the longest ice skating partnership in the U.S.
“It’s certainly a different dynamic and people compare it often to a marriage,” says Davis, who was 9 when she met 8-year-old White at the Detroit Skating Club. “We work hard to not only be successful but to enjoy our partnership, our 17 years of training together. We got really lucky to find the right partner for us right down the street.”
Training typically consisted of four to five hours a day on the ice five days a week, plus conditioning exercises and ballet lessons. White, who says he got into ice dancing because “I figure skated like a hockey player,” believes one key to their success is the way the pair approached their preparation.
“I think we enjoyed practicing to a degree that a lot people don’t,” he says. “And seeing the improvement in ourselves was something we always took a lot of pride in, whereas I think a lot of people see practice as a means to an end. I think that spurred us on every day and allowed us to reach higher.”
Davis, who grew up skating on Walnut Lake, and White are quick to acknowledge the sacrifices their parents made on their behalf. Davis’ mother, Cheryl, retired early from her teaching career to accompany Meryl on competitions. “She was uncomfortable letting me travel internationally by myself,” Davis explains. Her father, Paul, owns a real estate company. Charlie White Sr. owns an oil delivery company in Detroit; his wife, Jacqui, works with him and often took time away from the office to watch their son perform.
“For us to have that sort of support from home everywhere we went was invaluable,” says White. “A lot of parents can’t find the time or money to travel with their kids. They didn’t care if we were champion skaters or if we wanted to go to the Olympics. They wanted us to do what made us happy.
“It’s not often you’re fortunate enough to get parents like we have,” he adds.
A return to the Winter Olympics in 2018 “is too far away to even think about,” White says. “If we’re hungry we can keep going. If not, it wouldn’t make any sense.” For now, they’re just looking forward to walking the Quad in Ann Arbor again.
“I think we both pride ourselves, as a result of our parents, as being well-rounded people,” Davis says. “We both feel skating isn’t the only thing out there, so we’re excited to dabble in things that we haven’t had a chance to experience before.
“Part of the beauty of school is that while we don’t exactly know what we want to do, taking classes and spending time with people of different academic pursuits will allow us to figure out what our next project might be. We’ll be in school longer than your average undergraduates.”