SOCHI, Russia – Scott Hamilton remembers this much: He didn’t want to leave his room. He didn’t want to talk to anybody. The pressure to win Olympic gold was like this living, breathing thing that waited for him wherever he went. It’s all anyone wanted to talk about. It was present in every conversation.
Of course, every athlete feels some stress at the Olympics, some tension that comes from a lifetime spent training for a singular moment. But it was different for Scott Hamilton in Sarajevo as he got ready to compete in men’s figure skating in 1984.
He was the United States’ Olympic sure thing.
The Olympics are so unpredictable, so competitive, so loaded with potential surprises that there is rarely a heavy favorite. There are usually a handful of people who are seen as medal contenders with maybe one or two who have the best chance. But even rarer is the sure thing—someone who is not only favored to win the gold medal but utterly expected to win it. Hamilton had carried the U.S. flag at the 1980 Winter Olympics before finishing fifth at age 21. He then swept the U.S. and World Championships in 1981, 1982 and 1983. Winning Olympic gold was seen as little more than a formality. From the outside.
“I knew,” he says, “that if I didn’t win the gold medal, people will view it as a failure.”
Hamilton’s now an NBC figure skating analyst—he’s been an analyst, writer, actor and performer for around 30 years since Sarajevo—but he says it only takes him an instant to fall back under the crushing tension he felt when everyone assumed he would win gold. He stayed away from everyone. He listened to music and tried to get away from himself. He did win gold, but he says he remembers the strain as much as he remembers the joy.
“What you need,” Hamilton says, “is a plan how to deal with it.”
“Well,” he says, “you know, that could work too.”
* * *
They have been ice dancing together since they were 10 years old, so by now Meryl Davis and Charlie White finish each others’ flourishes and sense each other’s moods and reflect each other’s rhythms. The way they mirror each others steps, even in the meticulous world of ice dancing, is eerie, as if they’re connected by string.
Well, hey, they’ve been skating together for almost 17 years, five days a week, five hours a day. They’ve danced together longer than Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. They’ve performed their routines more times than Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis. At this point, they probably ice dance together in dreams.
And this is their moment. Davis and White have won two world championships gold medals since Vancouver. They have not lost a competition in almost two years. In a supreme performance at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships in Boston three weeks ago (their sixth U.S. victory), they not only scored their personal best free skate but actually finished with the highest possible score for their routine. This included a perfect component score, which measures the artistry of their performance.
Davis and White are routinely called the best ice dancing tandem ever.
And … all of it leads to these Olympics and the gold medal that everyone is already giving to them, the gold medal that will be the only thing good enough.
“I guess I would say that nobody can ever put more pressure on us than we put on ourselves,” White says.
“We really truly have put a significant amount of pressure on ourselves as it compares to the pressure from any outside source,” Davis says.
“We’ve been working for this for most of our lives,” White says.
“We have always expected big things out of ourselves,” Davis says.
“And each other,” White says.
“We don’t’ really even think …” Davis says.
“… about what people are saying …” White says.
“ … we just try to feel comfortable …” Davis says.
“… and have fun,” White says.
* * *
They came together as a team because, well, that was inevitable. He was from Bloomfield Hills, Michigan; she from West Bloomfield, 10 minutes away, and they were brilliant young skaters. Their parents were best friends. White played hockey, Davis had aspirations to be a solo skater, but it was inescapable that they would be paired together as ice dancers. They won a silver medal at the U.S. Junior Olympics their first year together.
The amazing part is that it has lasted. And lasted. Their lives have obviously changed dramatically over the time. Meryl Davis overcame dyslexia and became an honor society student. White learned the violin and played on a high school hockey team that won the state title. They both have been part-time students at Michigan with the hope that they can concentrate on school after the Olympics. Both say that their parents are their role models, both say their childhoods were what most would consider pretty ordinary. Except for the skating.
They always had chemistry on the ice (they do not date off the ice). They ran away with the U.S. Juniors together when they were 18. They began winning international competitions when they were 21. They made their first Olympics in Vancouver in 2010, two years later. They skated better than they ever had in their lives and won silver. Canada’s Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir won gold—more on them in a minute.
Ever since Vancouver, Davis and White have soared. Ice dancing is a sport built around extreme precision and showmanship. Unlike pairs skating, there are no jumps with more than one revolution, no throwing of a partner, only complex lifts where the female skater does not go above the male skater’s head are allowed. It’s like figure skating unplugged. A team is judged on how perfectly in sync they are and how well they make the music come alive.
In these ways, nobody can touch Davis and White at the moment. They have been together longer than any other team, and their training sessions have become legendary for their intensity. At this point they say they naturally anticipate each other’s movements; White says they can foresee an upcoming mistake by the other and compensate for it before it happens.
And then—as their perfect component score in Boston suggests—they are elegant skaters. And they are relentless in their pursuit of something deeper. Their free dance is to the symphonic suite “Scheherazade,” which is based on The Arabian Nights, and they have worked with countless people, including a Persian dancer, to get as far into the music as possible.
“I think we skate better when we just let go,” Davis says.
“Skate free,” White says.
“One of the greatest compliments we can get is when people say how easy it looks,” Davis says.
“It’s not easy,” White says. “But you do want to make it look that way.”
* * *
Davis and White’s top competitors for gold—Canada’s Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir—are based in the same Canton, Michigan facility. They are coached by the same woman, Marina Zoueva. The two teams train together every single day. This might be viewed as strange to many.
“I actually think that’s a little bit of an advantage,” Hamilton says. “There will be no surprises. They know exactly what they have to do. Of course, it’s the same for Virtue and Moir. But I actually think that sort of familiarity will make things easier for Meryl and Charlie.”
Davis and White say that their familiarity with Virtue and Moir is not something they will think about.
People ask them if they have any superstitions or good luck charms. They say that’s not something they will think about.
“I actually purposely avoid attributing luck to anything,” White says.
“We think it comes down to hard work,” Davis says.
People ask them about how they will deal with the pressure. They are obviously aware of it, obviously aware they are big favorites, obviously aware that anything less than gold will be a disappointment. And, yes, they say that’s not something they will think about.
“The pressure—we’ve been putting pressure on ourselves since we were very young,” White says. “We are both so competitive. We are both harder on ourselves, I think, than anyone could ever be on us.”
“We are aware, obviously, that we’ve put ourselves in a great position,” Davis says. “But I just think we are grounded by our training. We have a very strong daily routine.”
Hamilton says the best thing they have going for themselves is, well, each other. When Hamilton was going for gold in Sarajevo, he obviously had his coaches and family and friends, but in the end he was going on the ice alone. “It’s so solitary,” he says. Meryl Davis and Charlie White are obviously going out there together, like they have for most of their lives.
“I think the key is for us to enjoy the moment,” Davis says.
“Every moment,” White says.
“Every moment,” Davis repeats.
“There are a lot of ways you can look at pressure,” White says. “We’ve studied that a lot. You can let it lock you up, I don’t think we look at it that way. We’ve been training for this for a long time. We’re ready and excited.”
“We both think we still have our best skate left in us,” Davis says.
Hamilton watches their calm with wonder. “They talk about enjoying the moment and having fun,” he says. “I can tell you for me in 1984 it wasn’t fun. Not at all. I needed to shut out everything.”
He smiles. “But their way is better,” he says. “If they can keep thinking that way, they’re halfway home.”