Meryl Davis and Charlie White, the reigning U.S. ice dance champions, face an unusual opponent as they defend their title in Spokane: another team that has won a U.S. title. Actually, Tanith Belbin and Ben Agosto have won five of them.
In recent years, American ice dance has been a discipline of dynasties. Belbin and Agosto won five straight titles from 2004 through 2008. They succeeded Naomi Lang and Peter Tchernyshev, who won five straight from 1999 to 2003. Elizabeth Punsalan and Jerod Swallow won three in a row (of their five total) before that. Not since 1996, when Punsalan and Swallow defeated defending champions Renee Roca and Gorsha Sur, have two national champion teams skated head to head for a U.S. title.
It was at last season's U.S. Championships that Davis and White - having won the bronze medal in 2007 and silver in 2008 - first felt ready to challenge for the next podium step.
"Approaching Nationals last year, Charlie and I definitely felt like it was our year to go for it," Davis says. "We were definitely ready to take anyone."
Anyone was meant to include Belbin and Agosto, and Davis and White prepared for the event thinking they would have to face the five-time defending champs. "Tanith and Ben have been there for years and they're just an amazing team," Davis says. "Having built a lot of confidence last year, we really felt like we were ready to take them on."
They never got the opportunity. Belbin and Agosto withdrew from the event to rest Ben's bad back, allowing Davis and White to win their first U.S. title easily. Agosto recovered in time for the World Championships in Los Angeles, where he and Belbin were still recognized by international judges as the top U.S. team. They claimed the silver medal, while Davis and White finished a frustrating fourth.
"It was a big disappointment to come so close to the podium and everything that we worked for and not quite reach it," White says. "As if we needed more encouragement or motivation for the Olympic year, it was definitely being point zero-four off of a podium at Worlds. A lot of times I wake up in the morning and it's like: point zero-four. And I hop out of bed and I'm ready to go."
Motivated by that memory, Davis and White finally face Belbin and Agosto for the national title in Spokane. It's the first meeting between the two teams since 2009 Worlds. And in an Olympic year, all are acutely aware that the U.S. Championships take on even greater significance.
"It's very important for us to hold onto the title as national champions," White says. "To put ourselves in the best position for an Olympic medal, we need to be the top American team."
To become the undisputed top team, Davis and White will have to defeat two people who have been an important part of their inspiration and, to some extent, paved the path for their success.
At the time of the 2006 Torino Games, Davis and White trained together with Belbin and Agosto in Detroit, under coaches Igor Shpilband and Marina Zoueva. They watched on television as their close friends, guided by their coaching team, won Olympic silver. It was the first U.S. ice dance medal in 30 years.
"Definitely seeing Tanith and Ben in the 2006 Olympics made the Olympics more real for us," Davis says. "Even though we were junior, we would definitely compare ourselves to Tanith and Ben and say, ‘That's where we can be. We can be there someday.'"
White agrees. "Seeing Tanith and Ben up on the podium, it made the possibility of our medalling seem more realistic. You know, it had always been the Europeans, the Russians - everyone else, seemingly, but the Americans," he says. "We've been able to train without having to worry about whether we'd be locked out of the podium just because we're an American team."
In December, Davis and White accomplished another first for an American team - winning the Grand Prix Final. It was their third victory of an undefeated fall season, during which they posted two of the top three point totals in the world.
"We've prepared all year, we've been putting out great programs, we've got a lot of good feedback and we've had the highest scores in the world," White says. "So I think in terms of setting ourselves up to defend, we couldn't have done a better job. So now we just have to go and skate our hearts out."