Sochi Olympics Figure Skating

Like fine art, ice dancing greatness in eye of beholder


SOCHI, Russia – Ice dancing, more than anything at the Winter Games, is subjective. There are a lot of judged sports at the Olympics, of course, but none of them are quite so mystifying for an average person to gauge. Put a complete novice at the judge’s table for halfpipe, ski jumping or even pairs figure skating, and there’s a pretty good chance they would get at least SOME of it right. Hey, if nothing else, we can all tell it’s bad when someone falls down.

But ice dancing? What is there to hold onto? There are no jumps in ice dancing, no falls, rarely even a noticeable stumble. There are moments where one skater must mirrors the other’s actions, but most of the best teams seem to move and spin in perfect synchronicity. There are difficult lifts but, again, the best ice dancers seem to do these flawlessly and without apparent effort. There is the way the dance meets the music, but people will feel differently about that.

Meryl Davis and Charlie White have dedicated the vast majority of their lives to this bewildering sport. Monday night, they climbed the summit. They won their gold medal – with a record score, no less. It was the first ice dancing gold medal ever for Americans. They had spent almost three-quarters of their lives preparing for it.

What made Meryl and Charlie the best ice dancers in the world Monday night? That’s a loaded question, isn’t it? There are undoubtedly Canadians who think they weren’t. One of them, a Toronto Star columnist named Rosie DiManno, was so outraged by Davis and White outscoring Canada’s Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir in the short program Sunday that she led her column like so: “The villainy of ice dancing knows no bounds.”

VIDEO: Davis, White break down their routine

A little later – in case anyone missed the point — she added, “If the fix is not in against Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir then I’m the Princess of Wales.” Ms. DiManno was not going for subtlety.

She might not represent the majority of Canadian opinion on the matter – I don’t know. But there are certainly Canadians who think Virtue and Moir were better. The majority of Russians at the Iceberg Skating Palace did not seem happy with Davis and White winning gold, either. Davis and White’s seemingly (to me) brilliant dance was met with quite a lot of silence, and their sky-high score of 116.63 drew more than a few whistles of disagreement. Well, obviously, those same fans were sky-high for Russian bronze medalists Yelena Ilinykh and Nikita Katsalapov instead.


This is ice dancing. And, I think, it’s more art than sport. Well, the judges are trained to look at it through the more technical lens we attach to sports. They are trained to understand the components, the elements, the concepts of transitions and linking and footwork and skating skills and all that stuff.

But let’s be honest: The real judges in all these sports are the people watching on television. We live in an American Idol, America’s Got Talent world. People won’t watch anything unless they can judge for themselves. In our house, we as a family sit on the couch and judge cooking shows even though, you know, we can’t actually TASTE the food.

So we judge these ice dancers based on whatever we happen to base it on.

“Interestingly, I think that’s part of the allure of what we do,” said Virtue when asked about the capriciousness of scoring. “It’s that balance of athleticism and art. … We have to stay true to our product, stay true to our material and block out that added noise. We have to be true to what we are doing.”

VIDEO: Davis, White “in shock” after first Olympic gold

This is a remarkable statement on ice dancing and all other judged sports, I think. And when you get down to it – past all the griping about judging, the personal views, the nationalism that goes with the Olympics – this is how Davis and White won gold. They were true to their sport and each other ever since they were under 10 years old.

How true? Look: When someone asked them what was the closest they ever came to breaking up, they kind of looked at each other, shrugged, and said they didn’t always get along but they never came close to breaking up.

That’s hard to imagine – a boy and a girl have been ice dancing since they were nearly 10 and have NEVER come close to breaking up? But even if it’s an exaggeration (and there’s no reason to believe it is), Davis and White just had bigger thoughts going than whether or not to break up. They have been ferociously dedicated to being the best ice dancers on earth.

You know, American ice dancing used to be almost irrelevant on the world stage. The first Olympic ice dancing competition was in 1976 – the United States won bronze. America would not win another Olympic medal for 30 years. More to the point, they almost never even came close. In the four Winter Olympics between 1992 and 2002, the best any American ice dancing team finished was seventh.

VIDEO: Virtue, Moir claim silver

“It took some time for the United States to find its voice in ice dancing,” says Tanith Belbin, who is the girlfriend of White and who teamed with Ben Agosto to win America’s first ice dancing silver medal in 2006. “But once competitors and coaches were able to find their own style, they began to separate themselves from the more dominant European teams.”

Davis and White were the team that took the new American style of ice dancing to its height. They were the first Americans to win a world title in 2011 and then they won another two years later. People who know tell me that they blended technical near-perfection with a mesmerizing musical rhythm – if you watch closely you see that the speed of their skating seems perfectly set to the tempo of the song, as if they are being pulled along by the musical notes.

Their journey has been inextricably linked with Virtue and Moir, who beat them for gold at the 2010 Games (Davis and White won silver). They all train at the same Michigan rink. Davis and White and are coached by Marina Zoueva, who also coaches Virtue and Moir. They have been the best two ice dancing teams for years now, and at times it seems they have only each other to push. So they have all taken the sport higher and higher; each team has had to keep forcing their way skyward or fall.

“There’s a lot pressure knowing that if you’re not perfect you can forget about your dreams,” White says. “And that constant trying for perfection for you to look in the mirror and figure out what it’s going to take to get there.”

This was what Davis and White faced for almost a decade. Every day, they were inspired and unnerved by the skating genius of Virtue and Moir. And vice versa.

VIDEO: Davis, White explain origins of their program

And this struggle to find higher ground was at the very heart of Davis and White’s performance Monday night. They danced to the symphonic suite “Scheherazade,” based on Arabian Nights, and to get it just right they worked with a Persian dancer in addition to their coach and choreographer. They listened to the music again until they felt like they could climb inside it. They wanted to know the stories behind the music, the motivations for the notes. They wanted to express that in their skating.

Does that background come through for someone watching? I asked Charlie White that a few months ago and he said that, yeah, he thinks it does come through in the subtlest ways. It might not be something people can see or hear, but it adds a depth that people will subconsciously feel. This is what you hope with art, anyway: That it will convey something deeper than what is obvious and on the surface.

Then great art to one person is a silver or bronze medal to another. That’s just how ice dancing goes. Davis and White not only became the first Americans to ever win a gold medal in ice dancing, they became the first Americans at these Olympics to win a gold medal in a non-Winter X Games sport. With their winning personalities they are sure to become big stars when they get home.

RELATED: Davis, White “completely unprepared for this moment”

But I suspect the greatest part of it all was that moment after they finished their free skate Monday. They knew it was going to win them the gold medal. They had to know that. They embraced for a long time. It was the best they had ever skated, the very best, and it happened on the world stage, in front of a somewhat frosty audience, with the most intense pressure and death stares all around them. They had done it.

Then the score came. Then the realization: They were gold medalists. Then, in a blur, there was the flower ceremony, then reporters surrounded them, then they were sitting at a press conference and then more and more and more.

Through it all, they were somewhat foggy. They had been skating together since they were barely 10 years old, and always they stayed in the moment. That was what anchored them.

Distractions? Stay in the moment.

Pressure? Stay in the moment.

Injury? Stay in the moment.

There was always another practice, another duty, another tournament, another program, another song, another challenge.

Stay in the moment. Stay in the moment.

And then, finally, they had won gold. There was no moment left to stay in.

“How do you feel?” the reporters asked because that’s what reporters always ask.

“To be honest with you,” Meryl Davis said, and she smiled because it was just so ridiculous, “I don’t think we know how we feel.”

Joe Posnanski is the national columnist for NBC Sports. Follow him on twitter @JPosnanski

Alison, Bruno rout Phil Dalhausser, Nick Lucena in FIVB World Tour Finals title match

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Brazil looks golden in beach volleyball, 10 months ahead of the Rio Olympics.

Brazilian pairs swept the FIVB World Tour Finals in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., on Sunday, capped by World champions Alison Cerutti and Bruno Schmidt crushing 2008 Olympic champion Phil Dalhausser and Nick Lucena 21-13, 21-15 in a meeting of arguably the world’s two best teams.

“They are the No. 1 team in the world,” Lucena said. “We will get there.”

Earlier, Larissa and Talita beat Germans Laura Ludwig and Kira Walkenhorst 21-17, 21-18 in the women’s final. Larissa and Talita have won 11 of the 16 international tournaments they’ve played since teaming up in July 2014.

Perhaps more dominant are Alison, a 2012 Olympic silver medalist with the legendary Emanuel, and Schmidt, nephew of Olympic basketball all-time scoring leader Oscar Schmidt. They swept the three biggest tournament titles of 2015 — the World Tour Finals plus the World Championships in the Netherlands in July and the World Series of Beach Volleyball in Long Beach, Calif., in August, during a stretch when they won all five FIVB World Tour events in those two months.

Brazil last earned an Olympic beach volleyball title in 2004, with Americans taking three of the four gold medals since. Volleyball, indoor and beach, is arguably the No. 2 sport in Brazil behind soccer, and the 2016 Olympic tournaments on Copacabana Beach will be highly anticipated.

Alison, an imposing 6-foot-8 figure nicknamed “Mammoth” with a matching tattoo, and Bruno also beat Dalhausser and Lucena in the World Series of Beach Volleyball final Aug. 23.

That tournament marked the American duo’s international return after Dalhausser and partner and two-time Olympian Sean Rosenthal split. The Floridians Dalhausser, 35, and Lucena, 36, had previously played together through the 2005 season.

On Wednesday, Dalhausser and Lucena beat Alison and Bruno in three sets in pool play. The two pairs had played 209 points together over two matches going into Sunday’s final, with the Americans holding a 105-104 points won advantage.

“There is no rivalry yet,” Lucena said. “They are a good measuring stick for us. They show us where we need to be.”

Three-time Olympic champion Kerri Walsh Jennings missed the World Tour Finals after undergoing season-ending right shoulder surgery, while partner and Olympic silver medalist April Ross teamed with sub partner Lauren Fendrick and lost in the quarterfinals Friday.

The FIVB World Tour season continues with a tournament in Puerto Vallerta, Mexico, this week. producer Seth Rubinroit contributed to this report from Fort Lauderdale.

MORE BEACH VOLLEYBALL: PHOTOS: Alison/Bruno, Dalhausser/Lucena play match on helipad

WATCH LIVE: Possible Olympic final preview in FIVB World Tour Finals — 2:30 p.m. ET

Alison, Bruno
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FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — The World champions will play beach volleyball’s hottest team Sunday in an intriguing FIVB Word Tour Finals championship match and possible Olympic final preview, live on NBC and NBC Sports Live Extra.

Brazilians Alison Cerutti and Bruno Schmidt established themselves as beach volleyball’s best team by winning every international tournament they entered this July and August, including the World Championship.

But the U.S. pair of Phil Dalhausser and Nick Lucena has been the talk of the sport since partnering in July for the first time since separating in 2005. The duo has only entered five FIVB World Tour events this year, but they have made four finals.

“We don’t consider them to be a new team,” Bruno said. “They already play together so well.”

WATCH LIVE: FIVB World Tour Finals — 2:30 p.m. ET

There are many similarities between the pairs.

Alison and Dalhausser are both intimidating blockers. Dalhausser has been named the FIVB World Tour’s best blocker six times, while Alison was recognized in 2011.

In fact, Lucena called Alison “a thicker version of Phil.” Alison, who is known as “Mammoth,” has 35 pounds on Dalhausser, the “Thin Beast.”

Bruno and Lucena are speedy defensive specialists. Dalhausser called Bruno, nephew of Olympic basketball’s all-time leading scorer Oscar Schmidt, the world’s best defender.

“Bruno might be better than me,” Lucena said, laughing, “but I am taller.”

Both Bruno and Lucena are listed at 6-foot-1.

Dalhausser also compared to Lucena to Todd Rogers, his 2008 Olympic gold medal partner. Dalhausser described Lucena as “more explosive” than Rogers, who was named the FIVB World Tour’s best defensive player three times.

“Todd was super competitive, and Nick is the same way,” Dalhausser said.

Alison and Bruno and Dalhausser and Lucena split their first two meetings (not counting a recent exhibition on a helipad). They’ve played 209 points. Alison and Bruno have won 104. Dalhausser and Lucena have won 105.

Alison and Bruno won the first clash, 21–16, 20–22, 15–13 in the World Series of Beach Volleyball final in Long Beach, Calif., on Aug. 23.

Then Dalhausser and Lucena won Wednesday, 18-21, 21-16, 15-11 in a pool-play match that Lucena called “the most competitive match we’ve played.”

Dalhausser and Lucena, who are both from Florida, are counting on the heat to be a third teammate in Fort Lauderdale.

“We have to wear out the big guy,” Dalhausser said, referring to Alison. “We hope it’s 150 degrees, and we will serve him every time.”

The winning team will receive $100,000. It is the biggest international first-place monetary prize ever.

“They are the best team in the world,” Lucena said. “We want to change that and show what we can do.”

On the women’s side, Brazilians Larissa Franca and Talita Antunes and Germans Laura Ludwig and Kira Walkenhorst advanced to Sunday’s final, which will be live on Universal Sports Network at 1:00 p.m. ET. Larissa and Talita have won 10 of the 15 international events they’ve played since debuting in July 2014.

Three-time Olympic champion Kerri Walsh Jennings missed the World Tour Finals due to season-ending right shoulder surgery. Her partner, Olympic silver medalist April Ross, teamed with Lauren Fendrick this past week, and they lost in the quarterfinals.

MORE BEACH VOLLEYBALL: ‘Mammoth,’ ‘Magician,’ bring Brazil back atop beach volleyball