Like fine art, ice dancing greatness in eye of beholder

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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.

WATCH: FULL REPLAY OF ICE DANCING FREE SKATE

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

Review: USA Gymnastics needs ‘culture change’ to stop abuse

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A former federal prosecutor says USA Gymnastics needs a “complete cultural change” to better protect athletes from sexual abuse.

USA Gymnastics needs a “complete cultural change” to better protect athletes from sexual abuse, according to an independent review of the embattled organization’s practices.

The 44-page report released Tuesday by former federal prosecutor Deborah Daniels recommends that all USA Gymnastics members be required to immediately report suspected sexual misconduct to legal authorities and the U.S. Center for SafeSport.

Daniels also suggested that USA Gymnastics prohibit adults from being alone with minor gymnasts “at all times” and bar unrelated adults from sharing or being alone in a sleeping room with gymnasts. She also recommended preventing adult members from having “out of program” contact with gymnasts through email, text or social media.

USA Gymnastics ordered the review last fall following a series of civil lawsuits filed against the organization and a former team doctor by a pair of gymnasts who claim the physician sexually abused them during their time on the U.S. national team. USA Gymnastics has denied wrongdoing.

The organization stated it went to authorities quickly in the summer of 2015 after hearing claims of abuse against Dr. Larry Nassar but later amended the timeline following a Wall Street Journal report, saying it conducted a five-week internal review before going to the FBI.

“A delay is impermissible,” Daniels said.

A Michigan judge on Friday ordered Nassar to stand trial on charges of sexually assaulting six young gymnasts who said he molested them while they were seeking treatment for various injuries. It is one of four criminal cases against Nassar in the state.

Daniels said USA Gymnastics “inadvertently suppressed” reporting of abuse because of several factors, including that athletes are taught to follow instructions and obey coaches and trainers.

“Athletes sometimes aren’t aware of where the boundaries are, so they’re not trained in that regard,” Daniels said. “Parents aren’t real sure (either).”

Daniels said the organization needs to more closely monitor member clubs to make sure its bylaws are followed. She suggested stripping membership from clubs that fail to report claims of child abuse, plus periodic random audits to see if updated policies are being obeyed.

“USA Gymnastics has never felt it had the ability to exert influence over the club,” Daniels said. “You can use membership to enforce the policies.”

The USA Gymnastics Board of Directors unanimously voted to develop a plan to implement many of Daniels’ 70 recommendations.

“We’re confident it will make us a better organization to develop a culture that had safe sport as a top priority,” said chief operating officer Ron Galimore.

Daniels said the process USA Gymnastics had for investigating claims of abuse was “cumbersome” and “somewhat mysterious.” She suggested a more proactive approach.

“There needs to be a very clear protocol for how these reviews are conducted, there needs to be a clear timeline,” she said. “Frankly they need to be kept in a database. We’ve recommended that the board have oversight of that entire process.”

While also taking the role of the USA Gymnastics president out of the equation. Former president Steve Penny resigned in March under intensifying pressure for the way the organization handled charges of sexual abuse. Daniels wants USA Gymnastics to remove the president from determining the disposition of allegations. USA Gymnastics is in the process of finding Penny’s replacement and hopes to have a successor in place by September.

Whoever is hired will have plenty of work to do.

Many of the recommendations fall in line with policies put forward by the U.S. Center for Safesport. The organization operates independently from the U.S. Olympic Committee and organizations governing Olympic sports. The USOC and the 47 national governing bodies (including USA Gymnastics) help fund the center — about $13.3 million over five years — but do not have any say over how it operates or the cases it investigates.

Paul Parilla, chairman of the USA Gymnastics Board of Directors, said the organization needs to “clearly articulate” that the safety of the athletes is “paramount.”

Galimore said it is a priority to make sure “everyone is aware and educated on everything from bullying to anything that would take away from having a safe environment.”

Daniels spoke to more than 160 people at all levels of USA Gymnastics over six months, attended five competitions and visited the national team’s training center at the Karolyi Ranch in Huntsville, Texas, to produce the 144 page report. She said the number of gymnasts abused nationwide over the years is “far higher” than what has been reported based on her experience as a federal prosecutor but stressed “my recommendations are forward looking and not in relation to anything that may have happened in the past.”

She also believes third parties should be allowed to report suspected abuse. The previous method of looking into alleged wrongdoing — a “grievance process” which required a written complaint from the aggrieved party or the parents of the aggrieved party if the athlete was a minor — was not well suited for reporting abuse, the report said.

“Young athletes (in their teens or younger) and their parents are highly unlikely to report ongoing abuse to the authority that has so much power over the athlete’s success in the sport,” Daniels wrote.

MORE: Ex-USA Gym doctor to stand trial on sex assault charges

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Katie Ledecky an underdog in first final at USA Swimming Nationals

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Katie Ledecky qualified sixth-fastest into the 100m freestyle final on Tuesday to open the USA Swimming National Championships, part of the TeamUSA Summer Champions Series, presented by Comcast.

The top two in Tuesday night’s final will make the world championships team in the event.

Ledecky, who swam 54.70 seconds Tuesday morning, is an underdog in that sense behind top qualifiers Mallory Comerford (53.26) and co-Olympic 100m free champion Simone Manuel (53.50).

MORE: Broadcast Schedule | Event Schedule/Results

But Ledecky, Olympic champion in the 200m, 400m and 800m frees, has never voiced intentions of making the U.S. team in the 100m free. She ranked No. 5 in the nation in the event last year. Ledecky swims the 100m free to earn a place on the 4x100m freestyle relay.

Just making the eight-woman final, combined with Ledecky having the second-fastest U.S. split time in the Rio 4x100m free relay, puts her in contention for the quartet at worlds in July.

Ledecky is scheduled to race both the 100m and 800m free finals Tuesday, her only double of the five-day meet in Indianapolis. Her races are separated by 27 minutes.

Tuesday finals are at 6 p.m. ET, with coverage from 7-8 p.m. on NBCSN, NBCSports.com/live and the NBC Sports app.

Comerford, who tied Ledecky for the NCAA 200-yard freestyle title, had the breakout female swim of the first session in Indianapolis. Her 53.26 was a personal best by .65. The rising Louisville junior moved from No. 15 on the U.S. all-time list to No. 3 behind Manuel and Amanda Weir.

In other events, 2012 Olympic champion Nathan Adrian and Caeleb Dressel were among the qualifiers into the men’s 100m freestyle final. The fastest qualifier was surprisingly Zach Apple, who clocked 48.14 seconds, a personal best by 1.29 seconds.

Chase Kalisz, the Olympic 400m IM silver medalist, qualified fastest into the 200m butterfly final. Kalisz could make the U.S. team in three events this week. He ranks No. 1 in the 200m butterfly and both IMs.

Olympian Tom Shields missed making the eight-man final by .11, placing ninth overall.

Olympian Hali Flickinger was the top qualifier into the women’s 200m butterfly final. Cammile Adams, who finished fourth in Rio, is not competing at nationals.

Kelsi Worrell, who was second-fastest in the U.S. this year behind Flickinger entering this week, is not swimming the 200m fly at nationals.

MORE: King to be less vocal on Efimova topic this summer

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