Meryl Davis and Charlie White spent years chasing Tanith Belbin and Ben Agosto. Now Davis and White are the ones being chased.
Not that anyone has a chance of catching them.
The world champions showed once again why they're the gold standard in ice dance these days, routing the competition on their way to a fourth straight title at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships on Saturday in San Jose, California. Their final score of 191.54 points was nearly 13 points ahead of siblings Maia and Alex Shibutani, who aren't exactly slouches as the reigning world bronze medallists.
Davis and White were so dominant, their free dance score — 114.65 points — was higher than the total scores for the bottom three couples.
"I would say both are difficult," White said when asked if it was harder to be the hunter or the hunted. "Of course when we were coming up, Ben and Tanith set the standard for American ice dance and we were chasing them. That really helped push us. Now we've got the Shibutanis behind us and they also really help push us. In some ways it's different but in some way it's the same."
Davis and White haven't lost a competition since finishing second to Vancouver Olympic champions Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir at the 2010 world championships, upstaging their Canadian rivals at both last year's worlds and again at the Grand Prix final last month.
Keep skating this way, and Virtue and Moir are going to have to do something pretty spectacular to catch the Americans, their training partners and close friends.
"Charlie and I feel really great about both of our performances here at nationals," Davis said. "We felt like we accomplished our goal for this competition, which was leaving it all out on the ice and feeling like we achieved a new comfort level with both programs as well as a higher level of performance."
Skating to "Die Fledermaus," Davis and White transported the audience back to 19th century Vienna, when grand balls were the height of fashion. You could practically see the parquet floor filled with elegant ladies and refined gentlemen in their beautiful costumes, a crystal chandelier twinkling overhead.
"We were trying to build on the characters and the way they relate to each other on the ice and I think definitely we were able to do that," White said. "It's always a great feeling when you work on something and you are able to, at a big competition like this, come and do it."
Davis and White had such a big lead — 4.28 points after the short dance — and are so far ahead of everyone else in the United States that they could simply have stroked around the rink and probably still won. But the duo put on a show worthy of their status as world champions, the first Americans to hold the title.
Unlike so many other couples, whose programs are a series of elements needing to be checked off, Davis and White skate as ice dance was meant to be done. One element flows right into another, the entire program a seamless performance. The lean of their bodies was matched perfectly and their edge quality is magnificent, carving deep, crisp patterns into the ice that look like a piece of art.
Their speed was breathtaking and their lifts innovative -- she was in the full splits during the rotational lift, when he is spinning like a whirling dervish.
Even their mistakes were impressive. White got a little wobbly on their first set of twizzles — travelling spins — yet not only managed to hang on, but stayed in unison with Davis.
The audience was so delighted with the program they were clapping along midway through.
"It was great crowds both for the short dance and the free dance," White said. "That's really nice for us to see. If anything, it makes our performances better. There is quite a bit of momentum and I think we're taking it in the right direction."
The Shibutanis train with Davis-White and Virtue-Moir in the Detroit area, but they have a style all their own. Their program, to a medley of Glenn Miller big band tunes, was lively and fun, yet filled with deceptively difficult skills. Their twizzles are a sight to behold, done in perfect unison and with blinding speed.
But the Shibutanis, who also were runners-up last year, are not in Davis and White's class. Not yet, at least.
"We've accomplished so much in only our second year as a senior team. We're still very young and we plan on being around for hopefully many years," Alex Shibutani said. "We're excited with what we've done so far, but we've got to keep pushing. We're working every day so we can be prepared for the future."
Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue were a distant third in their first appearance at nationals, but they showed promise with their sultry routine to "I Put a Spell on You." Hubbell had skated the previous 10 years with her brother, Keiffer, winning U.S. titles at the juvenile, intermediate and junior levels.
"I can't be happier with how our first year has gone and I'm looking forward to building upon that," Hubbell said.
Wagner wins 1st women's title
Ashley Wagner picked the perfect time for the performance of her career.
Wagner won her first title at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships on Saturday, salvaging what was an otherwise dismal night of splats and spills with a majestic rendition of "Black Swan." She finished with a score of 187.02 points and then watched as two-time champion Alissa Czisny and Agnes Zawadzi melted down.
When the final results were posted, tears filled Wagner's eyes and she rested a hand on the shoulder of coach John Nicks.
It was further affirmation that Wagner made the right choice last summer, when she left her family on the East Coast and moved to California to train with Nicks, best known as Sasha Cohen's coach. The change rejuvenated the two-time bronze medalist, who came into these nationals feeling it was her time to be a champion.
Third after the short program, Wagner needed a spectacular performance and some help from others. She did her part, a refreshing departure after a night of lackluster, one-dimensional performances. Wagner actually used her music and her portrayal of the "Black Swan" character was so vivid, it's a wonder feathers didn't pop out of her back. Her technical elements were woven right in with her artistic elements, rather than standing alone as individual tricks, and she could have been a swan floating on the lake for how majestically she moved across the ice.
She wasn't perfect, popping a triple salchow and touching down with her free foot on her triple flip.
But it hardly mattered. None of the other top women skated cleanly, though some were more disastrous than others.