SOCHI, Russia — When Meryl Davis and Charlie White began skating together in suburban Detroit, she was 9 and he was 8, awkward ages when a girl is not yet comfortable looking into a boy’s eyes, even for the theatricality of sport.
So their coach devised a clever training solution for Davis’s shyness, redirecting her gaze to a smiley-face sticker placed on White’s forehead.
“We were clueless what we were getting into,” White said recently.
More than 17 years later, their relaxed and reliable familiarity resulted Monday in the first Olympic gold medal for the United States in ice dancing.
With a refined sense of performance and tempo to accompany their speed and power, Davis, 27, and White, 26, finished with great energy and defeated their training partners and chief rivals, Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir of Canada, the 2010 Olympic champions.
While a number of favored Americans have not fulfilled their hopes in various sports at the Sochi Games, Davis and White performed with consistency and resourcefulness. They won the long program with a season best of 116.63 points and an overall score of 195.52.
Davis and White helped lead the United States to a bronze medal in the team competition as the Games opened. And they prevailed in the separate dance event with bubbly fluidity in Sunday’s “My Fair Lady” short program and with the dramatic tension of love and escape in Monday’s free skate to “Scheherazade.”
In finishing second with 190.99 points, Virtue and Moir displayed ease and elegant unison, exploring the way a relationship changes over time while skating to music by the early 20th century Russian composers Alexander Glazunov and Alexander Scriabin. Their only obvious flaw was a lack of harmony on a second twizzle, or traveling spin.
The bronze medal went to Elena Ilinykh and Nikita Katsalapov of Russia, who performed a dynamic version of “Swan Lake” and drew thunderous flag-waving support from a home crowd. They finished with 183.48 points.
Even as American prominence in figure skating has ebbed, and popularity and power bases have shifted to Japan, South Korea and a rejuvenated Russia, ice dance has become a North American stronghold, though with Russian coaching.
Davis and White took silver at the 2010 Vancouver Games, while White’s companion, Tanith Belbin, and her dance partner, Ben Agosto, finished second at the 2006 Turin Olympics. The Canadian stars Virtue, 24, and Moir, 26, now have a gold and silver medal in their Olympic jewelry collection.
And the Arctic Edge ice arena in Canton, Mich., outside Detroit, where Monday’s top two finishers train with Coach Marina Zoueva, has become the center of ice dancing. A number of other top skaters also train in the area. Whatever financial ills have stricken Detroit, and whatever prestige it has lost as an automotive center, it has emerged as perhaps the figure skating capital of the world.
As performers, Davis and White and Moir and Virtue provided the judges with a compelling difference in style from which to choose. Among skating’s four disciplines, none provides such a tug between art and sport as does ice dancing, a strain that makes it engaging for many and extremely difficult to resolve objectively.
Dance has also been tainted by a perception of outcomes decided in advance. Even as the Sochi Games began, L’Equipe, a French sports newspaper, wrote of a supposed plan by Russia and the United States to fix the ice dance and other skating competitions here. The International Olympic Committee dismissed the brouhaha as groundless gossip.
But another dust-up occurred Monday, when Moir and Virtue were downgraded for a dance sequence known as a Finn step. No skating official bothered to explain the mistake. And the inventors of the sequence said that the Canadians were judged too harshly.
On some level, the outcome of any ice dancing competition seems to distill itself to preference as much as skill and performance.