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Fast, happy feet put Davis, White in driver's seat

Barring disaster, Michigan couple set to win first U.S. title

Meryl Davis and Charlie White are 8.61 points clear of the rest of the field.
Meryl Davis and Charlie White are 8.61 points clear of the rest of the field. (Paul Harvath)

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By Lynn Rutherford, special to icenetwork.com
(01/22/2009) - Meryl Davis and Charlie White's feet aren't just happy, they're lightening fast.

The reigning U.S. silver medalists dashed a few steps closer to their first national title with a fleet and spirited rendition of their Happy Feet original dance, a routine their coach, Igor Shpilband, called "the hardest dance that's ever been done on the ice."

"I think we'll let history decide that one," White, 21, laughed. "Let's just say it does take a lot of energy, with the happy feet and all the expression."

"It's a hard program for us. It's definitely fast-paced, and it takes a lot of focus to put it on the ice, with both the expression and the technical [elements]," Davis, 22, added.

The University of Michigan sophomores earned 61.93 points on Thursday, giving them a total of 101.86 and lengthening their lead to 8.61 over the field.

While it wasn't their strongest OD technically -- just two of their five judged elements gained Level 4 -- it had enough charm, sophistication and pizazz to stir some of the crowd here in Cleveland's Quicken Loans Arena to their feet.

"We tried to put a lot of emotion into it," Davis said. "It wasn't the best. I had a little bobble on a twizzle, but it felt really good."

The skaters had "Happy Feet" trouble earlier this season at the Cup of Russia, when White fell not once, but twice.

"We went back home and worked it out," White said. "We did some creative things to get my head straight. It wasn't that hard to get over; it happens [so rarely] it was more of a fluky thing."

"It's been a challenging dance for them," Shpilband, who coaches the couple in Canton, Mich., admitted. "There's not a second where they stop. It's so compressed. If you miss a beat, then you're gone. It requires such technical skill and focus."

Both skaters continue to downplay the absence of five-time U.S. ice dance champions Tanith Belbin and Ben Agosto, which -- barring a disastrous free dance -- virtually guarantees them a win here.

"We've thought about being U.S. champions for, I think, more than 10 years now," Davis said. (Paired as youngsters in 1997, the skaters are the longest-running ice dance team in the U.S.) "But we've had pretty good success when we've just stayed in the moment, and I think we'll continue doing that."

World junior champions Emily Samuelson and Evan Bates, second after the Viennese Waltz compulsory, held that placement with a sprightly turn to Irving Berlin's "Let Yourself Go." They earned 56.97 points and enter the free dance with 93.25 overall.

"There were a couple of minor mistakes -- things that were a little shaky -- but our goal was really to portray the character of the 1920s, '30s and '40s, and I think we did that," Samuelson, 18, said.

"The program went by really fast; we didn't have time to think about what we were going to do," Bates, 19, added. "In practice, we're very consistent with clean run-throughs, and that's what we wanted to do today. The performance factor was good."

Kimberly Navarro and Brent Bommentre, third after the compulsory, held that position overall but placed just sixth in the OD after several of their elements gained lower-than-expected levels from the technical panel.

"We were really happy with how we skated, although apparently we lost a lot of points technically," Bommentre, 24, said. "That wasn't really our focus, though. The crowd is really great here in Cleveland, and I thought our performance really translated to them."

Asked what went wrong, Bommentre replied, "Honestly, I don't know. We got Level 3's on both our footwork sequences for the first time this year, which is great, but only a Level 2 on the twizzles and Level 3 on the spin. Both felt spot on to me. It's something we're going to look at on our practice day tomorrow [to correct] for our free dance."

Former world junior champion Morgan Matthews and her new partner, Canadian Leif Gislason, took third in the OD with 55.03 points but sit sixth overall with 86.62.

With Davis and White comfortably in front and Samuelson and Bates 3.73 points ahead of the rest of the field, a battle is shaping up for the bronze medal. Just 2.90 points separates the teams in third through sixth place.