Team figure skating: USA jumps into medal contention

SOCHI, Russia -- All that angst was for nothing.

Meryl Davis and Charlie White moved the United States off the bubble and right into the medal mix of the team competition Saturday night, and Ashley Wagner redeemed herself with a respectable effort that kept the Americans in third place after the short programs. The finals began shortly after with the pairs, with the men's and women's free skates and the free dance Sunday.

Russia is in first after a dazzling performance by 15-year-old Julia Lipnitskaia that had fans at the Iceberg cheering and stomping their feet so hard the stands shook – a rumble that might be felt all the way to the women's event.

Canada is second with 32 points, five behind the Russians and five in front of the Americans. Japan is fourth and Italy fifth, bumping France out of the finals by a point with Carolina Kostner's elegant "Ave Maria" program, the last of the segment.

Only the top five of the 10-team field made the finals, and the Americans had ground to make up after the meltdown by Jeremy Abbott left them in seventh. But the Americans were calm, knowing they had ringers in Davis and White.

There are few athletes more into the team event than Davis and White, who have been saying for months that not only would they participate, they would do both programs. Sure, it's a chance for a second medal for the two, who are the Americans' best – and, likely, only – shot for a gold medal.

But their passion and enthusiasm for the team is genuine, and everyone who watched them Saturday night could see it. Knowing the Americans needed a boost, Davis and White won the short dance and lifted their team into third place, with Wagner still to skate.

"I know that everything hasn't been 100 percent perfect, but that's part of what being a team is … being there for each other," White said.

The Americans won the silver medal in Vancouver largely on the strength of their athleticism. They knew that wouldn't be enough to get them gold in Sochi, so they spent thousands of hours over the last four years improving their artistry and expression.

It was well worth the time. Their short dance, to selections from "My Fair Lady," is both refined and whimsical, with the connection between them so effortless it's easy to forget they are skating on a sheet of ice and not dancing on a parquet floor. Everything they do is perfectly polished, from their deep edges to the way they use every inch of the rink.

But it's in their twizzles, rotating turns, where their brilliance really shines through. Try patting your head and rubbing your stomach at the same time, and see how difficult that is. Now imagine doing that in time with another person. That, essentially is a twizzle. Davis and White are so in sync, however, they look like mirror images.

Their footwork was quick and light, and not even Eliza Doolittle could have been cuter when Davis gave a little kick of her feet during their foxtrot section.

Their score of 75.98 was three points better than Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir, who had an error on their twizzles. It wasn't a huge mistake, but when the margin between the two teams is so small, any error is costly.

Davis and White's victory meant Wagner just had to stand up, and she did better than that.

It wasn't the greatest program Wagner has ever done. She two-footed and under-rotated the second jump in her triple toe loop-triple toe combination, and didn't have quite the fire and energy that has won her two national titles and a slew of medals on the international stage.

But she did exactly what the Americans needed -– and exactly why U.S. Figure Skating officials put her on the team despite her fourth-place finish at last month's national championships. Her triple loop was beautiful and her double axel was solid, and she played up her sultry footwork with a couple of come-hither gazes.

When she finished, Wagner gave a sigh of relief and then swung her ponytail as if to say, "I'm back."

She was pleased with her performance but not her score.

"I know roughly when I skate a good program where the score should end up. … So yeah to score that low was very disappointing for me," she said. "But honestly this performance was more for myself and mentally getting beyond this past couple of weeks. And I wanted to do everything I could to help out the team, and I really feel that I delivered on that part.''

She admitted it bothered her when people questioned whether she should have been on the team after her performance in the nationals: "It was on my mind, especially with the media frenzy over the past couple of weeks, that I needed to prove to myself and everybody else that has even doubted my belonging here the slightest that I'm here, I'm here to compete, I'm here to be competitive. Get used to it."


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