Wearing the Stars & Stripes with the Maize & Blue

Feb. 5, 2010

By Joanne C. Gerstner

In mid-January, U.S. Figure Skating held its national championships in Spokane, Wash., which also served as the 2010 U.S . Olympic team qualifier. Heading into the 11-day event, ice dancers Meryl Davis and Charlie White were considered shoo-ins to make the Olympic team. What seemed less certain was whether Emily Samuelson and Evan Bates would do the same. Turns out the four have quite a bit in common: all of them are students at the University of Michigan, and all of them now boast the title, "Olympian". The quartet heads to Vancouver where it will comprise two of the three U.S. pairs in ice dancing. Here's Emily and Evan's story.

It was seconds before Michigan students Emily Samuelson and Evan Bates took the ice for the biggest ice dance performance of their career to date. A strong skate at the U.S. championships could earn a trip to the 2010 Vancouver Olympics. One mistake would eliminate them from contending for the U.S. Olympic team. They were deep in concentration, listening to their coaches, when a booming voice cut through the crowd noise in Spokane.

"Go Baaaaates!"

Fellow Wolverine Charlie White, also an elite ice dancer, was near the boards to encourage his friend and roommate. Bates' serious face cracked for a second, revealing a small smile, and then the pair took their position at center ice for their final dance.

The celebration started moments later, as Bates and Samuelson skated well. They finished third, good for a spot on their first U.S. Olympic team. White, and his partner Meryl Davis, also a Michigan student, finished first and are fellow first-time Olympians headed to Vancouver.

"We're going to have some serious Wolverine power in Vancouver, right?" Bates, a native of Ann Arbor, said. "It's so awesome. Just the best that we can share this with Meryl and Charlie. We're stoked."

Bates and White share an off-campus house, and plan to be roommates in the Olympic Athletes Village. Davis will be a suitemate with Samuelson. The guys have already planned on decorating their temporary Vancouver digs with a little bit of home.

"We're going to turn it into a giant U-M shrine. Totally," Bates said. "Maize and Blue everywhere."

Samuelson, a native of Novi, laughed when she heard Bates' interior design plans.

"Believe it, I know those two are going to do that," Samuelson said, playfully rolling her eyes.

Bates laughed too, then became more serious.

"What an experience to have, and to be able to share it with friends is going to make it all the more special," Bates said. "I'm looking forward to all of it, getting all the U.S. clothes, seeing the Opening Ceremonies, meeting other athletes -- I'm really into hockey, so that's going to be the best, and then being able to skate in front of what, like three billion people watching us? Wow."

"We're going to have some serious Wolverine power in Vancouver."
U.S. Olympic ice dancer Evan Bates

Samuelson and Bates are both sophomores, still undecided on their majors. In reality, they are majoring in skating right now. They're becoming one of the best ice dancing teams in the world. Their training is a full-time job, forcing them to squeeze classes around their skating schedule. And it's tough to miss weeks of school, due to going overseas for competitions.

One of the world's top competitions, the ISU Grand Prix Finals, is always scheduled during the first week of December -- just as Michigan heads into finals.

"You know what kind of reaction you get from a prof when you say, 'Hey, I'm going to be gone for the next two weeks, say in Japan, for skating, and I won't be here for the final'," Bates, 20, said. "I think some of the profs are shocked, as they've not heard that one before. I tell them, go ahead, Google us and see that we're really skaters.

"We're not trying to get out of anything, we're just training and competing and that's what we have to do right now. We've had nothing but cooperation. They understand what we're trying to do, and they're really supportive."

Still, it was a bit of a surprise when Bates and Samuelson made the 2010 Vancouver Olympic team. They were viewed as probable Olympians of the future, penciled in for the 2014 Sochi Games.

They had just made the leap to international senior-level ice dance a season ago, so logic dictated it would take time to make their mark. The International Skating Union, along with the U.S. Figure Skating Association, sets different skill levels for competition. The levels, known as novice, intermediate, junior and senior, have nothing to do with age. Skaters are tested on their skills, and are passed to the commensurate level. Bates and Samuelson were highly successful juniors, winning the U.S. and World titles in 2008. They won silver as seniors at the 2009 U.S. championships but still were viewed as the American team of the future. Turns out, their future is now.

"I don't think we've really taken it in that we're going to the Olympics, it still doesn't seem like it's really true," Samuelson, 19, said. "I don't know if I've really been able to put it as a real thing yet."

Bates chimed in, "You know when it's going to hit us: when we're there and there are like Olympic rings every six feet. Then we will know where we are."

Bates and Samuelson had no idea what it would mean to be part of the Olympic team. Their email boxes have been flooded, handwritten mail has arrived by the box load, all from well-wishers congratulating them.

"It's overwhelming to have people tell you that us being on the Olympic team is the greatest moment of their life," Bates said, getting emotional. "People are so happy for us, so proud, we never knew that us being skaters, and getting on the Olympic team, would mean so much to other people. It means a lot to us, but to have all these people around here be so thrilled, I can't even put words to it."

The pair understands they will be strong underdogs to reach the podium in Vancouver. Two of the world's best teams are American, and then throw in the strength of the Canadians and Russians.

But that's okay. Being in Vancouver is a huge accomplishment, giving them experiences that could launch their careers to an even higher level.

"When people ask us if we're going to win the gold, I tell them that I don't think that's going to happen and that's okay," Bates said. "And it's funny, people tell me not to think that way, to be positive and go for it at the Olympics. We are going to go for it, but that's not the way ice dancing works. We're new, we have to earn our stripes. So we're probably not going to get a medal, and that's fine."

Samuelson agreed, also admitting she's happy to be in the Olympics.

"What this is going to do for us, we can't even know it yet," Samuelson said. "You see the top teams in the world, and they're a lot older and more experienced than us. But we're right there with them. This is our time to take everything in, learn how to handle the pressure, and be part of the Olympic experience. You can't ask for more than that right now."

More on Emily and Evan

MGoBlue feature on Meryl and Charlie

From Vancouver
• Feb. 19 - Compulsory Dance
• Feb. 21 - Original Dance
• Feb. 22 - Free Dance