Jan. 30, 2014
By Joanne C. Gerstner
It was a shared dream, one so big and challenging that the three college roommates felt dazed even to ponder it.
Alex Shibutani, Charlie White, Evan Bates, and their friend Trevor Young were three average Michigan undergrads from 2009-11, sharing an off-campus apartment in Ann Arbor. The situation was quite normal, from the competitive playing of video games down to the sometimes-sketchy levels of housekeeping. The four shared skating as a passion since childhood, and they became fast friends.
Never in their wildest imaginations did they envision this scenario: White, Shibutani and Bates would be Olympians, representing the U.S. in the upcoming Sochi Winter Games. And Young, now a Michigan graduate and retired from competitive skating, is happily cheering for his friends.
Five out of the six ice dancers on the U.S. skating team hail from the University of Michigan: White and partner Meryl Davis, Shibutani and his sister/partner Maia Shibutani, and Bates. Only Madison Chock, Bates' partner, comes without Wolverine credentials.
Good fortune, strong competition results, and a lot of training and sacrifice have made the improbable possible. White and Davis won the 2014 U.S. Figure Skating Championship in Boston in early January, while Bates and Chock finished second, and the Shibutanis third, to earn their spots on the U.S. Olympic team.
"It's really pretty crazy: we're all going the Olympics, and we're going together -- I am still in shock about that," said Alex, 22, a sophomore who hasn't settled on a major yet. "I was freaking out about it for a few days. I get to go to the Olympics, with my sister, and make it with my closest friends? These are the people that I have grown up with, go to school with.
"All of our dreams became real when we made it on the Sochi team."
White and Davis are the clear headliners, coming into the Olympics as the world's most recognizable and heralded ice dancers. The pair won silver at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics, narrowly edged out for gold by Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir of Canada.
White and Davis, Virtue and Moir, and the Shibutanis train together in Canton, Mich., under coach Marina Zoueva. Chock and Bates train in Novi.
Maia, a U-M freshman, says she is going to Sochi with open expectations, simply hoping she and Alex do their best under the pressure. They have reduced their class loads this semester, doing independent studies on social media and sports, to fit in school with the Olympics.
"We're learning every time we go on the ice, so I don't put a finish or like we have to win a medal on us right now," Maia, 19, said. "We're going to be watching and learning, especially from Meryl and Charlie, at the Olympics."
White and Davis (left), Bates and Chock (center), and the Shibutanis finished 1-2-3 at 2014 U.S. nationals.
White and Davis have been on a roll, winning six straight U.S. titles, becoming the first Americans to win the world title (2011 and repeated in 2013), and setting the bar for scoring heights this season with their exceptional short and free dance programs.
They are viewed as the favorites to win the gold, with Virtue and Moir again as their prime competition. Davis and White could walk away with two medals from Sochi, as this Olympics also marks the debut of the team competition. Ten countries will enter one skater/team per discipline to skate a short program. The top five will advance to compete in the free program, with the highest total scores earning medals.
White and Davis, both juniors at Michigan, are taking a break from their studies this academic year to concentrate on their Olympic preparations. White, 26, is a political science major, while Davis, 27, is studying anthropology with a concentration on Italian.
The two laugh freely when discussing their leisurely academic progress as Michigan undergrads. They intend to seriously resume their studies in the fall, no matter what happens in Sochi.
"I think we've become even more focused and dedicated to finishing our degrees at Michigan since Vancouver, because we really understand the value of having a strong education," Davis said. "I think all we have been doing on the ice has made us treasure our time in Ann Arbor and going to school at Michigan even more. It's real life. It's not skating. It's something we love for its normalcy. We love our skating too, obviously, but it's not something we will be doing for the rest of our lives."
White and Davis (left) join Bates (center) as two-time Olympians. The Shibutanis will make their Olympic debut in Sochi.
White also treasures being at Michigan. He, Shibutani and Bates are not shy about their love for Michigan athletics, frequently tweeting out support for the football and basketball teams. White's Twitter avatar shows him wearing a U-M T-shirt and pointing to the "Wolverines" emblazoned on it.
Shibutani excitedly talks about the time he met U-M men's basketball coach John Beilein while in the Michigan Union food court. He didn't tell Beilein he was a skater, instead asking him the odds of him playing point guard for the Wolverines.
(Beilein was polite, but no, Shibutani will not be trading in his skates for high-tops.)
Davis and Maia Shibutani are a little more reserved in their fandom but freely admit being mesmorized by the intense gameday atmosphere at Michigan Stadium.
"We have a joke that if we all get on the medal stand, we should do a quick 'Go Blue!' or something to show where we're from," White said. "The support we've gotten, and the love we're getting now, from everybody at the University of Michigan and Metro Detroit is fantastic.
"We're really proud to show where we're from, we want to represent everybody well by showing we're hard working, always doing our best."
Sharing the podium at the 2014 U.S. Championships, where Davis and White claimed their sixth consecutive title.
Bates, who finished 11th in the 2010 Games with former partner Emily Samuelson (also a U-M graduate), was White's roommate in Vancouver. One of their big decorating pieces in their suite was a large Block M flag autographed by Michigan's football, basketball and hockey coaches. White and Bates plan on sharing accommodations again in Sochi, and yes, the Michigan flag will be making the trip to Russia.
Bates could also accessorize their Sochi suite with another special piece of Michigan décor: his newly-minted diploma. He graduated in December 2013 with a degree in organizational studies.
Mixing skating and studying was tough, especially in his last year with completing core classes, but Bates is proud he made it all work successfully.
"I was getting up really early in Ann Arbor, driving to Novi, skating until like 8:30 a.m., jumping in the car and getting to class by 10:30 a.m., then getting back to skate in the afternoon," Bates, 24, said, while shaking his head in disbelief. "That took a lot out of me, I felt like I was running all the time. I am so proud to say I am a graduate of the University of Michigan.
"I think that's something we all share -- we are all proud to be part of the U.S. Olympic team, and we are so proud to be representing U-M. We're always going to be saying 'Go Blue!' We're proud that we're all close friends, and we're going to be living this together in Sochi. We know how lucky we are to get to do this."