“It's an interesting experience as a former athlete, as an Olympian, because when I was in it, it all made sense,” Davis said on a recent Instagram live on the Olympics account. “That's the world that you're in; that's the focus you have. And now I watch these incredible athletes and I think to myself, ‘I don't know how I dealt with those nerves. I don't know how I had that focus.'"
"It's amazing to be able to step back and watch other people do it and appreciate how the dedication is remarkable.”
Remarkable dedication is just one characteristic that Davis sees athletes tapping into as they navigate the bumpy road to Beijing 2022, set to begin one year from this week (1 February).
The event was the first major competition of the season for some of the competitors, as COVID-19 safety measures have caused cancellations, while March’s world championships in Stockholm are still on the calendar.
“I just have such a tremendous amount of respect for the athletes because these are challenging times,” Davis said. “These are exceptionally difficult times. There's a lot going on in the world right now. And in skating is always hard. Competing in elite sport is always difficult. And yet in these times in particular, I just have such a tremendous amount of respect for what these athletes are doing, training their best every day, working so hard.”
It was at the U.S. nationals that two-time world champion Nathan Chen won his fifth consecutive domestic title; Bradie Tennell clinched her second U.S. gold (and first in three years); Alexa Knierim and Brandon Frazier took their first as a team in pairs; and Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue re-claimed the ice dance crown, their third.
“Whether it's at this competition or other competitions, no matter what the setting, he always brings his A game,” Davis said of Chen, who is now 21. “He always brings his absolute best. And that's just such a respectable quality, I think, in an athlete.”
Davis also had high praise for 15-year-old Alysa Liu, the 2019 and 2020 U.S. champion who has gone through a growth spurt in the last year, but showed a new side to her skating at the competition in Las Vegas.
“Looking at the scoresheet, it may seem like a disappointment (for Alysa), and yet I think this competition is a huge success for her,” said Davis. “She had a very difficult start to the season and growing three inches (7.6cm) in one year is so challenging, especially when the nuances of your body and the physicality is so important as an athlete, the jumps, the movement, it's so impacted by any change. She's only 15 years old. And I think this competition, we really saw a glimpse of grown-up Alysa, this young woman sort of evolving and embracing different aspects of her skating.”
Davis was candid on a number of topics, including how important it is for athletes to utilise their support systems in these trying times, as well as the U.S. ice dance scene, Takahashi Daisuke’s foray into the discipline and much more in the below Q&A, which has been edited for length and clarity.
Talking ice dance and Takahashi Daisuke
Olympic Channel (OC): If we look at ice dance, Hubbell/Donohue won nationals by less than two points over Madison Chock and Evan Bates. These two teams must both be pushing for the podium in Beijing. And they’re training partners, too, in Montreal.
Meryl Davis: As soon as Charlie and I stepped away from competition, the ice dance field is just so overwhelmingly talented and deep [in the U.S.].
Certainly both teams have incredible potential to be on that Olympic podium next year. I think that's definitely a huge goal for both teams. And I think this year, one of the things I really enjoyed about both [of their] free dances is it really highlights the differences between the two teams, the different strengths that both teams have. And I as an audience member, as a viewer, I really enjoyed having the opportunity to watch them both thrive in what they do uniquely.
"I can't wait to see how they continue to push each other going into 2022." -- Meryl Davis on Hubbell/Donohue vs. Chock/Bates
I think it's important to note that [Chock and Bates] hadn't competed since Four Continents last year [Feb. 2020]. The idea that U.S. Championships would be your first competition in a season is a little scary. It's a little overwhelming. ... It's been a long time since they were on competitive ice. I look back on my own career and I remember thinking if I was off the ice for more than three or four days, it would take me a day or two to sort of feel as though I was getting back into the swing of things. And so to think that Maddie and Evan haven't been on competitive ice since last February... it's quite remarkable.
OC: We spoke about Takahashi before the season, and his transition from singles to ice dance this season. Can you put into words what you’ve observed? He’s really the first high-level skater we’ve seen make this switch.
Davis: It’s really a huge undertaking. You know, he's a natural performer. He moves so beautifully already. But partnering is something that is difficult to learn, learning that timing with another.
I have just so much respect, the way that he is approaching it. If he's willing to put in the work, I think that’s the thing that I just keep coming back to. And he's doing so well. He’s so naturally talented. And when you couple that with an incredible work ethic, I mean, the sky is the limit. It’s so cool to be a fan of his already and then just get to watch him tackle this challenge, it’s so much fun.
Uncertainty around what comes next
OC: Meryl there is a bit of uncertainty out there within skating – and sport as a whole – with what comes next. How do athletes prepare for what comes next when they’re not really sure what that is?
Davis: That's a great question. And truth be told, I'm not sure I have the answer for you. Figure skating, like I'm sure so many sports is rigid in its structure. And yet that can often be very comforting. So many of us start figure skating when we're, you know, five, six, seven years old. And while our role in the sport changes and of course, our training changes, the structure of the sport and sort of the way you approach the day to day to a certain extent doesn't really change that much. ... The structure of things is very predictable. I think oftentimes that's what allows you to perform at your best if you are prepared based on the familiarity of the situation and your surroundings. And so, of course, in any sport, periodisation is so crucial. And that's the idea that we are sort of ramping up our training and bringing our training back down based on what we're preparing for or what we're recovering from.
To have that unknown, to have that sort of question mark in a sport that is oftentimes quite dependent upon structure is so challenging for the athletes. I was giving some thought [to it] because, you know, you ask the question of, ‘What would that be like?’ And as I said, I don't know and I don't have the answer.
I was thinking about the Summer Olympians today and just the experience that so many of the Tokyo hopefuls and the people who had made their teams. And we're looking forward to the Tokyo 2020 Games who are now having to reset for the Olympics this coming summer and in 2021.
"So many of particularly these figure skaters are going to be looking to the Summer Olympians in 2021 and following their storylines and allowing themselves to be inspired by these other athletes and the stories that they'll share of triumphs, overcoming these really difficult times."
So I don't really necessarily know what to expect with the unknowns for the rest of the season. But I do know that to a certain degree, the sporting community will come together and we'll learn from each other and the stories and vulnerabilities that we share moving forward.
U.S. scene: Nathan Chen and Vincent Zhou
OC: We were talking earlier about Nathan Chen. Can we loop back to that? What impressed you about his fifth national title win?
Davis: I was so impressed today. You know, like you said, it wasn't necessarily the perfect skate and that's OK. I mean, coming away with his fifth consecutive title, the first time since Dick Button in the 1940s-50s, it's huge. He has such power about him on the ice and the way that he approaches his task, the way that he approaches sport, it's just so commendable.
Nathan is always pushing himself artistically, athletically. ... That was one of the things that really set Nathan apart even years ago from the rest of the American field to a certain extent, was his ability to balance doing four or five quads in one program and then also bringing this style of class and grace to the ice. And he balances it so well. And yet having achieved that balance time after time, year after year, he's continuing to push the envelope.
OC: Could we talk a little about Vincent Zhou? He won his third U.S. silver at nationals less than 18 months after nearly leaving the sport for good. What do you think stands out for you about what you've seen Vincent do?
Davis: I think the one word that would come to mind in watching Vincent these last few days is ‘fight.’ I saw a real fight inside him, a fire inside him. He struggled the last few years and... I was so inspired watching that sort of ignite again. When you have an athlete like Nathan Chen, it can often times take a little bit of time to feel as though it's OK to pave your own path. ... Nathan is setting the bar. Nathan is setting the trend. And I think to a certain extent that's true. And yet, as an athlete, you can't follow someone else's lead necessarily and think that works for someone else is going to work for you exactly in the same way.
For Vincent, over the last couple of years, the way that he has been speaking in interviews, and I know some of the things that he's been kind of struggling with, his ability to really start to pave his own path instead of following suit, I think [that] has really opened the door for him to be able to step through of his own volition.
Knierim/Frazier raising the bar
OC: The U.S. has never been particularly strong in the pairs discipline, but Alexa and Brandon joined forces last March having had successful partnerships with previous partners. What is your impression of them? They’ve seemed to raise the bar and really want to make a mark on competition internationally.
Davis: I thought they were wonderful. And yet you can see these little glimpses of potential brilliance in their future. They've been together for less than a year, which for a pair team is so challenging. Trust is such a part of what they do and understanding each other's timing, and Alexa previously skated with her husband Chris. It's a very difficult thing to quickly understand your partner and be able to read that person without words when you're on the ice and they already do it so well.
I was more excited watching this event, I think, than I have been in a little while watching because so many of the teams have this budding brilliance, which I'm just so excited to see play out over the next year. And in particular with Alexa and Brandon, I really feel that they have the potential to go quite far. I've seen how far they've come already in such a short period of time, but I can't wait to see them continue to grow and evolve over the next year or two. I do hope that they continue beyond 2022 Games... Oh, my gosh, what a strange thing to say! But I say that because I think that they have a real potential to help sort of take us skating to the next level.
#StrongerTogether: For athletes' teams - and competitors
OC: Lastly, when we spoke in October we discussed how important the team around any athlete is... the idea of #StrongerTogether. What are your thoughts on the same topic a few months later, as the uncertainties continue in the sporting realm?
Davis: Having those people to lean on is huge. And particularly it's much easier to thrive when everything goes as expected, of course. And yet in these times where there are so many question marks and we're living through sort of the unexpected, to have those people you trust to help guide you and to support you along the way is crucial.
In sports, where we are competing against other people, it's particularly special to have those moments of support with your fellow athletes where you might be competing directly against that person, you might want to beat them. When you can truly understand the unique challenges that that [other] person is going through because you are in a similar position, being able to, as you said, be better together and find those little moments to support each other as humans, as people.
At the end of the day, I think what makes the Olympics so exciting and what makes sports so exciting, is those very real human moments that we're forced to overcome. And so I think that the way that these athletes are probably supporting each other, perhaps more than ever before in unique ways, I hope that they're able to appreciate that camaraderie between them.