‘There’s going to have to be a new flexibility with this particular season... being ready for things to change,’ says the Sochi 2014 ice dance champion in an exclusive interview.
“Looking at this competitive season, it poses so many difficulties, many that athletes haven't really had to face before,” Davis told Olympic Channel in an exclusive interview. “This is a situation that doesn’t necessarily go hand-in-hand with experience or seniority or being a veteran athlete. It's not necessarily tied with experience or age.”
Instead, Davis said, it’s about each skater’s mental approach: “I think that leaning on your support system, leaning on your team, your coach, your skating partner, your training mates… (this is) the opportunity to find ways to stay balanced, find ways to stay well mentally and physically in these trying times.”
What the Sochi 2014 gold medallist is referring to is the COVID-19 pandemic, with many skaters forced off the ice for months earlier this year and a 2020/21 skating season unlike any before it: One Grand Prix assignment versus the usual two; a cancelled Skate Canada, Internationaux de France, Grand Prix Final, and Four Continents; and uncertainty around what competition will look (and feel) like throughout the season.
“Figure skating is a sport that requires structure and rigidity, so with this season taking everything into account, I think that the priority just has to be the health and wellness of the figure skating community,” she said. “There’s going to have to be a new flexibility with this particular season... being ready for things to change.”
Earlier this year, the figure skating world championships set for Montreal were cancelled, the first of many events to be impacted by the coronavirus and its international shutdowns. The figure skating Grand Prix Series kicks off this coming week, with a closed-door Skate America being held for American skaters and a handful of international athletes that train in the U.S.
"There’s going to have to be a new flexibility with this particular season... being ready for things to change." - Meryl Davis to Olympic Channel
With the Beijing 2022 Olympic season just around the bend, Davis said skaters are looking to position themselves well this coming year, be that to try and go after a medal, qualify for the Games, or whatever their situation calls for.
“Something really important for this pre-Olympic season is going to be managing expectations for (the athletes),” she said.
“Typically, the year before the Olympics is about cleaning things up; it’s not necessarily about major changes. It's about getting yourself in the best position possible ahead of that Olympic year. That perspective, that approach, and that goal needs to shift for these athletes, as opposed to thinking, ‘Is the season going to properly set me up for what my goals are in Beijing? Am I putting myself in a position for a medal? Am I putting myself in a position to make my country's Olympic team?’
"I think that the primary focus really needs to be, ‘I need to stay flexible and stay focused on my health and well-being through this season.’”
Davis, who now lives in Los Angeles, has kept an eye on the skating world during the off-season. She is particularly excited for the return of Vancouver 2010 bronze medallist Takahashi Daisuke, who is making the switch from singles to ice dance, partnering with Muramoto Kana for Japan.
“When I first heard that Takahashi was going to be taking on the challenge of becoming an ice dancer, I was both excited and just completely curious at once because it's so atypical. It's so unique for an icon,” she said. “He's an Olympic medalist… he's a legend. To then step away from his discipline, his field and embrace a totally new discipline? It’s incredibly challenging.”
Davis and former partner Charlie White worked with Muramoto and Takahashi in January, and the American said she is continuously impressed with Takahashi’s performance ability – now being translated to ice dance.
"He's an Olympic medalist… he's a legend. To then step away from his discipline, his field and embrace a totally new discipline? It’s incredibly challenging." - Davis on Takahashi Daisuke
“I was blown away,” she recalled. “Daisuke is one of those people that thrives on a challenge. He thrives on thinking, ‘Huh? This would be really hard. Let's do that.’ It's incredible. And for so many reasons, I'm excited for him to tackle this challenge because I think that he and Kana are going to be amazing. From a results perspective, I have no sense of what they anticipate; I have no sense of what to expect. But even just after seeing them in their first sort of initial few skates together, my expectations were just completely blown away. They were really amazing.”
Davis also sees Takahashi’s switch as a way to bring figure skating fans in Japan closer to the dance discipline, that country having not had a top-tier ice dance team in the recent past.
“I think it's going to be a real treat for the whole skating community to have the opportunity to celebrate this challenge with such hardworking people like Kana and Daisuke,” she said.
Four-time world champions Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron remain the favourites headed into the season, Davis said, but she also cautioned for expectations to be altered in ice dance, as well, as skaters across every discipline have faced a year like no other. (Note: This interview was done before the cancellation of the Internationaux de France, the Grand Prix Papadakis/Cizeron were due to appear at. It's uncertain whether they will compete elsewhere.)
“They are the class of the field and have been for a long time,” she said of the French duo, which trains in Montreal. “They had that really wonderful rivalry with (Tessa) Virtue and (Scott) Moir and (will try to) maintain that momentum, given everything that's going on. It’s an interesting challenge.”
“It's gonna be really interesting to follow along with the stories of who's healthy, who is at the top of their game… paired with how with each team coping with these very unique challenges of COVID,” she said, noting Madison Chock and Evan Bates’ decision to skip Skate America because of a lack of readiness in their training.
Below, Davis addresses several more topics facing figure skating in the pending season, including the plethora of talent among Russian ladies, skating for an empty arena and much more. (Answers have been lightly edited for clarity and length.). You can also hear more on the Olympic Channel Podcast from 21st October 2020.
Olympic Channel (OC): Skate America, this coming weekend, will be held without fans inside the arena due to COVID restrictions. What sort of challenges does that offer for the skaters themselves?
Meryl Davis: I think one of the biggest challenges for this competitive season from an athlete's perspective is not having the opportunity to harness the energy of the audience in those really exhilarating, competitive moments. You know, in a sport like figure skating in particular, where it's so performance based, when you're in those moments that really matter and you're finally performing… you've been working so hard for having the audience behind you and clapping and cheering you on, pushing you to the limit. That's what you live for as an athlete. And not having that in the arena is going to be a very different experience for the athletes.
"You've been working so hard for having the audience behind you and clapping and cheering you on, pushing you to the limit. That's what you live for as an athlete. And not having that in the arena is going to be a very different experience for the athletes." - Davis on performing for an empty arena
OC: How important is it for a skater to have a strong team around them right now? We’re talking about the theme #StrongerTogether for Tokyo 2020. I would imagine it applies to skating, as well.
Davis: Something I have certainly experienced through COVID is having the opportunity to embrace really raw, open, honest conversations with friends, family and loved ones. It’s the best way to feel connected, to feel heard, understood, and supported, and to support and be there for those people.
Being open and connecting and using this as an opportunity to be stronger together, to support each other through what's really going on, I think is going to be the most powerful tool for our community to come together and really embrace each other, and support each other through these difficult times.
OC: There have been a lot of coaching changes during the off-season, notably with Evgenia Medvedeva going back to Eteri Tutberidze. What are your thoughts on that? And what is a skater seeking when they make a coaching change in general?
Davis: I remember from my own career, reaching a point where I felt as though Charlie (White) and I were mature enough to start making some decisions for ourselves, (having) typically relied on the team around us to either guide us through or make for us.
(Making such a change) is a result of maturity and understanding, you know, of your own needs as an athlete in a way that it's really difficult to when you're a teenager. Evgenia is only 20 years old, (but) I think it’s coming from an enhanced maturity of understanding what you need as opposed to sort of following the direction of those around you.
OC: Is it impossible to pinpoint one reason why we’ve seen so many coaching changes this off-season?
Davis: I think sometimes it just feels like time for a change simply. And sometimes that change can be good, but it can be incredibly difficult, too. Finding the perfect match for where you are at that very moment in your career can be very difficult as an athlete, having that really supportive relationship with your coaching team and yet also making sure that you're getting all of the technical support and the on-ice support that you need as an athlete. It can be really difficult to find the right coach, the right support system at one point in your career, (which) might not necessarily be the right coach and the right support system at a different point in your career. And so I think that evolution is something that is a very big part of an athlete's focus, an athlete's perspective as they evolve as a mature change and grow throughout their careers.
OC: Factor Medvedeva in this conversation, but we’ll see quite the showdown among the Russian women at the Rostelecom Cup, including Alena Kostornaia, Alexandra Trusova, Anna Shcherbakova and others. How much does a domestic rivalry – or having other top-tier athletes in your discipline – help fuel skaters at this level?
Davis: Well, there's a very special feeling being at the top of your sport in your home country. Domestic rivalries and having competitors in your own country pushing you to be the absolute best that you can be, while it’s a challenge, it’s (also) probably one of the greatest gifts to any athlete, to any figure skater.
Now we’ve got Kostornaia, Trusova, Shcherbakova, and Medvedeva, all coming from Russia, just pushing their own skating, pushing one another, and all vying for that top spot. It's going to be very interesting to see as ladies figure skating continues to push the envelope, technically, how these young ladies at the top of the sport are able to find a balance between the artistic and the technical side of figure skating. From a training perspective, from a physical wellness perspective, as the boundaries continue to be push in terms of how many of these athletes at the top of the sport are doing triple Axels, how many of these ladies at the top of the sport are doing quads and multiple quads in their programs? Finding that balance is going to be incredibly challenging.
OC: This week on the Olympic Channel podcast we are discussing the artistic side of the sport versus the technical side, and how that push-pull continues in skating with quads and trying to strike some sort of balance between the two. What are your thoughts?
Davis: For as long as I could remember, there has been discussion in the figure skating world about finding that balance between the technical side of things and the artistic side of things. Some athletes fall more on one side than the other. Some athletes have this great balance between the two.
I think it really comes down to points. You know, athletes, particularly with this IJS judging system, athletes are able to collect and accumulate points based on certain skills. Maybe they're focusing more on the technical side of things… or maybe they are spectacular artistic skaters with great skating skills. I think part of the challenge as a fan of the sport, part of the challenge of the sport itself is (sometimes) you have a bit of a difficult time understanding the direct correlation between point accumulation and the end result. It’s really fascinating.
"That’s what makes skating so special. Sport in general is about pushing the envelope, being the best you can be, challenging the status quo and moving beyond that." - Meryl Davis
Davis: As we are pushing, particularly in men's and ladies’ singles, as we're pushing the elements that are done, the jumps, the difficulty of the jumps, it's impossible to discount the way that all of those elements are done, the way that they're completed, the way that they come across in the complete package. And so we're in an interesting time in which, as the technical envelope continues to be pushed, not only is what you're doing incredibly important in terms of the score, but… how are you doing it? How did it come across? How does it look? What is your mastery of the skating skill as you're doing all of these things? It's a great deal of work; a lot for these athletes to focus on. It's a lot for the athletes to think about when they're on the ice.
That’s what makes skating so special. Sport in general is about pushing the envelope, being the best you can be, challenging the status quo and moving beyond that. And yet a sport like figure skating, part of what makes it so fun to watch. Part of what makes it so special to be a viewer is it's not just about, 'are they doing it or are they not doing it?' It's about, 'are they doing it with finesse? Is it beautiful when they do it? Are they confident? Do they look like they, as an athlete have control over their body, their movement? And does it go with the music?' The reason that I think it's so fascinating and so much fun to watch is such a difficult balance to strike. And it's a lot for these athletes to try to balance both in training and performance as well.
OC: We spoke about ice dance a bit earlier, but what are we watching for in general? What are the goals of teams this season?
Davis: In ice dance, particularly a pre-Olympic year, you want to be setting yourself up well, to be in the position that you hope to be in for the Olympic season. You need to get yourself mentally, emotionally, and physically prepared to step in and tackle that challenge of the Olympic season.
Because mistakes are so rare in ice dance, oftentimes presenting yourself and that perception (of preparedness) is incredibly important as you move from one season to the next. And so I think a word that is going to play an interesting role this season with ice dance is momentum. Who is going to take it from this season to the next one?