Seems hard to believe, but it was only about a decade ago that cracking the top 10 was a monumental achievement for a U.S. dance team.
Now the Americans are sending not one, but two medal contenders to the Vancouver Olympics.
Meryl Davis and Charlie White won their second straight ice dance title at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships on Saturday, beating Olympic and world silver medalists Tanith Belbin and Ben Agosto for the first time in their careers. Long overshadowed by Belbin and Agosto - at home and internationally - Davis and White left little doubt they are now equal to their friends and former training partners, as well as the other top teams in the world.
"It's important in our home country to come out on top," White said. "What we want to do at the Olympics is win."
Davis and White finished with a U.S.-record 222.29 points, a little less than four points in front of Belbin and Agosto. Emily Samuelson and Evan Bates were third, likely rounding out the squad for the U.S. Olympics.
The ladies free skate is later Saturday, with Sasha Cohen trying to clinch a spot on her third Olympic team eight months after announcing her return to competitive skating. The Americans can send two women to Vancouver, and less than a point separates leader Mirai Nagasu, Cohen and Rachael Flatt.
Davis and White had never beaten Belbin and Agosto, who have long dominated U.S. dance with five straight titles (2004-08) and the silver medal at last year's worlds. They missed last year's nationals because of Agosto's back injury, clearing the way for Davis and White to win their first title.
But Davis and White have been quietly climbing the international ranks - their win at last month's Grand Prix final was the first by an American team - and showed they have the skill, strength and acting chops to medal in Vancouver.
Maybe even win gold.
"I think it's really a testament to our training to come out and beat an amazing team, especially going into the Olympics," White said. "It feels good, but it feels like the hard work isn't done."
Skating to "Music of the Night" from "The Phantom of the Opera," Davis and White were simply magnificent. For all the fun that's been made of ice dance over the years, this was a program that would challenge any athlete, in any sport, and delight theater buffs at the same time.
"It wasn't a question of whether we loved the music or we could perform well to the music," Davis said about discussions they had with coaches Igor Shpilband and Marina Zoueva about using "Phantom." "We knew it was very familiar to everyone and had been used before, and we weren't sure if that was going to be a positive or a negative. But we felt it was positive because it would be familiar to the judges and the audience and we could build on the emotions."
Davis and White packed so much into 4 minutes that ice dance coaches may as well just give their students a DVD of the program and call it a day. You name a skill, step, turn, twizzle or lift in ice dancing, and they did it. Did it with speed and polish, too.
They were never mismatched or out of sync, even as they changed positions and holds. Don't think that sounds so tough? You try sprinting for four minutes in lockstep with the person next to you. While doing turns every few seconds. And portraying characters and emotion so well Andrew Lloyd Webber would be proud.
One lift in particular made the entire competition worthwhile: while gliding backward on one foot, White flipped Davis over his shoulder so that she was facing the opposite direction of him. He then crossed his other leg behind him as she opened her arms, that platform-like leg of his the only thing keeping her from plunging to the ice.
The audience was on its feet for the final few seconds of the program, and Shpilband and Zoueva bearhugged behind the boards. Davis and White didn't show much reaction - they were too overwhelmed.
"As soon as we finished, all we could say to each other was, 'Wow,'" White said. "It was an amazing program for us, and we really feel like we were able to put together all the technical elements and all the emotion that makes that program so special. It was a really special moment for us."
This is the first time since 2003 that Belbin and Agosto have been to nationals and failed to win. But they didn't seem to be all that bothered, knowing that peaking in February is far more important than another U.S. title.
"Placement or not, we know we are the best we've ever been," Belbin said.
Belbin and Agosto's "Ave Maria" is a departure from some of the lighter and happier numbers they did earlier in their career, but the somber and dramatic piece is appropriate for a team that's grown together and as individuals. It showed both the high quality of their skating and their ability to tell even the most challenging of stories.
"We asked Natalia (Linichuk) to create a program for us that was more sensitive because it really is a sentimental year for us," Belbin said of the 1980 gold medalist, who coaches the duo with her husband, Gennadi Karponosov. "We wanted something that we could put our emotions and feelings into what is most likely our final season."
Belbin and Agosto set the tone for the program in the very first seconds, doing perfectly synchronized twizzles - fast-moving turns - that they quickly contrasted with long, graceful edges. Their lifts showcased both their strength and athleticism; on their first, she cartwheeled up and over his shoulder into a carry lift.
They never lost energy for a second. But the most mesmerizing thing was their portrayal of the characters. Belbin and Agosto have been at the top of U.S. ice dancing - U.S. skating, really - for so many years that fans feel as if they know them. Watching this program, though, you forgot it was Belbin and Agosto and only saw a woman struggling with her inner demons and the guardian angel trying to save her.
"Natalia is the kind of coach who always says, 'Babies, it's close to well, but not enough.'" Agosto said. "The last few weeks it's been, 'It's extremely close, but now I need super-magical well.' I think we really are coming closer to it."
The audience gave them a standing ovation, too, something so meaningful that Belbin got choked up just talking about it afterward.