At Cafe Zola, the waiter bringing coffee smiles at the attractive young couple but doesn’t recognize either Charlie White, 2014 Olympic gold medalist in ice dancing, or Tanith Belbin White, who took silver in the same event in 2006 and now does commentary for NBC Sports. They don’t mind. Charlie, twenty-eight, says he is recognized mainly when in the company of Meryl Davis, his Olympic partner.
“There’s a lot of ‘Oh, my God, you’re Meryl Davis,'” he says, his voice rising in mock excitement, “and … and? … Charlie White!”
On this January day he is incognito, sort of. He laughs and gestures at his head. His distinctive topping of gold curls, which reporters have compared to a Disney prince’s, is darker than in the Olympic photos and clamped under a headband. He’s also wearing glasses. Tanith, too, has turned down the glamour since her days on the ice; her tawny hair is styled simply, her eye makeup subtle. A shimmering smart watch is the only clue of her high-powered life. Charlie, the more talkative of the two, keeps an arm draped over her shoulders.
They married last April and live in a house they renovated on the west side. But they look blank when asked how they’ll be celebrating on Valentine’s Day. “I think we’ll have to check if we’re even together on Valentine’s Day,” says Tanith. “I think Charlie will be in Switzerland.” She is about to leave for Nebraska to cover an Olympic-qualifying volleyball tournament for NBC; soon after, they’re off to St. Paul to broadcast the U.S. Figure Skating Championships. When in town, Tanith coaches skaters at the Arctic Edge ice center in Canton, where she and Charlie did most of their training.
Dizzying as those schedules may seem, to a couple who have trained intensively since childhood, this is a relatively tranquil time. After Charlie and Meryl Davis took gold in Sochi, Russia, in 2014, each spent several weeks competing on Dancing with the Stars with different partners. Charlie does not speak with much fondness about the experience, in which he and his partner did well but slipped behind Davis and Maksim Chmerkovskiy, who took first. He dislikes being recognized as a “reality show star” and refers obliquely to the pressure competitors felt “on and off the ice to give interviews in a certain way … that certainly didn’t jibe with what I was comfortable with as an athlete.”
But even Olympic gold medalists can’t be too choosy. The public isn’t in love with ice skating as it was even a decade ago, when Michelle Kwan earned millions of dollars a year in endorsement deals. “In a lot of ways, figure skating used to live in the domain that’s now taken by reality television,” Charlie reflects. “The [TV] personalities are kind of larger than life … The sport’s sort of struggled to find new ways to interact with fans.”
He and Davis are not currently competing, but haven’t ruled out returning for the Winter Olympics in 2018. And they remain close personally–she was a bridesmaid at Charlie and Tanith’s wedding. (Tanith’s skating partner, Benjamin Agosto, was master of ceremonies.)
They’ve been together for seven years. Though family and other elite skaters knew about their relationship, they were discreet in public to protect the aura of romance in their on-ice partnerships. “A lot of it is like acting,” Charlie explains. “A lot of the stories you’re telling … you want people to believe you’re in love.”
In fact, he and Davis were never romantically involved, nor were Tanith and Agosto. “A lot of time partners do end up dating each other, and sometimes it goes well–but often it doesn’t,” Charlie says. “In a sense, both of us were lucky that we never dated our partners.”
The future couple met as young teens at the Arctic Edge. “She was the most beautiful girl at the rink!” Charlie recalls, and quickly adds, “She still is.”
Though both were tapped early as potential stars, they were never paired together; Tanith, now five-foot-six, was considered too tall for Charlie, who is five-foot-nine. He was born in Royal Oak and grew up in Bloomfield Hills; she moved to Canton from Quebec to train, later becoming a dual U.S.-Canadian citizen.
Their relationship endured the strain of competing against each other in the 2010 Olympics, where Charlie’s pair finished second, Tanith’s fourth. “Our senses of humor bonded us,” Tanith says.
Both say that growing up in competition helped them develop professional attitudes. That neither is competing now, Tanith says, reinforces “the other aspects of your life that bring you joy.” This includes the hours they spend playing with their dogs, sometimes in the Arb; dining out in Ann Arbor; and, recently, taking a cooking class at Sur La Table, one of their wedding gifts from Meryl Davis.
Charlie attended the University of Michigan, majoring in political science. He now skates in exhibitions worldwide. Tanith has taken online courses with a communications major at Eastern and U-M Dearborn. She’s currently preparing for broadcasting at the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.
Charlie, who played high school hockey, has been known to occasionally drop in at the Cube in Ann Arbor for pickup games. Apart from that, it isn’t easy to find them on the ice around town. “Right now, it’s hard for us to disassociate [recreational] skating from work,” says Tanith.
This article has been edited since it was published in the February 2016 Ann Arbor Observer. Charlie White and Meryl Davis’s ranking in the 2010 Winter Olympics has been corrected.