| SOCHI, Russia
SOCHI, Russia When a nine-year-old Meryl Davis was first told to hold hands with an eight-year-old Charlie White and look deeply into his eyes while holding his gaze - just thinking about it left her blushing and tongue-tied.
However, it was just as well it did not take her long to overcome the embarrassment because an adventure that began rather tentatively in 1997 can culminate with a glittering finale on February 17 as Davis and White are favourites to become the first American ice dancers to win Olympic gold.
While Davis could still recall their first meeting as if it were yesterday, White's memories of that first 'dance date' are not as gushing.
"I definitely remember feeling awkward looking into Charlie's eyes, and having to hold hands with a boy at that age was a little awkward," Davis told Reuters in an interview as her partner started laughing.
"We were so young, and I in particular was really shy when we were that age. We didn't have witty banter going back and forth at the ages of eight and nine. It took us a couple of years before we developed a personal relationship."
White added: "Honestly, we really had no idea what we were getting ourselves into when we first started ice dancing. We both were single skaters and loved the sport.
"I had been doing solo dance for a little while just to work on my technique. So I was a little bit ahead of Meryl when we first tried out and I remember being kind of annoyed that I had to take a step back to try out with her."
It is just as well White decided get over his irritation as their alliance has brought them unprecedented success and made them the United States' main gold medal hope in figure skating at the Black Sea resort.
"It has been a really fun ride, but in the beginning we had no grandiose dreams or goals beyond enjoying ourselves," White, who at 26 is a year younger than his partner, added.
"She was so driven that even though we might not connect all that well off the ice because we didn't talk very much, on the ice we were both all business.
"While we did not crack jokes all the time, we definitely were always on the same page."
They were the first American ice dancers to win the world championships in 2011, a feat they repeated in 2013. They have captured a record six successive U.S. national titles, are unbeaten in 22 months, and are now within touching distance of winning a 12th successive title.
The duo's ability to show off their art, be it complex fast-paced footwork, innovative lifts or synchronised twizzles and spins - all seamlessly woven together - has set the ice dance world alight.
Their distinctive looks have not only allowed them to role-play characters as wide ranging as Bollywood dancers and Scheherazade, it has also made them darlings of the sponsorship world.
White stands out with his mop of blond hair. Davis is brunette, has wide-set eyes, and her appearance has led some fans to puzzle over her ethnicity. For the record, she is of English, Scottish, German and Irish heritage.
Harnessing a combination of talent, glamour and success, it is little wonder brands such as Ralph Lauren, Visa, Kellogg's and Procter & Gamble want to be associated with them.
If there was any fear the hype in the lead-up to the Games would throw them off course, the duo was quick to dismiss the notion.
"It definitely is not a fluke that we've been that successful in the last couple of years, and we've been working very hard for that success," said Davis, who won Olympic silver behind Canadian training partners Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir in Vancouver four years ago.
"That hard work isn't going away any time soon, so we're definitely excited about the position we've put ourselves in."
White added: "We have such high expectations of ourselves that we don't feel any external expectations can trump that and make us any more nervous."
(Editing by Stephen Wood)