After finishing their Olympic ice dance but before they knew which medal was theirs, there was only one thing Charlie White could say to Meryl Davis, his skating partner of 17 years, as they hugged on the ice in Sochi.
“I just told Meryl that I loved her,” White, half of the first U.S. team to capture Olympic gold in their sport, tells PEOPLE.
“To go through the most stressful thing in the world where we put so much pressure on ourselves, and we did just such a great job of being there for each other, not just here [at the Olympics] but all the way, that [hug] was just the perfect moment to express how grateful I am to have her by my side.”
“Obviously I was pretty exhausted,” he adds, “so that was pretty much all I could get out.”
The pair – which took silver at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics behind their chief rivals and training partners, Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir of Canada – knocked the Canadians to second in Sochi, with two world-record scores along the way.
“Charlie and I grew up together,” Davis tells PEOPLE. “We’ve been on this journey together for 17 years. The togetherness and trust that we have in each other and the way we’ve handled these last two weeks has been incredibly special.” Indeed, White and Davis – he’s 26, she’s 27 – first began skating as a team in suburban Detroit when she was 9 and he was 8.
“We’ve been through so much together,” says Davis. “We played such large roles in each other’s lives. We’ve been incredibly fortunate. Especially with our support system. Charlie and I grew up in homes eight minutes down the road from each other. We had families with very similar ideas about how they wanted to raise their children in similar values. While we’ve worked incredibly hard and faced challenges, we’ve been given so much,” Davis says.
She adds, “The ability to just work hard at what we want and not worry about outside factors and be together has been a blessing, and something that we definitely don’t take for granted.”
To which White, at her side, gave a thumbs-up.
He says the ice-dancing team first began thinking their future held a medal back in 2006, when they were coming out of high school and training with Americans Tanith Belbin and Benjamin Agosto, who returned from the 2006 Winter Olympics in Turin, Italy, with silver. “Before then, we were really just in the moment and were just trying to improve every day,” says White. “It became so real and tangible by having our friends do so well.”
And now that Davis and White are the gold standard?
“To be able to go out on the ice and skate like you dream at night is ridiculous. It was amazing,” he says.
• With reporting by JOHNNY DODD