To describe the genius of Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir is to require an armful of exclamation points.
As one fellow skater put it, they are “beyond.”
Way back in 2010, when Virtue and Moir won their first Olympic gold medal in Vancouver in their early twenties, the 1980 Olympic champion Robin Cousins was already comparing their magic to the legendary British team Jayne Torvill and Christopher Dean. And they’ve only increased their power and speed and technique since.
Others could see it at the national training camp last September when their two current Olympic routines were in skeleton form. And the feeling was, that if you always thought Virtue and Moir were exceptional before, then you just had to lock eyes on this stuff: the Latin short dance, the fiery “Moulin Rouge.”
That’s the thing about Virtue and Moir. Excellent is not good enough. There is always better yet. There are nooks and crannies about music and performance and technique that must be explored. They revel in them.
Virtue and Moir brought their best “beyond” to the Pyeongchang Olympics, honed and upgraded to the point of another Olympic gold medal. They are now the most decorated Olympic figure skating champions in history. They have five medals, three of them gold, two of them silver.
The wondrous Gilles Grafstrom (one of my personal favourites) had four, three of them gold. Evgeny Plushenko has two golds and two silvers. The legendary Sonya Henie, dominant in her time, earned three gold. Irina Rodnina, the Russian who won 10 world pair titles, also had three gold. Patrick Chan is actually seventh on the list now, with one gold and two silvers.
In Canada, Virtue and Moir have won more medals at a Winter Olympics than anyone else, except for long track speed skater Cindy Klassen, who has six.
Virtue and Moir also destroyed the curse of the Canadian flagbearer: whoever waves the maple leaf in front of the entire team in an opening ceremonies tends to go down to unexpected defeat. There’s a history. But Virtue and Moir (barely) vanquished it. They won their gold medal by only .79 points.
The surprise is that that ice-dancing contest was so close between the Canadians and the French team, their exquisite training mates, Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron, already two-time world champions before Virtue and Moir burst back onto the scene out of respite two years ago.
Virtue and Moir rumbled into prominence as soon as they returned, winning everything emphatically last season. The only close call came at the world championships last year in Helsinki, when they won the gold medal, but lost the free dance to the French.
They had sizzled to a win in the short dance, taking it by 5.54 points over the French, who had made mistakes. But the French won the free by 2.96 points. Virtue and Moir had a bobble on one element. Virtue and Moir won the gold medal by 2.59 points.
Virtue and Moir set a world record in the short program. The French set a world record in the free and in total points, then broke them several times this season.
Therefore, it was deemed that Virtue and Moir were at their greatest strength in short dance, while the French excelled in the free.
All during this past season, Virtue and Moir’s points were always slightly less than those of the French while competing at different events. Note: you can’t compare marks from different panels with different judges, but it can create a chatter. When they finally met head to head at the Grand Prix Final, it was a showdown and the French won it. Papadakis and Cizeron finally took the short dance by .54 points, the free dance by 1.76 points and the overall gold medal by 2.30 points. There were no bobbles by either.
So the tide was apparently set. Could the Canadians overcome this swell of the wave? But Virtue and Moir went home and recast their “Moulin Rouge” free dance.
“At all the Grand Prix competitions, I was like: ‘What’s missing?’” coach/choreographer Marie-France Dubreuil said. “And it just popped into my head that what was missing was the love story.
“I didn’t see enough of the love story [in their routine,],” she said. “The lyrics were beautiful but the introspection part was too long and then the love part was too short. And then she died.”
So Dubreuil kept the same piece of music, but choreographed other little pieces of music into it, an edit, just to bring in the feel of a love story.
“There were a lot of changes in a very short time [before nationals],” Dubreuil said.
Some figured that the French had the edge in Pyeongchang with their glorious , ethereal, floating choice of classical music, the “Moonlight Sonata” for their free dance. “Judges seem to prefer that this year,” said one judge. If really so, Virtue and Moir’s choice did not fit. It’s a painful, emotional tragedy in the Shakespearean way. They inserted the love story, but continued who they were, theatrical, shake-the-theatre-by-the-neck dramatic with modern movement.
They had chosen “Moulin Rouge” themselves, music that had meant much to them. They won the 2010 Olympic gold medal with the delicate tones of Gustav Mahler. At the 2014 Olympics, they skated to soft-kneed classical music, but it never fit them. There were grumblings about it all season. After losing the 2013 Grand Prix Final, they contemplated changing it, but thought it too late. This time, they realized the error of that plan. They had to choose, this time.
So they brought their best to Pyeongchang. That includes the following talents: beautiful carriage, lots of time in closed holds, which are more difficult than open holds; the ability to generate speed with their rhythmic knee action and deep edges – like Patrick Chan, they can get up to speed with a few strokes; their power which is not the same thing as mere speed; the constant changing of dance holds and a variety of them, all in ways such that you almost don’t see the changes; the seamlessness of their routines, with one element folding into the next; the closeness with which they skate to each other; the use of their entire bodies to express music; the ability to create shapes with their bodies, the size of their curves on footwork; the power in their lifts, which means Virtue needs lots of core strength, and strength in her hips and back; and their innovation. Every year they do different lifts that match the music. And they express music so well. Their routines are exceedingly complex, but they make them look easy. That may work against them.
Papadakis and Cizeron are highly skilled, at one with the music. When they skate, they breathe. When they breathe, they skate. They have won all their world titles and accolades by skating to music that shows off their long lines and floating movement. Virtue and Moir, on the other hand, can skate to ANYTHING. They take risks.
And don’t forget, said one former ISU dance official, most folk – including judges – have been mesmerized by Cizeron and his exquisite movement and touch on the ice. I am mesmerized by Cizeron. People are so enchanted by Cizeron, that they overlook Papadakis, who, the expert says, is not quite an equal match. Judges should be taking into account how evenly matched both members of the team are.
Be that as it may, the Pyeongchang Olympic event was a strangely judged animal, spitting out curious results. Although Papadakis and Cizeron did not skate their best in the short dance – it’s not easy to focus with a costume malfunction – their scores did not reflect their difficulties around a twizzle, when they got too close to each other, and Papadakis struggled to grab her skate and did an extra turn. The technical panel still awarded it a level four, and three of the judges, from Russia, Ukraine and France, even gave it the highest grade of execution, a +3.
Virtue and Moir skated full out and set a world record of 83.67 points, while the French ended up only 1.74 points behind with 81.93. Were the French marks too high? “I did have a similar thought to that,” Moir told a reporter. “Because it was tight and we felt like we kind of blew the roof off the arena. But that’s the scoring system.”
Here’s one puzzling results: Russian team Ekaterina Bobrova and Dmitri Soloviev finished fourth in the free dance and fifth overall. Surprisingly. Add up all the scores, like the SkatingScores site does, and you see that in the free dance, judges from Russia, Poland and Turkey all placed them third. A U.S. judge placed them sixth. A Chinese judge had them seventh. The Canadian judge had them ninth. The Russian judge, an old-timer who has been around for years, Maria Abasova, drew onto both panels. So did the Canadian and American judges.
The French, Ukrainian and Italian judges did not make it onto the free dance panel. The short dance panel was not altogether friendly toward Virtue and Moir. The free dance panel? The French topped both the technical and component scores, by a fraction.
The rest was craziness. The Canadian and Japanese judges placed Canucks Piper Gilles and Paul Poirier fifth in the free dance (according to Skating Scores calculations), but the Slovakian and U.S. judges placed them tenth. All this while Tatiana Tarasova was saying on the Russian airwaves that she loved them and found them “like a drop of fresh blood.” Gilles and Poirier finished eighth overall, but at least they went home with Poirier saying: “This may be the most beautiful compliment I have ever received.”
Canada had three teams in the top eight, an enormous achievement. Kaitlyn Weaver and Andrew Poje, after delivering an emotional “Je Suis Malade,” were awarded third place by the Canadian judge, but the U.S. judge had them tenth. And gave them a -2 for an element in the short, while every other judge on every element gave the Canadians GOE on the plus side. Overall, Weaver and Poje seemed undermarked and although they had been world silver and bronze medalists in previous years, they finished only seventh.
For now, none of this matters. That .79 made Virtue and Moir gold medalists. “You know what the beautiful part is?” Moir said in Pyeongchang. “We’re done. I don’t have to look at the breakdown anymore. It’s fantastic. I’ve never felt so free.”
“It’s everything we dreamed about,” Virtue said. And back home in Ilderton, Ont., a packed community centre rocked with the sound of people rising to their feet and cheering. The comeback had been worth it. Virtue and Moir weren’t coming back for silver this time. Only gold would do.
Said Nelson Mandela once: “It always seems impossible until it’s done.”