Hosted by veteran broadcasters Scott Russell and Andi Petrillo, Road to the Olympic Games chronicles athletes’ journeys on and off the field of play. Here’s what to look for on this weekend’s show on CBC Television and CBCSports.ca.
HELSINKI, Finland — If the old adage, “It takes two,” is true, then when it comes to Canadian sport, Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir take the cake.
They are arguably the longest surviving partnership in the annals of athletic endeavour in this country.
This week at the world figure skating championships they are celebrating their 20th anniversary competing together.
“Our first time out she was seven and I was nine,” Moir said with a chuckle as he prepared for practice. “We’ve shared a lot over the years. We’ve gone through growth spurts at basically the same time and the homes where we grew up were very close to each other.”
Virtue and Moir are closing out what could be a triumphant comeback season. They are chasing a third world title and then next year, if all goes according to plan, will compete for another Olympic gold medal to accompany the one they captured in Vancouver in 2010.
They’ve looked brilliant each time they’ve skated here. The practice sessions are well attended and they are obviously adored. It’s safe to say they are two of the biggest headliners of this summit on ice.
Twenty years is a long time any way you look at it. In sport a partnership of this longevity is almost unheard of.
Meaghan Benfeito and Roseline Filion, the synchronized divers who won two Olympic medals, first appeared together at the world championships in Montreal in 2005 and their run lasted 11 years before Filion retired after the Rio de Janeiro Games.
The legendary equestrian tandem of Ian Millar and his mount, Big Ben, competed for a dozen years, winning more than 40 Grand Prix titles and back-to-back World Cup finals.
Although they won Olympic gold and more than $4 million in prize money on the show-jumping circuit, Eric Lamaze and his stallion, Hickstead, were paired for only five years.
Rowers Marnie McBean and Kathleen Heddle won three gold medals as part of the same crew, pair or double at the Olympics. Not even their seven-year string of tremendous performances comes close to the bond which exists between Virtue and Moir.
McBean-Heddle: ‘We don’t compare’
“I don’t even think we can compare,” McBean said when asked about the significance of the Virtue and Moir tandem. “Partnerships like these are like arranged marriages. Coaches often assemble them, but then it’s up to the athletes to make it work. They have to be comfortable in each other’s space and to give space when needed.”
You can see it in everything Virtue and Moir do.
On or off the ice, they seem comfortable with each other. They move as one when they need to, but have their own unique personalities.
She can be quiet and gentle. He is more prone to the wisecrack. But this never gets in the way of an unspoken comfort zone based on admiration and, above all, understanding.
“From the very start we concentrated on the foundation of our relationship,” Virtue said with emphasis. “We never reduced this to blame or name calling or coaching each other. We care so much about the sport that we invest everything we have into it.”
It’s working now just as it always has and they are about to put the finishing touches on what has been a successful return to the competitive fray. The previous two seasons had been spent doing skating shows following the pair of silver medals they won in the ice dance and team event at the Sochi Olympics.
They’ve won everything they’ve entered so far, including an elusive Grand Prix final victory which had been the only thing missing from their skating curriculum vitae.
“And what’s remarkable is their skating is better than it’s ever been,” said Tracy Wilson, Olympic ice dance medalist, broadcaster and now coach as she watched them master the ice at the cave-like practice facility in Helsinki.
“They are quite simply equally committed to this journey. And the driving force for them is the strength and continued success of the partnership.”
Two major changes
Virtue and Moir made two major changes at the outset of this season, moving their training base to Montreal and opting for a new coaching staff.
They’ve departed their long-time practice facility in Michigan where they worked alongside their rivals and clubmates Meryl Davis and Charlie White of the United States, who edged them for Olympic gold in Sochi. Virtue and Moir made the switch in order to work with former world championship medalists in the ice dance, Marie-France Dubreuil and Patrice Lauzon, as well as choreographer David Wilson and another coach, Roman Hagenauer.
In what is a quirk of the skating business, Virtue and Moir are now in the same camp as the reigning world ice dance champions, Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron of France, who employ the same coaching staff.
They are on the ice daily with their newfound rivals but it makes little difference because the still evolving personal connection between the two pairs is able to survive all challenges. Even the relative youth of the French skaters who are respectively almost eight and seven years younger than the Canadians.
“Theirs is a special relationship,” said Lauzon, who argues Virtue and Moir have found some kind of magical common ground. “They’re in the middle between being a couple and work colleagues.
“They are like soulmates. They never criticize or coach each other, which is the toughest thing to do when you compete together for that long.”
Just before they finished practice, Virtue cut herself slightly while performing a grab of her skate blade, which is a part of the routine.
The music stopped and while she was being attended to by the medic, Moir patiently circled the ice until she was ready to resume. They then completed the session flawlessly to the delight of the spectators in the stands.
They never missed a beat and while Tessa jokingly bemoaned the blood-stained sleeve of her brand new skating costume as they left the rink, Scott refused to make an issue of the mishap, letting it pass as if it was just a regular occurrence that they’ve got completely under control.
“One of my earliest conversations that I can recall having with them was about respecting each other and never using the other as a personality foil for a punch line,” McBean said. “They are very good at understanding what each other needs.”
In talking about their lifelong sporting association, which has been further extended, Virtue and Moir are quick to point out they are both all in with regard to this return to elite competition.
“It’s the beauty of coming back. We still have lots of lessons to learn and a chance to get better,” Moir said. “There is nowhere I’d rather be at this point in my life than skating with her.”
And you can tell she echoes his thoughts.
Perhaps it’s because Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir came to the conclusion a long time ago that it takes the two of them to be number one in the world of figure skating.