This article was originally published in Maclean's Magazine on March 3, 2014
Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir made their bargain a long time ago; to stick with each other and love a sport that wouldn’t always love them back. They were only seven and nine, and too shy to even talk to each other when Moir’s mom, a figure skating coach, first paired them together. They climbed the kiddie ranks—juvenile, pre-novice, novice—and left home at the end of junior high school to further their Olympic dreams. In 2010, when they took the gold in Vancouver with a transcendent free skate in front of an ecstatic home crowd, they had already been together for 13 years. Four years later in Sochi, they were grizzled veterans at 24 and 26, with seven Canadian titles and two world championships. But the reality has always been the same. In ice dance, your performance is what you control, not your score.
Over two nights at the Iceberg Skating Palace, Virtue and Moir were dazzling. Full of energy, grace and fun in a Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers-esque short program set to a medley of Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong hits. And by turns joyful, elegant and passionate in their Russian-themed free skate to the music of two Alexanders, Glazunov and Scriabin. “We couldn’t have asked for more from our performances, and that’s the best feeling as an athlete,” Virtue said later. “We did everything,” added Moir. But on both evenings, the judges ranked them second behind the American pair, Meryl Davis and Charlie White. Virtue and Moir were left to collect the Sochi silver, the same colour they had captured in the team figure skating event that opened the Games.
The outcome was not a surprise. Coming into these Olympics, Davis and White, the world No.1-ranked pair, had bested the Canadian couple five straight times. Winners of the silver in Vancouver, they had been neck and neck with Virtue and Moir for years, alternating as world champions since 2010. Lately, however, it seemed the judges had finally settled on a favourite. “We kind of felt the momentum shift,” said Moir. “We could see it coming a little bit in the fall, and even last year.” And it precipitated what might best be described as a family crisis.
The lazy shorthand is to describe Virtue and Moir and Davis and White as rivals, but they are so much more. Since 2005, they have shared the same Russian-born coach, Marina Zoueva, and trained side by side at a rink in suburban Detroit. They are friends. They have grown up together; the bond goes all the way back to 2001. “They have competed against each other since baby,” is how Zoueva puts it. They are each others’ only real competition. On every occasion Davis and White have lost a major contest, Virtue and Moir have won it. And vice versa.
One of Zoueva’s great successes has been to tailor the programs she choreographs to the personalities of her skaters. Virtue and Moir’s are expressive and open, making prime use of her beauty and his stature as the biggest ham this side of an Iberian mountain village. Davis and White’s are more buttoned-down, and far closer to the classic ice dance style. At the rink, the two best teams in the world “look like apples and oranges,” says Zoueva. When the judges started to clearly prefer the one fruit over the other, Virtue and Moir went to their coach and bluntly told her they were unhappy. “We weren’t going to let anything get in the way of our goals,” said Moir. “Under no circumstances were we going to be happy with the silver medal.” Zoueva listened, and tried to help them reshape their programs to the altered reality, but nothing seemed to improve Virtue and Moir’s marks. “It felt a little bit like we were in quicksand,” he said.
Things reached a boiling point in early January, when the U.S. and Canadian nationals were held on the same weekend, and Zoueva decided to go to Boston with Davis and White, rather than to Ottawa with Virtue and Moir. The Canadians considered finding a new coach, but decided to stick it out. Post-competition, Moir said he now appreciates what a difficult situation Zoueva was in. In Vancouver she had been busy celebrating with him and Tessa, and consoling Meryl and Charlie. Now the shoe was on the other foot. He credits his mother, Alma, herself still a coach back home in Ilderton, Ont., for reminding him of another truth about the sport—there is always an angry set of skaters and parents after every competition.
Of course, there’s also the question of perfidy. Before the Sochi Games even started, the French sports newspaper L’Équipe published an anonymously sourced story alleging that the fix was in for ice dance. The Russians and Americans had cut a deal, the paper claimed, allowing the hosts to win the team event, and Davis and White to take the gold. Although everyone involved scoffed at the notion, Canadian fans and media were quick to seize upon Virtue and Moir’s second-place finish in the short program as proof—their score knocked down a couple of points for an error in the “ﬁnnsteps” that even the inventor of the move couldn’t detect. (“Hope @Virtue_Moir wins,” wrote Petri Kokko. “Americans timing off in the #finnstep and restrained even otherwise.”) But it was hardly a smoking gun.
Still, even skating great Elvis Stojko weighed in, arguing, “I looked at the component scores. Tessa and Scott had the lower scores all the way across, which didn’t seem right to me. Performance wise, interpretation, I had Tessa and Scott above. I think there’s too much of a spread in the points and not only are they second, it’s too far behind. I don’t know what the judges were thinking.”
Davis and White moved even further ahead in the free skate, where both couples were flawless. More evidence of the judges’ preference for a good storyline, perhaps, than corruption. Davis and White are the first Americans to ever win an ice dance gold—just as Virtue and Moir became the first North Americans to be named Olympic champions, at home in Vancouver. The Canadian pair walked a fine line in comments about the judging, praising the “new” system put in place in 2004, following the Salt Lake City judging scandal, while suggesting things could always be improved. “It didn’t go our way,” said Moir. “That’s the way the cookie crumbles.”
As the final scores for Davis and White flashed up, Virtue and Moir made a small show of disappointment for the cameras. But it wasn’t real, and within seconds, Moir was back mugging for the lens and sticking out his tongue. It was a little show, he said later. Just like the reality TV series he and Virtue had done for the W network in the run-up to Sochi.
After the podium celebration, the two couples posed for a joint photo, wrapping their respective flags around their shoulders as Zoueva stood between them. Then they shared a group hug. At the press conference, the Canadians and the Americans seemed more like co-conspirators than sworn enemies, goofing around and sharing inside jokes, even as the media prodded them for an unkind quote. What they got instead was real respect.
“No athlete wants to be in this position. You come here to win,” said Moir. “But it is easier when you see how hard these guys work every day. Regardless of what style you prefer, it was a well-deserved medal.” White, who looks like a surfer dude with curly blond hair, was even more effusive. The Americans’ greatness is a direct consequence of their 13-year struggle against Virtue and Moir. “It’s knowing that if you are not perfect, you can forget about your dreams. It’s a constant striving for perfection,” he said. “There’s a lot of soul searching when you are at the top of the game like the four of us have been.”
Virtue and Moir seem pretty sure that their competitive career is now over. Even as defending Olympic champions, they mostly came to Sochi in search of a different experience. The highs of Vancouver had been tempered by the pressure, and the chronic and very painful leg injuries that required Virtue to undergo seven hours a day of physiotherapy just to get out on the ice and skate. “This time was so different. I got to wander around the village and hang out with the other athletes,” she said. “My mom said, ‘The Olympics really suit you. You seem so happy.’ That resonated. This is a really special and fun place to be when you are prepared, and love what you do.”
Their ice dance silver is an honourable one, and it will hold no bitter memories. As Moir puts it, they’re “lucky kids,” getting to wear the Maple Leaf and winning three medals over two Games. “What an honour it’s been for us,” he said. “We can only hope we’ve made Canada proud like they made us proud.”
In a way, the outrage about their scores back home might be their crowning accomplishment, proof that their victory in Vancouver had elevated a sport that few paid attention to into a national obsession. On the day of their short program in Sochi, 5.1 million people tuned in to watch Canada play Finland in men’s hockey. Then 4.7 milllion stuck around to cheer them on. They’ve made us care—deeply and passionately—about ice dancing. And that’s a winning performance, regardless of the score.
Maclean's March 3, 2014