It is a rare sort of confidence, perhaps one that even boarders on chutzpah, that allows an athlete at the centre of the world’s biggest stage to stop and take a moment for themselves. But there, in the quiet few seconds before the music started at Sochi Olympic’s Ice Dance competition was Scott Moir, winking at some fans. They were standing up and waving as he and his partner Tessa Virtue stood frozen and ready, he explained, and he could hardly reciprocate, so he did the next best thing.
As it turns out, Virtue was also busy then, looking around the stands for her family. She managed to pick her two older brothers, Casey and Kevin, out of the capacity crowd at the Iceberg Palace and make a little eye contact of her own, getting a nod of encouragement in return.
The two minutes that followed those little exchanges were just as easy and light. Skating to a medley of Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong classics, Virtue and Moir seemed as magical as they had been in winning gold at Vancouver 2010. Perfectly in synch, full of both energy and grace, and generally, just enjoy the hell out of themselves.
When the music stopped, and the crowd roared, Moir popped up and danced a little more, staging his own end zone victory celebration. Then he and Virtue shared a long embrace. It was the short program that they wanted to deliver. “That was more like it. That’s what I said to Tessa right after we finished,” said the 26-year-old from Ilderton, Ont. “That’s the skate that we’ve been having in practice and to do it at this stage felt pretty good.”
For six days, since they competed in the team figure skating competition helping Canada to a silver medal, they’ve been sitting around waiting to get down to the business of defending their Olympic title. “We’re living the dream right now, in the Athlete’s village..and I was just miserable,” said Moir. “I just wanted my chance. I wanted to be on the stage.”
The score, 76.33, was below their season’s best, and seemed slightly at odds with the crowd’s, and their own feelings about the program, but it didn’t matter. This year, Virtue and Moir have had to get used to the judges who once loved them unreservedly, finding tiny faults. Tonight, it was an imperceptible error in their finnsteps, a 36-second compulsory segment that is judged on six elements. And somewhere in there, they lost a level, and a full point.
Either way, they now sit in the place they are growing accustomed to—second, behind their friends, training partner and fiercest rivals, Meryl Davis and Charlie White of the United States. Their short dance to a Broadway medley from My Fair Lady, was more formal and staid, but it earned them high technical scores, and a season’s best mark of 78.89.
Afterwards, Marina Zueva, the Russian who coaches both teams in the Detroit suburb of Bloomfield Hills, said she couldn’t tell the difference. “It’s very hard to say,” she said. “A decision is technical, three people decide. They have zoom cameras and slow motion. The dance is very fast, You can’t even see it with you normal eyes.”
Having worked with Davis and White, who won the silver in Vancouver, since 2001, and Virtue and Moir since 2005, she is not inclined to pick sides. They are all her babies. And it is Zueva who selects the music, picks the costumes and choreographs the routines, trying to tailor everything to their distinct personalities and dynamics. “It’s like apples and oranges,” said the coach. “And today, if the panel decides for this one, tomorrow they will decide for the other.”
Before the Games even started, the French sports newspaper L’Équipe published a story alleging that the fix was in for Ice Dance. That the Russians and Americans had cut a deal, allowing the hosts to win the team event, and Davis and White to take the gold. But everyone involved has scoffed at the notion. And there is no hard evidence. The Americans are slightly ahead. Just as they were at last year’s world championships, and through most of the current season.
Virtue said the rivalry is mostly a creation of the media anyway. And that it has oddly been easier to ignore here at the Olympics. Belonging to different national teams, training at different times and competing in different flights, they’ve hardly seen their American friends. And can therefore simply focus on their own performance.
After practice this morning, Virtue walked through the empty media zone and topped at the microphone, going so far as to imagine a pen full of pushy, tired and slightly over-ripe reporters. “I was visualizing how I wanted to feel when I stood in front of you guys tonight, and it’s even better.”
Monday, when the long program will determine the medal winners, will be another long day and waiting and pretending.
The lead that Davis and White hold is not too big to overcome, but it’s almost beside the point to the Canadian pair. All they want to do is skate their hearts out.
“We sat in the kiss and cry and looked at each other and said that it doesn’t matter,” Virtue said of the instant the marks flashed up on the scoreboard. “That was the moment we wanted.”
Whatever happens, Virtue and Moir are determined to do it right.