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Virtue and Moir Prepare for Canadian Nationals

by Alexandra Stevenson

(9 January 2012)  Tuesday, Olympic Champions, Tessa Virtue & Scott Moir, spoke in a rare press teleconference saying they are confident about their progress towards a fifth national title in the past six years (they were unable to defend in 2010 due to the reoccurrence of her shin problems), and a successful March defense of their world championship title in the city where they were both born, London, Ontario.

The Canadian national treasures appeared calm and assured as they prepare to compete at the end of next week at the Mississauga Hershey Centre.  Baring the end of the world, a cyclone or earthquake, they are a sure-fire certainty to win, and their obvious real focus is on retaining their world title in March at the Budweiser Gardens in London, Ontario.

They are thrilled that they will appear in the most important event in their sport this season in the city where they were both born, although they have trained in the U.S. in Canton, Michigan at the Arctic Edge facility for the last eight years.

But, in December, they were beaten in the Grand Prix Final which took place in Sochi, in the new Olympic venue, by their training mates, the US title holders, Olympic silver medalists and 2011 world champions, Meryl Davis & Charlie White.

That situation is unique in that the two couples train daily together, both submitting to Marina Zoueva’s eagle eyes. “Of course, there is no problem,” Zoueva claims. “I would not stand any nonsense from either of them. Both couples, and my other charges, are very professional.”

Moir readily admits, “It keeps us on our toes. Sometimes when you are tired, you want to slack off, but they are there and you know you can’t.”

Virtue has explained several times, “Charlie & Meryl inspire us. No one wants to leave the ice until the last minute. The rivalry really is a positive thing. We get pushed by our leading rivals. Who wouldn’t want to have that inspiration on a daily basis? We are all better for it, including the other people who train with us.”

Moir, 25, admitted, “Our main focus is the world title. How many people have ever had a world championship in their home town? That’s incredible. And the pressure will be intense. But we have to use that, to bring us energy. We’ve taken in a few of the Knights’ hockey games there.”

Virtue, 23, added, “The arena for Worlds is known as a very loud rink. Noise levels in rinks vary, and can throw someone who’s not used to that volume, but it’s something we’ve grown accustomed to for some time. We had that experience in the Olympics in Vancouver. Marina has been preparing us for eight or nine years and she’s very thorough about dealing with every aspect of competition.”

Canadian researcher, Barb Strain, is confident they will rise to the occasion. She watched Moir do that during the Olympics in Vancouver. She remembers, “In the warm-up, Scott just skated around the rink with his arms out just absorbing all the energy from the shattering noise that was pouring out from the audience, who all seemed to be screaming at full blast.”

Moir explains, “Our coach, Marina, has a couple of different tactics for getting us to concentrate no matter what. As we run through our routines, she’ll unexpectedly turn the music way up or try to distract us in some way, even having some skaters get in our way or following us yelling things. We’ve got to the point where we can do the program with or without music, and finish exactly when we should. We keep going without getting distracted. We’ve learned to completely focus on the job in hand.”

But first they must defend their Canadian title. Although it has hosted other skating events, including the Skate Canada Grand Prix events in 2011, 2003 and 2000, the Hershey Arena in Mississauga, which is not far from the Toronto Airport, has not held nationals before.

Canada is a nation known for its love of ice dance. There was a Waltz competition way back in 1910, and competition in Waltz and Tenstep from 1935. But, despite their fame, Virtue & Moir are far from earning a record number of titles. That mark was set by Shae-Lynn Bourne & Victor Kraatz, who won ten Canadian senior ice dance championship titles in the 11 years 1993-2003. (They didn’t compete in 2000.)

They were the first Canadians to win a world ice dance title which they did in Washington, D.C. in 2003.

Prior to that Tracy Wilson and Rob McCall were the first Canadians to win seven straight ice dance titles 1982-1988. However, Virtue & Moir’s Olympic gold and two world titles have taken them into a higher realm of fame.

Moir has admitted that without the current judging system they might not have reached the top as soon as they did. They were able to make progress faster, much faster than they would have done under the “old” system, in which the judges had complete control of results. Nationalism was a problem and the established competitors were sometimes “held up”, as a reward for past achievement. New couples had to pay their due before moving up in standings.

Now there is a Technical Panel giving each element a “Level”, which has an enormous effect on results. But they know they are one fall away from disaster. They have been through a lot since they were teamed together in 1997, by his aunt, who was a skating instructor. She remembers all Moir wanted to do was play ice hockey and hardly spoke to his partner. He only began to like ice dancing when they began to win medals.

Moir has revealed, “Now, we are all trying new elements and constantly increasing our difficulty, which does make it risky. You are seeing more accidents and ice dance is much more of a sport now. Just the slightest error can destroy your chance. It is far more athletic.”

Their season started last year with a major change. Igor Shpilband, who had trained them alongside Zoueva since both moved to Canton, was dismissed from the rink complex. Virtue explained, “It was a big surprise, but Marina brought in Oleg Epstein, who’s there full time now, and Maurizio Margaglio, and (others) and we have been fully prepared for what’s ahead.”

They have also had to deal with their recent defeat to Davis & White in the Grand Prix Final in Sochi, which was used as the tryout for the figure skating facilities for the 2014 Olympic Games.

As usual, Virtue took a positive approach to their performance. "It was a great skate for us. We had to fight through it but that's not surprising considering the intensity of the competition. We are where we want to be at this point and we just have to go home and fine tune the program. There's a lot of room to grow.”

They were certainly placed considerably above the rest of the competitors. The Russian duos seemed to collapse from the strain of discovering the Russian President, Vladimir Putin, was in the audience. (He left after the ice dance final, not staying until the Pairs Free Skate, held later that evening.)

When they got home, Virtue and Moir said they made changes, mostly to the Short Program, which is set to “And the Waltz Goes On” by Anthony Hopkins. Virtue explained, “The changes were mostly to the side-by-side footwork in the Short Program.

“We were trying to present a piece about a relationship. Truthfully, it's just two people who enjoy each other and are in love and dancing to beautiful music. We started with this really complicated storyline. But it's hard to get it across in three minutes and include all of the technical elements as well.

“We wanted to do that and, really, just create some beautiful movement. The story was a little bit too complex and I don’t think it showed through, so we decided to come up with a simpler version."

Moir said, “There's a history. There are the ebbs and flows, the ups and downs. We tried to showcase the reality but then we decided we had to simplify it.”

Virtue said they had benefited from the Sochi contest. “It was held in the Iceberg Skating Palace. It was a spectacular venue. The rink is just stunning. You drive up and it really does look like an iceberg, just all lit up in turquoise and this beautiful glass.

“It has a nice feel to it. We were going in expecting that because it’s a brand new building, and there is always something about an Olympic venue. The ice was great, everyone was excited about that. Even when we were just sitting in the stands watching another division, it just has a nice warm feeling to it.”

She chose not to comment on the fact that there weren’t that many spectators. It is believed tickets weren’t made available because of the huge amount of on-going 24-hour construction situation.

Moir said, “For us, it was a great privilege to be in Sochi. The venue definitely has an Olympic feeling to it. It reminded me a lot of the arena in Vancouver.”

Virtue added, “And we both appreciated the great weather – so unlike Moscow (which had a blizzard) or St. Petersburg.”

While in Sochi, Putin was asked about the traffic problems. He said, “It’s true the number of vehicles on our roads is increasing each year because more families can afford to buy more than one car. We don’t want less cars. We want to have better motorways. We are working on this problem and, I think, we will solve it in time for the Olympics or even before then.”

Moir said, “It was an intense competition and you have to bring your best game each time. There’s not a lot of wiggle room. These guys had great skates this week. We decided to go home and figure out what is putting us second place and try to fix it.

“We took five days off over Christmas. We did that last year, and it really worked. Really, what it does is give our bodies a chance to rest. It also re-motivates us, and recharges our batteries. Sometimes, going into the rink, it’s like Groundhog Day, you feel like you’re doing the same thing over and over again. So, taking that break really helps.

Zoueva admitted, “There’s lot of room for improvement. I have to check exactly what’s going on. I talk to judges. I talk to the technical people. The judges always give feedback. That’s how it works. The routines are not too risky, no way.

“They’re Olympic champions. If you want to be Olympic champion, you have to bring newness to the sport. You have to risk sometimes not achieving quite what you want."

They are pleased with their new interpretation of the classic Carmen story, in which instead of her being murdered by Don Jose, he collapses as a shattered being while she stands triumphant over him. “A victory for women’s lib? No?” asks a smiling Zoueva.

Moir was more down to earth. “The ISU wants us to skate routines that are “uplifting”. We can’t have me murdering her as in the opera. In our version, Tessa gets her freedom, while I’m a man ruined by my actions! I guess that’s a more hopeful ending.”

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