Five medals, three Games, two consummate figure skaters
On the anniversary of yet another triumph, Canada’s Tessa Virtue looks back on an Olympic journey like no other during which she and ice dance partner Scott Moir have beaten nerves, overcome ambivalence and taken the acclaim at multiple Olympic Games.
When ice dancers Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir decided to enter the Olympic Winter Games PyeongChang 2018, they didn’t perhaps get the response they were hoping for. “It was such a risk for us, coming back into competition,” Virtue said. “Nobody was pleased. Not our competitors, not our federation, not our friends. Our families thought we were crazy. So we had to prove we were doing it for the right reasons. We stayed very process-based, seeing what we were capable of.”
Virtue and Moir had already undertaken an amazing Olympic journey, ranking them among Canada’s most-recognised and beloved athletes – and many felt that a third Games would be a step too far for the duo. They’d won ice dance gold at their debut home Games, Vancouver 2010, aged just 20 (Virtue) and 22 (Moir). But four years later at Sochi 2014 they’d got silver – a fine achievement, but not what was expected. “We didn’t want to go into PyeongChang and complete the set by getting bronze,” admitted Virtue.
“But taking time away from the sport, we’d gained a new perspective, and that’s what paid dividends. We weren’t too wrapped up in the all-consuming nature of sport. We had the chance to walk away, and see there is a big, wide world out there. And after that, we realised we were privileged to take the ice, and skate over those Olympic rings again.”
Their military approach to training paid off this time around. “I remember getting on the plane to Korea and thinking, ‘Mission accomplished’, because we’d done everything we possibly could to set ourselves up,” Virtue said.
“We were so prepared and mentally focused, we were in the zone. Of course it’s sport and you never know what can happen when the music starts, but we were so dialled-in. I felt incredibly present. I felt unstoppable. We were confident in our team and entourage, we had the best professionals. We were right where we needed to be, at the right time.”
Despite their perfect prep, Virtue admits to sickening nerves before they went on to the rink for their breath-taking final performance (having already won team gold). “We skated last so there was a 45-minute wait after our warm-up. Those minutes were so full of pressure. It was terrifying, I wouldn’t wish it on anyone. I was questioning every life decision I’ve ever made.
“Scott kept reminding me that this is exactly what we wanted. But he now says he was just trying to make me feel better and he felt equally bad. We knew we couldn’t miss because we knew Gabby [Gabriella Papadakis] and Guil [Guillaume Cizeron] were going to lay it down – and they did.”
In the free dance, Papadakis and Cizeron broke the world record for overall score. Minutes later, with an astonishing routine, Virtue and Moir broke it themselves to claim their fifth overall Olympic medal – making them the most-decorated figure skaters in Olympic history.
“We found our joy in being athletes in PyeongChang,” she said. “Our biggest joy was being on the ice. Every moment revolved around just what it would take to win the Olympics. And we made sure we took those precious few moments away from the crowd to acknowledge that this was everything we’d dreamed of.”
Each of their Olympic experiences has been vastly different, Virtue admitted. “It’s interesting to look back on Vancouver because we were such babies,” she said. “There was such a sense of naivety about us. I’m not sure we truly grasped the magnitude of the Olympics. Of course it was our dream, but I’m not sure we had a clue. We knew it was our time, we knew we were ready.
“It’s easy to look back and romanticise it, but we were so proud of how Canadians welcomed the world. There was a tangible buzz in the city, it was magical. We also found a serenity on the ice and I think that was the first time and place we’d experienced that, really being in flow as an athlete. We were in sync. If I’m honest, we’ve spent eight years chasing that feeling. We didn’t get it again until PyeongChang, and that’s a neat and cyclical way to end our Olympic career.”
Many Canadian skating fans look back on Sochi 2014 with bitterness: Virtue and Moir’s silver medal was surrounded by judging controversy. Tessa herself, however, sees it completely differently. “If you’re comparing all three Games, as an entire experience – I’d say that Sochi is the standout, and the best month of my life.
“It was me and Scott against the world. We’d struggled that season, we felt isolated, we couldn’t please those around us, or the judges. We were being the team people expected us to be, instead of owning who we were. But we found so much resilience and strength together. Because it felt like the cards were stacked against us, we had the best time. We partied and went to events. There was a real freedom. And we were very content with our skates. If they had been our last Olympics, there would have been no bitterness.
“Meryl [Davis] and Charlie [White, USA, who won gold] were an amazing team and they delivered. People don’t want to bring Sochi up with us. There’s a misconception that it was a dark time, but it wasn’t.”
The big question, however, remains inconclusively answered. Virtue and Moir have all but dismissed the possibility of skating at Beijing 2022 – without saying a definitive no.
“I don’t think so,” Virtue said when asked if she can be tempted to do a fourth Games. “There had been no official announcement, and you have to be careful about what you say. But I think there will be a statement soon about where we’re heading. It’s hard to imagine topping PyeongChang – carrying the flag, winning both events. Sometimes you have to know when to walk away. We will always have that competitive fire but you’ve also got to be smart. Otherwise you’ll be 75 and wanting to skate at the Olympics.”
The pair are currently planning a major tour of Canada, to “say thank you for people supporting us for two decades, and give something back”. Virtue feels creatively stimulated by their tour productions, and is considering doing an MBA, too.
“It used to be that every decision I made was, ‘Does this help me win the Olympics?’ Without that, life is daunting and exciting. And I’m not sick of the sight of Scott, no. Working together is all we’ve ever known and by doing these tours we’ve got to know each other differently, in that business setting. We’ve got great respect for each other, creatively and technically. We are trying to push how people skate, and we are inextricably linked for quite some time.”