With the gold medal on the line, Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir had no idea their rivals from France had just set the world record.
Less than 24 hours earlier, the Canadian ice dancers huddled with their team of coaches, trainers and sports psychologists and came up with a plan. They all agreed — no matter what the French team did during the ice dance long program on Tuesday, Virtue and Moir didn’t want to know about it.
No one would tell them the French team’s marks. No one would even raise an eyebrow. They would studiously avoid the televisions backstage, and they would — as Moir later put it — cover their ears when the score was announced on the arena sound system.
Instead, Virtue and Moir would step onto the ice for what is expected to be the last Olympic appearance of their storied careers with a clear mind, devoid of any numbers in their head telling them what marks they needed to win.
“That’s the beautiful thing about skating,” Moir said, recalling a long-ago conversation with one of Canada’s best figure skaters that stuck with him. “Kurt Browning told us once that you compete against other skaters, but everybody gets their own four minutes, so just control that.”
So out they went in search of their second gold medal in figure skating’s glamour event, and their fifth at the Olympics, not knowing that France’s Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron had just turned in an extremely high score amid rumblings over the past two days that marks were being fudged by some judges to favour the French. Their combined score of 205.28 for the short and long programs was a new world record.
When Virtue and Moir got off the ice a few minutes later and received their mark, 122.40 for the long program, they stared blankly up at the screen. Was it enough for the win when added to their marks from the short program a day earlier? They had no idea. They hadn’t done the math.
A few seconds later – an eternity from where they were sitting – the announcer declared a new world record for the Canadians, and a combined score of 206.07, giving them the gold.
“We thought that was a good enough skate to win us an Olympic title,” Moir said. “But you never know in this sport,” he added, hinting at the Canadian camp’s confusion over some of the marks.
But the blind skate was a risky strategy. Four years ago in Sochi, the same tactic backfired on Patrick Chan. Heading into the men’s long program, the race for gold was down to him and Japan’s Yuzuru Hanyu.
Chan decided he didn’t want to know how his closest competitor performed. So when Hanyu skated disastrously, leaving the door wide open for Chan to win, he had no idea that victory was his for the taking. All he had to do was skate cleanly and stay on his feet. Instead, Chan stuck to a more aggressive routine, fell several times, and settled for silver.
In that moment, what he didn’t know meant everything.
But in Pyeongchang, Virtue and Moir decided they needed to stop paying attention to Papadakis and Cizeron, who they’d been battling all season. The world’s two top teams share the same coaches — former Canadian ice dancers Marie-France Dubreuil and Patrice Lauzon — and Virtue and Moir have watched the highly-skilled French skaters hundreds of times during workouts in Montreal. “They were terrifying the hell out of me every day,” Moir said.
Both teams came into the gold-medal showdown with virtually no margin for error.
In a short program on Monday that will be remembered for what Papadakis called her “worst nightmare coming true,” a clasp on the skater’s costume broke, causing the top of her dress to slip down, partially exposing her breast to the television cameras.
Yet, despite the wardrobe malfunction, Papadakis managed to pull her dress back into place, and she and Cizeron salvaged the remainder of the routine to finish just 1.74 points back of Virtue and Moir, who had set a new world record for the short program. While there were murmurs of questionable judging in favour of the French, Lauzon suggested he didn’t think it was a factor. Based on the French team’s marks, the coach said it appeared some of the judges hadn’t noticed the momentary costume gaffe, even if the cameras did.
Those high scores left the two teams in a dead heat heading into Tuesday’s free dance, and it was Virtue and Moir, in their third Olympics, who prevailed over the less-experienced French team, who were appearing at their first Games.
Skating to music from Moulin Rouge, Virtue and Moir drew loud cheers from the audience as they performed a provocative routine that involved a complex lift where Moir raises Virtue over his head and spins while she wraps her legs around his neck, balancing precariously on his shoulders.
At the end of the program, the two embraced. But rather than shed tears over what is expected to be their final Olympic skate, Virtue smiled broadly, while Moir pumped his fists exuberantly – a reaction he would later mock himself over for being a little too excited.
They had more than a few reasons to celebrate though. The gold medal makes them the most decorated figure skaters in Olympic history with five. Their other medals include a gold in 2010, a silver in 2014, a silver in the 2014 team event, and a gold in the Pyeongchang team event.
While Papadakis and CIzeron took the silver medal, American siblings Maia and Alex Shibutani claimed the bronze with a combined score of 192.59.
Papadakis was surprised at how well she and Cizeron skated, even if the two held the world record for only a short time before Virtue and Moir shattered the mark.
“Today we did something that we barely thought we could do, and we never skated that way before,” she said. “To do that in our first Olympics, it’s really something that we’re proud of.”
For Virtue and Moir, the victory marks the end of the comeback they mounted a few years ago after taking a break from skating after Sochi, where they were disappointed to have finished second. However, Virtue said the two didn’t return to the ice only to avenge that loss.
“Our motives were pure. We really wanted to test our capabilities, and it wasn’t because we were bitter about Sochi or we wanted to rewrite history, or we had something to prove,” Virtue said. “If anything, it was just that we missed the structure of training, we missed that competitive fire and spirit, and it didn’t feel like we had accomplished everything we wanted to.”
Virtue and Moir have often said this would probably be their final Olympics, and though they weren’t ready to announce their retirement after winning the gold, Moir indicated it was very likely that Pyeongchang is their swan song. He is 30 and she is 28, and neither thought they would compete in three Olympics when they started skating together 20 years ago.
“It’s time for us to move on,” Moir said. “And we have some great ice dancers in Canada who will happily step up and take our spot.”
The two will skip the upcoming world championships, and Moir said any formal retirement announcement would be made later, once the gold-medal buzz has worn off.
“If experience has told us anything it’s just to wait a couple of minutes, and make sure it’s for sure before we retire,” he said.
Asked if Canadian figure skating will ever see ice dancers dominate the way Virtue and Moir have over the past decade, Lauzon paused. He didn’t want to say no. But he knows it’s not likely.
“It will take a long time,” he said. “They are once-in-a-generation talents that you don’t see often.”
The two have been skating together since they were children, a rarity in a sport where competitors often change partners as they grow. That familiarity makes them difficult to compete with, Dubreuil added.
“Eyes closed they know what the other one is doing,” Dubreuil said. “It’s pretty spectacular.”
The Globe and Mail, February 19, 2018