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Tessa Virtue, Scott Moir pushed ice dance boundaries throughout exemplary career

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The announcement was hardly unexpected, so much so that it created little buzz even on figure skating news groups.

After all, no one thought Canadians Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir would be extending their extraordinary competitive career after taking another post-Olympic leave from the sport with yet another Olympic ice dance medal (this one a second gold) on their résumé.

And retirement is what they in fact confirmed last week.

Yet there was part of me that hoped they would come back again, especially with this season’s world championships not only in their own country but also in the same city, Montreal, as their training base before the PyeongChang Olympics.

Whether they won another world medal or not in Montreal – and a recommitted Virtue and Moir were very likely to be on the podium, if not atop it – the couple would have been awash in deserved acclaim from the home crowd, as they were in winning their first Olympic title in Vancouver in 2010 with a free dance that left me spellbound then and does the same in every re-viewing.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3L46KQaKOhU

There will undoubtedly be some celebration of Virtue and Moir’s career as they perform on the Rock the Rink tour that begins Oct. 5 in British Columbia and meanders across Canada (with one stop in Cleveland) for nearly two months, playing mainly smaller arenas in smaller cities.

It would be more fitting if they could play the big stage, the 2020 world meet at the Bell Centre in Montreal. Maybe add them to the lineup for the gala? Skate Canada would say only they will have a role at this season’s worlds.

I had done interviews last year in PyeongChang to write an appreciation for Virtue and Moir after they won two more gold medals, team and individual, but that idea hit the digital dead letter file when the women’s singles event generated an avalanche of storylines.

Now, with the confirmation of their retirement, it’s time to use some of those interviews and the history-making achievements on their record to convey and appreciate their singular excellence.

*By the numbers: Virtue and Moir are one of two teams to win two Olympic ice dance golds, one of two to win three medals (gold-silver-gold; the other team, Marina Klimova and Sergei Ponomarenko of the Soviet Union, won bronze-silver-gold.) With two team event medals, silver and gold, Virtue and Moir have a record five Olympic figure skating medals.

In 2010, they were the youngest to win Olympic ice dance gold and the first Olympic dance champions from outside Europe. In 2018, he was the fourth-oldest man, she the third-oldest woman to win ice dance gold. They had competed against their final coaches, Marie-France Dubreuil and Patrice Lauzon, at Skate Canada in … 2006.

*British ice dance team Penny Coomes and Nicholas Buckland used their 2018 Olympic short dance as homage to their compatriots, Jayne Torvill and Christopher Dean, who dazzled the world with their innovative, thematic programs en route to the 1984 Olympic gold medal. Coomes and Buckland see Virtue and Moir’s skating as an extension of what Torvill and Dean had done.

“Torvill and Dean reinvigorated ice dance and took it to a place nobody had ever seen,” Coomes said. “Tessa and Scott have picked up that ball and carried it a little further.”

In the mid-1980s, there were few written rules governing ice dance, so Torvill and Dean revised the unwritten rules about programs that had left the discipline in predictable stasis.

By the time Virtue and Moir began senior international competition in fall 2006, the International Skating Union had implemented a scoring and judging system that codified everything, including ice dance.

Then a big piece of the new rules changed after 2010, with the compulsory dances eliminated. Virtue and Moir simply adapted.

“When the new judging system was introduced, you saw a lot of couples do the same things on the ice,” Coomes said. “Tessa and Scott took the rules and expanded them. Rather than stick in the box, they reached outside the box and grabbed new and innovative ideas.”

Some were in lifts created by Igor Shpilband, one of the coaches who helped them win the 2010 Olympic gold. Others came from their ability to use their surpassing skating skills to create corporeal unison that allowed two bodies to assume the moving shape of one. They were artists and technicians.

Their relationship in performance was so close and complete, especially in romantic programs, that many assumed, incorrectly, they were a couple off the ice as well.

As my colleague Lynn Rutherford wrote during her valedictory to Virtue and Moir: “Skating to the tender music from ‘The Umbrellas of Cherbourg’ or Gustav Mahler’s haunting ‘Adagietto,’ Virtue and Moir could break your heart as easily as they could spin off perfect twizzles.”

The Mahler-based free dance at the 2010 Olympics, to a piece of his Fifth Symphony, is Virtue and Moir’s transcendent masterpiece. As I wrote that night in the Chicago Tribune, they had an “exquisite interpretation … subtly underscoring the emotional power of the music and still managing eye-catching lifts and pirouettes and a striking final position worthy of ballet.”

As a whole, it was a magnificent exercise in understatement, the brilliance of simplicity, down to the costumes – she in a gossamer, white dress with some sequins from waist to shoulders, he in a white tuxedo shirt and black pants. Even in their most powerful moments of that program, what you remember is not the difficulty of the moves but the positions of their arms and bodies, of two people expressing themselves as one.

Then there was the Latin-themed short dance in 2018, an apparently incompatible mash up of “Sympathy for the Devil,” “Hotel California,” and “Oye Como Va.” Virtue and Moir made it a stunningly seamless integration of the very different music by the Rolling Stones, the Eagles and Santana, performing with so much emotional and physical energy, such sassy body heat and such finesse that their scores would allow them to take gold despite losing the free dance.

“I think Tessa and Scott have such a vast range of body of work, it’s possible for every fan and every skating person to find some program they love,” said Carol Lane, a longtime ice dance coach and Canadian TV commentator. “My favorite thing is a short dance to ‘Tears on My Pillow.’”

Virtue and Moir did that in 2004, when she was 14 years old and he 16, when they were still rising through juniors after seven years skating together.

They would compete together over a span of 21 years, so long that they would have two sets of formidable major rivals at the senior level – Meryl Davis and Charlie White of the United States until 2014; Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron of France after that. Coincidentally, Virtue and Moir trained in the same rink under the same coaches with first the U.S. team and then the French team while they were competing against each for Olympic and world titles.

The Canadians beat Davis and White for gold in 2010, lost to them in 2014, then beat Papadakis and Cizeron for gold in 2018. The three couples won nine of the past 10 world titles – three by Virtue and Moir, who skated in just five of those 10.

“Think back to Vancouver, the acrobatics they brought, the level of technical difficulty they brought … it was unheard of,” NBC Sports analyst and 2006 Olympic ice dance silver medalist Tanith White said. “Now [the 2018 Olympics] to see them incorporate back in the element of dance – it sounds silly, to put dance in ice dance – to bring in that musicality, that flexibility in their movement. That truly set it apart from anything anyone else is doing.”

*It only seems that Virtue and Moir rolled easily from one triumph to another during their careers.

Their move from Canada and Canadian coaches to suburban Detroit to train with demanding Russian émigrés Shpilband and Marina Zoueva in summer 2004 was fraught with teenage angst (she was 15, he 17) in an atmosphere Moir would describe as cold in a 2015 TED talk. From 2008 through 2010, Virtue battled compartment syndrome that would require surgery in each of those years and severely curtailed her training immediately before their first Olympics.

And then there was the comeback after a two-year hiatus following the 2014 Olympics.

“We would be lying if we said we were just coming back to be part of the pack,” Moir said when they announced the return. “That’s definitely not the goal.”

The goal was to challenge Papadakis and Cizeron, who had used the Canadians’ absence to establish themselves as the world’s dominant ice dance team with world titles in 2015 and 2016. Despite losing the free dance, they beat the French for the 2017 World title, but just three months before the 2018 Olympics, the French beat Virtue and Moir in both programs at the Grand Prix Final.

It was just another challenge for them to overcome, even if it involved near complete revision before the Olympics of their free dance program to “Moulin Rouge.” The improvements were enough to cut the free dance point gap with the French in half from the Grand Prix Final to the Olympics. That was the difference between silver and gold.

“They are a team that has always gone for it,” said U.S. Olympic ice dancer Madison Hubbell, who trained with Virtue and Moir from 2016 to 2018. “They never seem to play it safe with their elements, with how difficult they make their programs. They always want to be better and they don’t compare themselves with other teams.”

The record books tell us Virtue and Moir had unsurpassed success. They slipped away quietly from the sport in which they are among the greatest ever. Their incomparable skating already has passed the test of time.

Philip Hersh, who has covered figure skating at the last 11 Winter Olympics, is a special contributor to NBCSports.com/figure-skating.

MORE: Tessa Virtue, Scott Moir retire from ice dance competition

As a reminder, you can watch the events from the 2019-20 figure skating season live and on-demand with the ‘Figure Skating Pass’ on NBC Sports Gold. Go to NBCsports.com/gold/figure-skating to sign up for access to every ISU Grand Prix and championship event, as well as domestic U.S. Figure Skating events throughout the season. NBC Sports Gold gives subscribers an unprecedented level of access on more platforms and devices than ever before.

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With four former champions in the mix, who can claim U.S. Championships pairs’ title?

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There have been four different U.S. pairs’ champions in the past four years. All four of those teams are in the field at this week’s U.S. Championships in Greensboro, North Carolina. With that in mind, who could get the nod to compete at the world championships in March?

The U.S. has two spots to fill, thanks to the efforts of Ashley Cain-Gribble and Timothy LeDuc, who finished ninth at last year’s worlds.

Haven Denney and Brandon Frazier had the best fall of any U.S. pair, winning two bronze medals on the Grand Prix Series. Denney and Frazier finished with silver medals at last year’s national championships, too. The team has previous experience at the world championships (2015: 12th; 2017: 20th).

Cain-Gribble and LeDuc won the national title last year after a season that was nearly sidelined by Cain-Gribble’s concussion in December 2018. As the solo U.S. representatives at the world championships, they succeeded in earning back two world berths for 2020.

This season, they won two B-level competitions and finished fourth and fifth at their Grand Prix assignments. LeDuc said last week that despite their win at Golden Spin in December, “there was a little bit of room for improvement, which is exactly what we want from a competition going into nationals.”

“We feel like we’ve improved a lot as far as what we’re able to take on mentally because we know that this is going to be an intense week,” Cain-Gribble said. “We’re prepared for that. We’ve never had to do this before, where we’re coming in and we’re already the reigning champions. We’ve never come in with that title before. We’ve had the opportunity to talk to a lot of people about it and what that feeling is, but overall their main thing was, ‘Be prepared. Prepare yourself beyond what you can even imagine. When you get there, just go on autopilot and do your thing.’”

PyeongChang Olympic team event bronze medalists Alexa Scimeca Knierim and Chris Knierim haven’t been in top form since the Games. Later in 2018, they split from short-lived coach Aljona Savchenko in Germany and moved to California.

They finished an all-time low of seventh at last year’s nationals and were not assigned to any events later in the season. In their off-season, Chris underwent wrist surgery. The couple also added Rafael Arutunian to their coaching team to address their jumping abilities. Their season consisted of a silver medal at a B-level competition, followed by two Grand Prix assignments where they finished fourth and seventh.

“We feel that many people probably have kind of written us off, because we’re an old married couple and we’re kind of labeled ‘can’t get it together,’” Scimeca Knierim said after finishing fourth at Skate Canada this fall. “That’s almost an advantage, because I feel like for so long, we were considered the front-runners. I still believe we are. We’re trying to show we can get it together.”

The last time the Knierims competed at a nationals in Greensboro, in 2015, they won the first of their two titles. That year, they notched their highest placement (seventh) across five total trips to the world championships.

Tarah Kayne and Danny O’Shea won their national title in 2016 and were also sent on their only trip to the world championships where they finished 13th. In 2017, Kayne underwent knee surgery, but they returned to the national podium in 2018 and won silver. Last year, they finished fourth after a disastrous free skate.

This season, they collected a silver medals and a fourth place finish at two B-level competitions as well as a pair of sixth-place finishes on the Grand Prix.

MORE: 2020 U.S. Figure Skating Championships TV, live stream schedule

As a reminder, you can watch the events from the 2019-20 figure skating season live and on-demand with the ‘Figure Skating Pass’ on NBC Sports Gold. Go to NBCsports.com/gold/figure-skating to sign up for access to every ISU Grand Prix and championship event, as well as domestic U.S. Figure Skating events throughout the season. NBC Sports Gold gives subscribers an unprecedented level of access on more platforms and devices than ever before.

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Maddie Bowman, first Olympic ski halfpipe champion, ends competitive career

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Maddie Bowman knows she has been very fortunate. She just turned 26 years old and has already accomplished everything she wanted in her sport, halfpipe skiing.

Bowman, who won the event’s Olympic debut in Sochi in 2014, recently decided to retire from competition.

“I’ve really given the sport everything I could that was positive, and I knew the sport would be in great hands when I walked away,” she said. “So I decided it was my time to be done.

“I just felt like I couldn’t give anything else to the sport because I was a little bit afraid [of injury], but also it’s mentally exhausting. It drained my mental health for sure, but I loved doing it, and I still love skiing. Competition just isn’t for me anymore.”

The decision weighed on the South Lake Tahoe native last season. She competed at the Winter X Games for the last time, taking fifth place. She earned medals each of the previous seven years, including five golds, despite undergoing two major knee surgeries in that span.

“I was thinking [last year] that this is really hard, and I don’t know if I want to keep doing this,” she said. “It was really hard for me to get into the right mental state again. It’s painful. My knees hurt, but I was torn. I was torn between wanting to walk away and the love I had for the people I was around, people I competed against and just the lifestyle. I worked really hard on opening up other doors for myself besides skiing, which is making my transition a lot smoother.”

Those opportunities include activism, spreading awareness around climate change for Protect Our Winters. Bowman wants to finish her college degree and teach high school biology and health. She aims to continue public speaking regarding motivational talks and mental health.

Bowman struggled with depression between the Sochi and PyeongChang Olympics. She is equally proud of her second Olympic performance — finishing 11th in South Korea — as her landmark gold medal in Russia. While in PyeongChang, she believed it would likely be her last Olympics.

“I had doubts if I would even make it to PyeongChang, and making it there was one of my huge accomplishments,” Bowman said. “It was such a special event. Even though I only got 11th, I skied my freakin’ heart out. I gave it everything I had.”

Bowman, the daughter of two former professional skiers, took gold in Sochi as the youngest finalist. She landed back-to-back 900s for the first time in her career (by accident after having to improvise her opening run). She did so in front of family that included 78-year-old Lorna Perpall, who wore a T-shirt that read “badass grandma.”

Afterward, Bowman spoke about friend Sarah Burke, the Canadian ski halfpipe pioneer who died after a training accident in 2012.

“It means so much for us to be able to show the world what our sport is,” Bowman said that night in Russia. “She’s here with us.

“I sure hope I, and everyone else, made her proud because we would not be here without her.”

Bowman has her own place in history. No matter how long ski halfpipe is in the Olympics, she will always be the first woman to earn gold.

“I know as our sport gets more solidified into the Olympic Games, it can become pretty national, cutthroat and competitive,” she said. “I would love to see it stay this free-spirited work of art, something beautiful like that.”

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MORE: Torah Bright, Olympic champion, no longer competing in halfpipe