Getty

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

Leave a comment

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.

OlympicTalk is on Apple News. Favorite us!

Lin Dan, badminton legend, retires: ‘It is very difficult to say goodbye’

Lin Dan
Getty Images
Leave a comment

Lin Dan, arguably the greatest badminton player in history, announced retirement Saturday, citing “pain and injuries” in bowing out a year before the postponed Tokyo Olympics.

“I have been with the national team from 2000 to 2020, and it is very difficult to say goodbye,” 36-year-old Lin wrote to his four million Weibo fans, according to Badminton World Federation (BWF) translation. “Pain and injuries no longer allow me to fight with my teammates. I have gratitude, a heavy heart and unwillingness.”

Lin, nicknamed “Super Dan,” won Olympic singles titles in 2008 and 2012, plus five individual world titles. It’s the greatest resume for any badminton player from China, which owns twice as many medals as any other nation in the sport that debuted at the 1992 Barcelona Games.

He competed at the last four Olympics, won the sport’s Super Grand Slam (nine major titles) and had his own wax figure at Madame Tussauds in Shanghai.

Lin’s outbursts on and off the court led to some calling him the John McEnroe of badminton, but he is revered. In 2015, he was the second athlete on Forbes China‘s most popular celebrities list behind tennis player Li Na.

Lin’s pursuit of a fifth Olympics in Tokyo was looking out of reach. He dropped to No. 26 in the Olympic qualifying rankings, trailing four countrymen, including No. 5 Chen Long (Rio Olympic champion) and No. 11 Shi Yuqi (2018 World silver medalist). A nation can qualify a maximum of two individual players per gender for the Games.

“From where came his mastery? In short, his prowess was essentially due to the completeness of his game – in skill, physical ability and mental strength,” the BWF wrote in a press release. “Such was his craft that even well into his 30s, normally considered an advanced age for men’s singles, he could outplay younger and fitter opponents.”

NBC Olympic Research contributed to this report.

MORE: Who is China’s greatest Olympian?

OlympicTalk is on Apple News. Favorite us!

MyKayla Skinner’s motivation for Tokyo: her Rio Olympic experience

MyKayla Skinner
Getty Images
Leave a comment

MyKayla Skinner remembers the little room at the SAP Center in San Jose. She remembers the wait, somewhere between 10 and 20 minutes.

After the 2016 U.S. Olympic Women’s Gymnastics Trials, the competitors (14 total performed) assembled while a selection committee convened in another space.

The committee finalized the five-woman Olympic team (plus three alternates), marched into the athletes’ room and delivered the verdict.

“They say the first four names, and then there’s that one spot left,” Skinner recalled. “I’m like, is it going to be me? You’re so tense just waiting there. All of us holding each other’s hands in the room. We’re all sitting there. It’s just, like, frozen dead silent. Then they say that fifth spot.”

Skinner doesn’t remember who was the fifth name. Just that it wasn’t her.

“I just broke down crying,” she said in a recent interview. “All that hard work I put in still wasn’t good enough. Even though it was. It’s just who they needed for the team.”

Skinner placed fourth in the all-around at those Olympic Trials, the highest finisher who was not named to the Olympic team. She was one of three alternates. If the Olympic team was chosen by all-around standings, a selection committee would not be necessary. Instead, gymnasts are puzzle pieces, chosen as who best fits the Olympic format: three gymnasts per apparatus in the team final and up to two per nation per individual final.

Skinner’s mind raced while she waited for the committee’s decision. She eventually settled on a gut feeling, that she would not make the team.

“I thought that it should be enough, but at the same I didn’t think that it would be,” said Lisa Spini, Skinner’s coach at Desert Lights Gymnastics in Chandler, Arizona. “I thought the team was already decided before the Olympic Trials.”

Spini said it was her toughest night as a gymnastics coach.

“Being an alternate is probably the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do in gymnastics,” said Skinner, who traveled to Brazil and, with fellow alternates Ashton Locklear and Ragan Smith, trained separately from the Olympic team. “The whole time I was in Rio, I probably cried every single night

“The Olympics should be something so special, but I feel like it was definitely miserable at times. It was really hard to enjoy being an alternate. With this comeback, that has pushed me so hard just because I was so close.”

You may have read about Skinner back in the spring, after the Tokyo Olympics were postponed to 2021.

It’s a devastating delay for a female gymnast, whose peak often lasts for one Olympic cycle (sometimes even shorter). Skinner is an exception, excelling for the better part of a decade on different levels.

She made her first world championships team in 2014. After Rio, she matriculated at the University of Utah, where she was twice an NCAA all-around runner-up and hit an NCAA record 161 straight routines without a fall. In 2019, she decided to come back to international competition — for an Olympic run — with one year left of NCAA gymnastics.

She is 23, the oldest of the 16-woman U.S. national team. She is trying to become the oldest woman to make a U.S. Olympic gymnastics team since 2004. And the first with NCAA experience to do so since Alicia Sacramone in 2008.

“The reason why a lot of college gymnasts couldn’t come back and do it is they’ve been so injured over the years,” Spini said. “Their body wouldn’t hold up. She’s been really lucky that way.”

Skinner could have easily followed the path of so many other stars who signaled the end of an elite career by going to college, where training and routines are less demanding.

She questioned herself often after the Tokyo postponement whether it was worth it to return to elite training. The Olympic team event roster size has been cut from five to four. Simone Biles is an overwhelming favorite to earn one spot. In the face of those odds, Skinner can’t shake a memory from Rio.

“I just go back to the moment of when I was sitting in the stands,” watching the Final Five earn gold, Skinner said. “I was so close to making the team. This has been my dream ever since I went to Desert Lights when I was 12.”

Skinner’s comeback is already a success. Last year, on three months of elite training, she placed eighth at the U.S. Championships. She was convinced to accept an invitation to the world championships selection camp, where six women would make the traveling team (one later named an alternate).

Like in 2016, Skinner placed fourth in the all-around competition before the roster was chosen.

Again, the gymnasts gathered for the announcement. This time, Skinner made the cut as the sixth woman named. Biles, the other 20-something at the camp and a friend, jumped in excitement.

The team traveled to Germany in late September. After training, one woman had to be designated the alternate. High performance team coordinator Tom Forster took Skinner aside one day on the way to lunch. She knew what was coming and broke down in tears, flashing back to 2016.

“Simone was like, hey, let’s go to the bathroom. She helped talk me through it and helped me calm down and definitely made me a feel a lot better,” said Skinner, who supported Biles and the U.S. team that competed in Stuttgart. She then wed Jonas Harmer in November and decided what must be done to make the Olympic team.

“We’re going to try to add in some big skills, which will put her difficulty level, probably, second only to Simone,” Spini said.

Skinner is documenting her last year-plus in elite gymnastics on a YouTube channel with 29,000 subscribers. She has been fortunate during the coronavirus pandemic to train at her gym if no more than 10 people were present. Many other gymnasts — and athletes across Olympic sports — spent weeks or months out of their facilities.

“I definitely don’t think I would have been able to have that much time off,” she said. “That’s really hard with gymnastics because you feel like, you take two days off, and it’s like you had a year off.”

One day this spring, Skinner’s mom called, in tears, fearing for her life with an illness that turned out to be the coronavirus. Both of her parents, in their 60s, had it and briefly lost their senses of taste. Her mom had breathing problems, but they recovered.

One night last month, Skinner had a dream about next year’s Olympic Trials. The Final Five all came back to compete, and Skinner was again named an alternate. She woke up. Skinner doesn’t know how she would handle that kind of disappointment in real life, again.

“So it’s kind of scary,” she said. Then Skinner thinks back to Rio, and that burning she felt while watching the Final Five win gold medals.

“This is what I’m supposed to do. This is what I’m meant to do is elite gymnastics,” said Skinner, who was born via life-threatening, early-labor C-section, needing to be revived by doctors. “I think it’s cool that I can have this opportunity to go and push myself one last time so I can reach that end goal.”

MORE: Gymnast Grace McCallum won a coin flip to become world champion

OlympicTalk is on Apple News. Favorite us!