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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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Peter Snell, 3-time Olympic track champion, dies

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WELLINGTON, New Zealand (AP) — Three-time Olympic champion and world mile record-holder Peter Snell has died in Dallas. He was aged 80.

Snell, who is regarded as one of the greatest middle-distance runners of all-time, won the 800m at the 1960 Rome Olympics aged 21, and the 800m-1500m double at the 1964 Tokyo Games.

He was the first man since 1920 to win the 800m and 1500m at the same Olympics. No male athlete has done so since.

Snell also won two Commonwealth Games gold medals in the 880 yards and mile at Perth in 1962.

He twice held the mile world record and also held world records in the 800m, 880 yards, 1000m, and the 4xmile relay.

Snell’s death was confirmed by family friend and New Zealand sports historian Ron Palenski, who heads New Zealand’s Sport Hall of Fame.

“It is very sad news, a grievous loss for New Zealand,” Palenski said. “In terms of track and field, he is probably the greatest athlete New Zealand has had.”

Snell was coached by Arthur Lydiard, an innovator who was regarded as one of the world’s finest coaches of middle and long distance athletes. Lydiard also coached Murray Halberg to win the 5000m at Rome in 1960.

Snell’s wife, Miki, said he died suddenly at his home in Dallas around noon on Thursday. He had been suffering from a heart ailment and had required a pacemaker for several years.

Snell’s athletics career was relatively short. He retired in 1965 to pursue educational opportunities in the United States.

Snell graduated with a Bachelor of Science degree in human performance from the University of California, Davis, and later with a Ph.D. in exercise physiology from Washington State University.

He became a research fellow at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in 1981, later becoming director of the university’s Human Performance Center.

Snell was knighted by New Zealand in 2009. A statue in his honor stands at Cooks Gardens, Whanganui, near his birthplace of Opunake, where he broke the mile world record for the first time in 1962.

Grand Prix Final results show women’s figure skating revolution progressing quickly

Grand Prix Final podium
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The revolution in women’s figure skating is being televised.

That’s a turn of phrase on an admittedly dated reference (Google it). The point is we all have been able to witness, from TV broadcasts or live streams, a season with the most radical change in the sport since child prodigy Sonja Henie, then age 11, began doing jumps in her programs nearly a century ago.

What we watched other child prodigies do at last week’s Grand Prix Final boggled the minds of even those who saw it coming, because no one imagined it coming this soon and to this degree.

This essentially Russian revolution, which has taken maximum advantage of the scoring system and youthful body types to overthrow longtime technical norms of women’s skating, has split the discipline into haves and have-nots.

There are those who have the high-scoring quadruple jumps or multiple triple Axels to seize all the medals. And those who do not have those big jumps and, as of now, no chance to regain the podiums from which they have been summarily ousted.

Given what already had happened this season, it was not surprising that Russian first-year seniors Alena Kostornaia, Anna Shcherbakova and Alexandra Trusova swept the medals in the senior Final. Each had qualified by winning two of the six events in the Grand Prix series.

What is surprising is how far and fast the Troika – as NBC commentator and two-time Olympian Johnny Weir artfully nicknamed them, in a reference to a traditional Russian three-horse sled – has pushed the envelope and how far and fast they have left everyone else behind.

And imagine what the gap could be if women were allowed to do quads in the short program, which likely will be proposed at next year’s International Skating Union congress.

A year ago, it was shocking when the Troika, then all juniors internationally, swept the medals at the senior Russian Championships. Now it will be shocking if they don’t do it again at this year’s Russian Championships, which take place Dec. 24-29.

No women were regularly doing quads until last season. Consider what the Troika has done just this autumn:

*Kostornaia, 16, did not attempt a triple Axel in international competition before this season. Now she is doing one in the short program and two in the free, and all three were very well executed as she took gold at the Grand Prix Final.

*Shcherbakova, 15, began her international season the way she had finished last year at junior worlds, with one quad Lutz in the free skate; at the Grand Prix Final, she did two quad Lutzes (one clean, one under-rotated) and attempted her first quad flip (fall) in finishing second.

*Trusova, 15, began this season after having landed quad Lutz, quad Salchow and quad toe loop as a junior, but she was not attempting more than two in a program. In her senior Grand Prix debut at Skate Canada, she did four quads (three clean). At the Grand Prix Final, she added an excellent quad flip for five free skate quads, one of which she doubled and three of which were clean. She also attempted (and under-rotated) a triple Axel for the first time in the short program.

Even with the mistakes, the quads still racked up enough points for Shcherbakova that she beat a flawless Kostornaia in the free skate. And they gave Trusova a 20.71-point overall margin over fourth finisher Rika Kihira, 17, of Japan, who already had mastered triple Axels but has dropped so far from contention against the Troika that Kihira tried (and fell on) her first quad in competition.

And you have to feel a little sorry for reigning Olympic and world champion Alina Zagitova of Russia, at the technical cutting edge of her sport less than two years ago, now utterly overmatched – and still just 17 years old.

Zagitova’s free skate, an error-filled mess, dropped her from second after a fine short (less than six points behind Kostornaia) to sixth overall, more than 42 points behind Kostornaia and nearly 28 behind the third-place Trusova.

Even had she skated cleanly, having a long program with no quads or triple Axels meant the base value of Zagitova’s elements was more than 30 points less than Trusova’s, more than 20 less than Shcherbakova’s and about five less than Kostornaia’s. Zagitova would have needed otherworldly Grades of Execution marks and program component scores to compete for a medal.

Zagitova acknowledged the futility of her current situation by telling a Russian TV station Friday she was effectively putting her competitive career on hold by withdrawing from the Russian Championships and not asking to be considered for selection for either the European or world championships.

According to a Eurosport summary of the interview, Zagitova said she needed to find new motivation to continue competing. The story quoted her as saying she intended to do shows and keep training under her longtime coach, Eteri Tutberidze, who also coaches the Troika.

Zagitova also said she intended to learn new elements and ways to go into jumps.

“I need to find the desire to want to go into a competition,” she said, according to a translation. “The athletes who have gone down that road will understand me.”

Those who decry how much the quads have thrown the sport’s athletic-artistic balance out of whack found some satisfaction in Kostornaia’s having won with a performance and interpretive quality rare for a skater of her age.

Yet Kostornaia also accumulated some 21 free skate points for her triple Axels, about 13 more points than fifth-place finisher Bradie Tennell of the U.S. got for two clean double Axels. Even if Tennell had not made some relatively small mistakes, there was no way she could make up that difference.

And remember that if Trusova had cleanly landed the quad she doubled and the quad that resulted in a fall, she could have overcome not only her short program mistake but also the margin Kostornaia built in program components with clearly superior skating skills and artistry.

Tennell, 21, the top U.S. woman at the 2018 Olympics (ninth) and the last two World Championships (sixth and seventh), this season has displayed the best overall level of skating in her career. But a lack of quads and triple Axels has dropped her exponentially further behind the leaders.

Yet Tennell presses on.

“She may never catch them, but we keep pushing forward, trying to improve on both components and technical,” said Denise Myers, who coaches Tennell. “She is not settling for where she is now.”

About a month ago, I began to wonder if changing the factoring of the five Program Component Scores (PCS) so that they were the same for women as for men would level a playing field that has tilted so dramatically toward the jumpers.

Since the International Judging System was introduced in 2004, factors of .8 (short program) and 1.6 (long) have been applied to the raw total of each woman’s component score. They are 1.0 and 2.0 for men.

The logic behind the difference was until last season, a men’s free skate was 30 seconds longer with one more element. (Why it also applied to the short program is unclear, since the number of elements and time have been the same.)

“The idea of possible new factors for the program components for men was evaluated in the past season, because for the top skaters the technical score in the last years had considerably increased,” Italy’s Fabio Bianchetti, chair of the ISU technical committee for singles and pairs, said in an email.

“At the moment, for the majority of the [men], the [PCS] is still corresponding to about 50 percent of the total score. In some cases, the relation might not be exact, but a rule must consider all the skaters and not only the top five.

“Now we are dealing with the same situation for the ladies. This is something totally new, and we will study the problem during the season. But again, we cannot look at a couple of skaters only.”

In a recent interview with Nick Zaccardi of NBC Sports, Weir seconded the idea of giving the women’s PCS scores the same weight as the men’s.

“It would give them a little better chance,” Samuel Auxier, an international judge and former U.S. Figure Skating, said in a text message last month.

So much has changed on the jump front since then that it turns out using the men’s PCS factors would have had almost no impact on the women’s results at the Grand Prix Final.

With some computational help from skatingscores.com, I recalculated the PCS scores from the Final with the 1.0 and 2.0 factors, added them to the TES scores and found just one difference: Kostornaia would have moved from second to first in the free skate. The overall and short program finish order would have been the same.

Actual Grand Prix Final scores
One of these (factor .8 / 1.6) shows the actual scores. Skatingscores.com
A re-imagined scoring of the Grand Prix Final
The Refactored scores show what they would be with factors of 1.0 and 2.0. Skatingscores.com

So, the 20% adjustment of PCS factor gender equality is not enough to put women without the most difficult jumps into medal contention.

And as Bianchetti pointed out, making that change or a more substantial one in the women’s factoring must take into consideration not only a few exceptional new talents.

“I truly do not believe that anyone seriously thought a lady would deliver four quads so quickly and especially at such a young age,” Ted Barton of Canada, who was involved in the creation of IJS, said in a text message last month. “Alysa Liu is a good American example of what the present is and future might be.”

(And, yes, there is an elephant in the room: whether the young talents are getting exaggerated PCS scores from judges smitten by their jumping. That’s a question for another day – or lifetime.)

Yet there is every indication the Troika are only the leading edge of a blizzard of jumping phenoms, not only from Russia. After all, Junior Grand Prix Final silver medalist Liu, 14, last season became the youngest singles champion in U.S. history with three triple Axels, and she has added a quad Lutz this season.

“The factoring and [other] calculations were developed on what was being done at that point,” Barton said. “Now that skaters have shown new possibilities, the technical committees will look to see what adjustments can and should be made. Interesting times, indeed.”

For now, though, we are seeing in real time the unsettling effect revolutions can have.

And it seems surreal.

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

MORE: What’s next for Nathan Chen after third consecutive Grand Prix Final win?

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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