Tessa Virtue

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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.

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

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Tessa Virtue, Scott Moir retire from ice dance competition

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Canadians Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir, the most decorated Olympic figure skaters in history, announced their retirement late Tuesday. They’re done competing in ice dance, and their upcoming Canadian tour will be their last together.

“After 22 years, it feels like the right time to step away from the sport,” Virtue said in a video. “This is so personal and emotional for both of us.”

“It just feels for us like it’s the right time to say goodbye while we’re still loving and enjoying the sport as much as we always have been,” Moir said. “This is my first selfie video, and I’m not going to cry. What a beautiful ride it’s been.”

The news was expected.

Virtue and Moir last competed in PyeongChang, earning golds in ice dance and the team event to bring their total to five medals (three golds) and break the record for most Olympic medals in the sport (buoyed by the addition of the team event in 2014).

“It definitely feels like [this is our last Olympics],” Moir said on TODAY in PyeongChang, hours after their ice dance gold. “If it is, this is a great way for us to go out. … It feels right. It feels like a good end.”

Virtue, 30, and Moir 32, teamed in elementary school. Moir, a hockey player, followed brother Danny into dance, pairing with his first partner at 8 and then with Virtue and 9.

Virtue hit the ice at age 6 because she didn’t want to be the only one in her class who couldn’t skate during a field trip. When she was 7, she was paired with Moir through Moir’s aunt Carol, who coached both as singles skaters. Two years in, Virtue attended Canada’s National Ballet School for a summer before choosing to stick with skating.

That decision ultimately led to one of the greatest careers in Canadian sports history.

They earned a junior world title in 2006, the first of eight Canadian titles in 2008 and, in 2010, the biggest of all — home gold at the Vancouver Winter Games despite Moir messing up the steps at the end of their free dance. They faced the wrong way in their final pose.

“Scott just said thank you to me and just said look around us, take this in,” Virtue said on NBC as the final couples skated.

“I had to be positive because I messed up,” Moir later joked.

Virtue and Moir developed a rivalry with American training partners Meryl Davis and Charlie White, with whom they traded world titles in the Sochi Olympic cycle. In Russia, the Americans edged the Canadians for the title by 4.53 points.

Moir waited until the arena emptied, returned to the rink and kissed the ice. Many thought it was a goodbye to the Olympics.

Two years later, they announced a comeback, saying they still had the fire and wanted to take advantage of one more chance to go to the Games. They won all but one of their competitions in those last two seasons, including the Olympics by a slim .79 of a point over French Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron.

Now they join the other Canadian champions of their generation — Patrick ChanKaetlyn Osmond and Meagan Duhamel and Eric Radford — in leaving the competitive arena for good.

“We spent 22 years coasting around the outside of the rink, hanging out together, making programs, trying to just soak up our sporting experiences,” Virtue said. “We still can’t believe people care.”

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Tessa Virtue, Scott Moir extend break from ice dance competition

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Two-time Olympic ice dance champions Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir will extend their indefinite break from competition through the fall Grand Prix season, an agent for the Canadians confirmed.

Virtue and Moir, who last competed in PyeongChang and haven’t said whether they will return at all, are headlining a Canadian tour of skating shows for the second straight autumn.

They’ve been asked often since the Olympics whether they are retiring. Their refrain: They don’t know.

“It definitely feels like [this is our last Olympics],” Moir said on TODAY in PyeongChang, hours after their ice dance gold. “If it is, this is a great way for us to go out. … It feels right. It feels like a good end.”

Italian Carolina Kostner, the 2014 Olympic bronze medalist and 2012 World champion, is also being promoted as part of the Canadian tour. A representative for Kostner said a decision on whether she will compete in the fall has not been made.

Virtue and Moir took two years off after the 2014 Sochi Olympics before announcing their comeback in February 2016. They won all but one of their competitions in the 2016-17 and 2017-18 seasons, becoming the first skaters to earn five Olympic medals (boosted by team-event silver and gold in 2014 and 2018).

In their absence, French Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron improved on their PyeongChang silver medal to earn their third and fourth world championships the last two years.

U.S. Olympic ice dance bronze medalists Maia Shibutani and Alex Shibutani took the 2018-19 season off and haven’t said whether they will return at some point.

Canada’s other top skaters from the PyeongChang Olympics — Patrick Chan, bronze medalist Kaetlyn Osmond and pairs’ bronze medalists Meaghan Duhamel and Eric Radford — have announced retirements.

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