Ice Network

Virtue, Moir win first North American dance gold

Davis, White take silver; Russians settle for bronze
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When the night was over, it was Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir standing atop the podium. -Getty Images

It's been 34 years in the making, but Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir have done it.

The young Canadians broke the Russian and European stranglehold on Olympic ice dance gold in thrilling fashion, setting new heights with their mesmerizing free dance to Gustav Mahler's haunting "Adagietto," the fourth movement in the Austrian master's Symphony No. 5.

Meryl Davis and Charlie White, the U.S. champions who train alongside Virtue and Moir in Canton, Mich., won silver, finishing 2.41 points behind the Canadians.

"It's been such a journey, and so many people have helped us along the way," Virtue said.

"Oh my God, it's the exceptional moment we've always dreamed of; it's everything we've always wanted, and we could not be happier," Moir added.

The result got no argument from the team's training partners.

"We really push each other every day," White said. "I think we knew it was going to come down to the four of us at this Olympics...They skated a fantastic free program."

Russian world champions Oksana Domnina and Maxim Shabalin took bronze, edging five-time U.S. champions Tanith Belbin and Ben Agosto by 4.57 points.

Taking the ice third in the final group, Virtue and Moir seemed relaxed and assured, and no doubt buoyed by the 11,000-strong crowd chanting, "CAN - A - DA."

From the first note, every move was done to near perfection, with seamless transitions and perfect unison. Each lift was elegance personified; they made the difficult look simple, and the program went by in a flash.

"It's so exciting, and it can get very overwhelming, so we try to think of ourselves in this bubble and stay concentrated and stay focused and enjoy, one step at a time, and be absolutely together," Virtue said.

Marina Zoueva, who together with Igor Shpilband coaches the two top couples, conceived the idea for Virtue and Moir's free skate last spring.

"Tessa and Scott definitely perfectly feel the music; they feel the movement, they feel the idea," Zoueva said. "This music was Mahler's invitation for marriage [to his future wife, Alma]. That is always the best time in life for everybody, because all the future is in front of you. I really wanted to remind people of this best time in their life and have them feel the joy of it."

According to Zoueva, the team's signature gravity-defying lifts were three years in the making.

"When Tessa and Scott became seniors, Marie-France Dubreuil and Patrice Lauzon were Canadian champions, and I watched them skate to [discover] how to compete with them," she remembered.

"Tessa and Scott, their skating skills, how they interpret music, was already quite good. Then I saw Dubreuil and Lauzon's lifts, and I said, 'Uh oh'."

After the couple's first senior nationals, Zoueva invited coaches from the gymnastics world to the Canton camp. The following season, the team concentrated on practicing ballet lifts on and off the ice. Finally, last season, performers from Cirque de Soleil lend expertise.

"The Cirque de Soleil acrobatics, they helped them to do the tricks perfectly," Zoueva said. "Because you can see many tricks here, and if they are dirty, they lose the feel. I invite acrobats, and they help them to do tricks cleaner."

Virtue and Moir's free dance score, 110.42, was 6.21 points above their season's best.

"It looked like they skated amazing," White said. "We know what they are capable of. We definitely wouldn't argue the scores. The important thing is we are happy with the way we skated."

The U.S. champions had a sensational performance to music from Phantom of the Opera, full of power and passion, with matchless twizzles and an incredibly fast rotational lift.

Zoueva said she chose the music over Shpilband's objections; he thought some might think it over-used.

"I thought this music would match their power, with their heart and their emotions," she said. "It has drama that they can perform. That's why I [thought] would be best for them, especially this Olympic year."

They earned 107.19, well above their previous season's best, even with a one-point deduction for an extended (too long) lift.

"We were very confident; we had a great warm-up, we've had a great year. There wasn't really too much to worry about," White said.

None of the skaters, nor Zoueva, thought there was any conflict with the top two teams in the world coming out of the same camp.

"Our coaches are there to help us every way they can," Davis said. "Especially at the rink, there is no real country affiliation; we're all one big, happy group. That's how they train us and we just come and skate our best."

"We give them same base, the same platform," Zoueva said. "The choreography for one team is great, and for the other team is great. They are completely different."

Monday night's performances leaves one question open: where do the two young teams, who may have years of competition left in their legs, go from here?

"We will see," Zoueva said. "After [the 2008-2009] season, they said, 'Oh Marina, how could we be better?,' and I think this season, they were."

Domnina and Shabalin's free skate, to Zbigniew Preisner's music for the Polish movie The Double Life of Veronique, had passion and unique moves, but was steps behind the top couples' in speed and intricacy.

Still, they gained 101.04 for their free dance, far higher than their outing at the European Championships last month, and finished with 207.64 overall.

Shabalin didn't win gold, but he had the best line at the press conference. Asked what Russia needed to do to regain ice dance dominance, he quipped, "I think we have to take all the Russian coaches back to Russia."

Russian-born Shpilband and Zoueva began their figure skating careers in the Soviet Union.

In what may be their final competitive appearance, Belbin and Agosto, the 2006 Olympic silver medalists, had an elegant outing to "Ave Maria" and Rossini's "Amen," but their polished performance lacked some of the excitement of the top two teams.

"Right now we are just really happy with the way we skated,'' Belbin said.

Asked whether they would continue to the 2010 World Figure Skating Championships in Torino next month, Agosto replied, "We have not made that decision. But if this was our last competition, this is how we would want it to end.''

European silver medalists Federica Faiella and Massimo Scali were fifth with a creative, character-driven program to Nina Rota's "The Emigrants" that earned a season-best 99.11. The finished with 199.17 overall.

It wasn't the send-off they had hoped for, but 2008 French world champions Isabelle Delobel and Olivier Schoenfelder's free skate to Impossible Dream was pure entertainment, more joyous and free-flowing than many of the team's earlier avant-garde dances.

The team, who returned to competition after a 14-month lay-off due to Delobel's shoulder surgery and pregnancy, placed sixth in the free and sixth overall with 193.73 points.

"We knew it would be crazy to try to get ready [for the Olympics] that quick," Schoenfelder said. "We were coming here to win, but there was not enough time to prepare. Still, there are no regrets."

U.S. bronze medalists Emily Samuelson and Evan Bates celebrated Bates' 21st birthday [on Feb. 23] with an 11th-place overall finish with a performance to a romantic Italian ballad, "Canto Della Terra."

Their program has grown in power all season and peaked here with fine twizzles and lifts that showed off Samuelson's flexibility.

"It was awesome to skate in front of the Olympic crowd and put out such a good performance," Samuelson said.

"We thought we put a lot of power into it and let the emotion show," Bates added. "That's what we've been working on all year long."