Friday, July 1, 2011

O, Canada! Tessa Virtue & Scott Moir

O, Canada!

Wherever you are in the world, you might think that the recent very ugly Stanley Cup Finals were representative of my hometown of Vancouver and of Canada in general.

Wipe that condescension and disdain off your face. Have you forgotten that just a year and a half ago, you were fawning over how absolutely glorious our Olympics where? They also took place in Vancouver, you know.

On this Canada Day, I have chosen to honour one of my favourite moments of the 2010 Olympics: the free dance of Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir, the Canadian Olympic ice dance champions.

Because everyone loves a back story, especially for the Olympics, here it is. Tessa and Scott have been skating together since childhood. They were world junior champions in ice dance and debuted spectacularly at the senior level by finishing sixth at the worlds in 2007. They then made the leap to second in 2008, and complimented their silver medal with a bronze the following year. They were one of the contenders for the 2010 Olympics, having won numerous pre-Olympic meets in the 2009/2010 season. They faced stiff competition from their American training partners Meryl Davis & Charlie White, their teammates Tanith Belbin & Benjamin Agosto, and the Russian world champions Oksana Domnina & Maxim Shabalin. This does not include the French, British and Italian couples nipping at their heels.

In the preliminary compulsory dance
By the time of the final free dance, the Canadian Olympic team had collectively taken a bit of a beating. The ambitious “Own the Podium” program was designed with the goal of putting Canada atop the medal rankings with the most medals. It was the midway point of an Olympics darkened by the death of a Georgian luger on the day of the opening ceremony, a lack of snow in what became a record warm winter for the city of Vancouver, and a respectable but unspectacular medal tally for the Canadian team at that point. A rather nasty British journalist sensationally wrote that these Olympics were about to become “the worst ever”, and we were just barely halfway. This was Monday, February 22, 2010.

Then Tessa and Scott took the ice.

Somewhat unexpectedly the leaders going into the free dance, Virtue & Moir were predicted to win a medal, but a lot of prognosticators had forecast silver or bronze for the team, behind the Americans and / or Russians. The country was hungry for a moment to really shine and gain momentum.

What happened next was sheer magic. The clip is below.

The goose lift
The four minutes it took for the dance went by in a flash. Even the most uninitiated to the sport of ice dancing knew that something truly special had taken place. The fluidity of the movements embraced the musicality of Mahler’s Fifth Symphony. The pair wisely chose simple, unadorned outfits for their passionate but ethereal program. This was in stark contrast to the rather unfortunate costume choices made by their competition, which you can ridicule here.  The side-by-side twizzles, which occur at the 3:23 mark of the clip, were timed to the nanosecond in terms of entry, evolution and exit. Timing this precise and exquisite is seldom in this event, a nearly-unattainable sweet spot, and such technique showed the absolute synchronicity of the pair in speed and motion. Their trademark goose lift (at the 3:45 mark, just 20 seconds later) was executed brilliantly. The whole program was textbook-perfect, and it was reported that no less than Nicole Kidman was in attendance and was reportedly seen weeping at how beautiful it was. When Whitney Houston sang of that one moment in time for the 1988 Summer Olympics, this was exactly what she meant.

The Twitterverse and Facebook was alive with the magic of the moment. There were reports of hardened journalists crying in joy in the International Broadcast Centre. A friend of the Blogger’s Tweeted that she as in a sports bar, with the TV turned to ice dance, and everyone was watching in awe and burst into wild, nearly ceaseless merrymaking when it finished. A new sports legend was born.

Virtue & Moir won the free dance and took home Olympic gold, on home ice. Every Olympics produces a darling or star athlete who would become the poster girl or boy of those particular games: Olga Korbut, Nadia Comaneci, Mary Lou Retton, Katarina Witt, Michael Phelps, Carl Lewis and Ian Thorpe. Virtue & Moir became one of the darlings of the 2010 Olympics. Making this especially poignant in hindsight was that Virtue was in intense pain throughout the season and hid her condition from everyone, only making it public knowledge months later when she and Moir published their joint memoir.

The medal ceremony
From that point onward, collective momentum propelled the home team forward. This led to the Canadian team more than doubling their medal count in the next week. Joannie Rochette, who was Virtue’s roommate in the Olympic Village until Rochette’s mother unexpectedly died the day before the free dance, fought through her grief the very next night in the same arena, producing a perfect short program that paved the way for her own bronze medal in figure skating three nights later. The bobsledders swept gold and silver places in the same event. Medals came from snowboarder Jasey Jay Anderson, the short-track speed-skaters, and the curling teams. This culminated in the gold-medal winning hockey game, the very last event on the closing day, which led to wild but peaceful, joyful celebrations through the streets of Vancouver, which speaks more to our true national character unlike those disgusting riots that happened in the wake of the 2011 Stanley Cup final. And Canada did “own the podium” in a way, by winning a record-setting 14 gold medals.

The Blogger was thrilled to have seen and taken in so much of the Olympics, which he had so long wanted to take place in his home town. Despite slight logistical issues, I was heartened to see so many different nationalities converging on my city to collectively celebrate some of the greatest human achievements ever. I had always prided myself on being Canadian, but no more so in my life until the 2010 Olympics.