The Last Battle: Davis and White vs. Virtue and MoirFriends, foes to square off one last time at Sochi's Iceberg Palace
After a decade measured by face-offs at seven world championships, four Grand Prix Finals, six Four Continents Championships and the 2010 Olympics -- plus countless hours training together -- Americans Meryl Davis and Charlie White and Canadians Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir are readying for their grand finale in Sochi's Iceberg Palace at the 2014 Olympic Winter Games.
Last week, as their practice sessions at Canton, Mich.'s, Arctic Edge dwindled to a final few, the skaters seemed to savor each other's magic and the legacy they have built together.
"One team does a part of a program, and the other stops, watches and claps," said Marina Zoueva, who has coached both couples for most of their careers. "I'm seeing it more. They are older now; they know how hard their jobs are. They really respect each other.
"Before, it was a little more busy, and maybe they didn't pay so much attention. Now, everything is ready; there are just little touches to add. They are enjoying each practice."
Davis, 27, appreciates the quality of the Canadian Olympic champions' skating, and why not? It has helped spur her and White to make the most of their own abilities.
"Charlie and I would be the first to commend Tessa and Scott on their talent," she said. "I think we've definitely capitalized on the opportunity to train alongside them for all of these years. I don't think we're ashamed of looking over our shoulders and watching their talent everyday. We take advantage of it."
White, 26, confirms Zoueva's belief that relations between the skaters are warm and respectful.
"It's just our personalities," he said. "It's not just our public [personas]; it's how we always are. That's how we were raised. That's how we will continue to be, and that's with all of our competitors. We cheer for them. We know what the sport is like; we know how difficult it is. We've been in it for a long time, and it's hard."
The presence of a TV crew at Arctic Edge this season, filming the six-part Tessa and Scott documentary series for Canadian TV, didn't put a dent in the good will. In fact, Zoueva thinks it helped all of her skaters, including the top two teams as well as U.S. bronze medalists Maia Shibutani and Alex Shibutani.
"[The crew] was very quiet," Zoueva said. "Sometimes, we didn't even pay attention. They shot everybody, but that was OK. [The skaters] performed a little bit more; it was more like a show. You can see it in the kids this year; they perform even in practices."
Not all of the work for Sochi is done. In the week leading up to the departure for Russia, the teams perfected their programs. As always, Zoueva said, they worked in different ways.
Davis and White's free dance to Rimsky-Korsakov's Scheherazade, the tale of a king's young bride delaying her execution by weaving cliffhanging story after story, gestated in Zoueva's imagination for several seasons. The skaters worked on the program's opening curve lift, with its pull-through, across-the-back entrance, for two years prior to its unveiling. Now, Zoueva strives to put a final sprinkle of spice atop one of her masterpieces.
"Two weeks ago, we were still working on speed and timing," she said. "This week, we add more feeling, more finality, more personality to each individual movement to make them special."
Virtue and Moir's free dance, set primarily to Glazunov's ballet, The Seasons, with a dash of Scriabin's "Piano Concerto in F-sharp minor," demands different fine-tuning. It is autobiographical, depicting the storms and triumphs of their career.
"We are still adding more detail to the story," Zoueva said. "The mood and relationship changes throughout the program. Each movement means something. It is Tessa and Scott's story, the story of the relationship between them."
Zoueva isn't changing any of Virtue and Moir's elements, but there will be one key difference in Sochi.
"Nothing is changing except the end of the story," she said. "The last hold will be different."
Ask Zoueva how she manages to devote equal amounts of her time, talent and energy to the teams and a hint of impatience creeps into her heavily accented voice. Having grown up as an ice dancer in the Soviet Union, where many of the world's top teams trained together in Moscow throughout the 1970s and '80s, it doesn't strike her as unusual that rivals would share training ice. She makes it clear she is more than equal to the challenge.
"I am a professional, and it is sport," she said, delivering a version of the same thing she has said for years. "I do my best for both. The judges decide.
"Right now, I'm working more personally with each team. One needs one thing, the other needs something different."
With evenhanded praise, she assures that neither couple has ever looked better.
"They're both showing me things: little nuances and extra moments I've never seen before," she said.
Davis and White opened their season strong at a "B" international event in Salt Lake City in September and grew stronger, delivering near-perfect programs at the 2014 U.S. Figure Skating Championships in Boston, where they won a record sixth U.S. title. They arrive in Sochi having defeated their rivals at their last four meetings, including the 2013 World Figure Skating Championships on Virtue and Moir's home ground of London, Ontario. They also won world gold in 2011, after the Canadians missed much of the season due to Virtue's leg injury.
Virtue and Moir, who won world titles in 2010 and 2012, have improved their scores at each international event this season. At the Grand Prix Final in December, they came within 1.35 points -- which might equate to a slight hesitation on a lift, or a bobble on a twizzle sequence -- of the Americans, setting up a too-close-to-call face-off in Sochi. It would be a monumental upset if any other ice dance team won gold or silver.
White cautioned against putting too much stock into past results, especially ones this close. After all, every competition has different judging panels and technical callers.
"It's hard to say, from an outsider's perspective, what would make someone a favorite," White said. "For us, we've been able to build on each performance, and that has certainly given us confidence. That's such a big part of ice dance.
"We've worked hard to achieve what we've achieved so far, and we certainly want all that in the back of everyone's heads as we take the ice for that final skate. But we know that we have to make each moment of our programs at the Olympics count as if there was nothing else in the world."