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Virtue, Moir are ready to top the charts

Young Canadians have achieved world-class status

Canadians Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir are already among the best dancers in the world.
Canadians Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir are already among the best dancers in the world. (Getty Images)

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By Laurie Nealin, special to icenetwork.com
(11/26/2007) - In three short years, they've gone from being cute kids to top-of-the-world contenders.

Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir finished just 11th at the 2004 World Junior Championships. Last season, they debuted at the senior worlds with a sixth-place finish.

Many observers believe the affable, young ice dancers from Canada will ultimately hit number one. The question is: will it be this season?

As they head into the sixth Grand Prix event, the NHK Trophy, Virtue and Moir own the second-highest total score (197.07) recorded this fall. They earned their stellar score at home en route to Skate Canada gold. Only Oksana Domnina and Maxim Shabalin have done better, posting a huge 205.24, also on home ice, last weekend at the Cup of Russia.

Point totals accumulated by the Canadians and Russians this season have distanced them from their main rivals -- U.S. champions Tanith Belbin and Ben Agosto and the France's Isabelle Delobel and Olivier Schoenfelder, who finished in third and fourth place, respectively, at the 2007 worlds.

You can be sure Delobel and Schoenfelder will do everything in their power to knock Virtue and Moir off their perch this weekend when the two couples meet in Sendai, Japan.

Virtue, 18, and Moir, 20, the 2006 world junior champions, are well aware of the challenge they face at the NHK Trophy.

When journalists at Skate Canada asked for comment on the impressive total they put on the scoreboard in Quebec City, Moir answered, "We are thinking three weeks ahead in Japan when we have a French team, top-of-the-world competition, and we're going to have really stiff competition, so we are going to need all the points we can get."

Beyond the NHK, Virtue and Moir will likely meet the French again at the Grand Prix Final and, for the first time this season, the Russians and their Michigan-based training mates, Belbin and Agosto. That mid-December event in Turin will set the stage for 2008 World Championships in March in Sweden.

With world champions Albena Denkova and Maxim Staviski of Bulgaria, and silver medalists Marie-France Dubreuil and Patrice Lauzon of Canada out of the game at least for this season, no couple has a solid claim to any step on the world championship podium. That presents an opportunity that is very rare in ice dancing.

Despite their youth, Virtue and Moir already have a decade of competition under their belts. When she was 10 and he 12, they won the Canadian juvenile title. A year later, they were national novice champions. In 2004, they were the Canadian junior national champions.

In January, barring some unforeseen calamity, Virtue and Moir will win their first senior Canadian title. With many veteran teams calling it quits this summer and Dubreuil and Lauzon on the sidelines, there is no other couple in Canada that can touch them.

Virtue and Moir's obvious talent and high potential had its drawbacks. They had to move away from their homes in southwestern Ontario early in their career -- first just up the road to Waterloo and then to Michigan, where they are now in their fourth season with Russian coaches Igor Shpilband and Marina Zoueva.

This year, the coaching team purposely chose a more mature piece for Virtue and Moir's free dance.

"I work for that, to make them grow, to look like mature adult people, because they compete with adults," Zoueva said.

At Skate Canada, their inaugural performance of the free dance, set to The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, featured decidedly more mature choreography. The program was highlighted by inventive lifts created with help from an acrobat in the famed Cirque du Soleil troupe. The performance earned a roaring standing ovation and an impressive 99.62 points.

"Because of the movie, there is already a storyline we can portray on the ice, which is very important for us to share a connection. And it's a beautiful love story, so we really felt it," said Virtue, noting the program still had a long way to go to reach its ultimate potential.

Romantic storyline aside, Virtue and Moir have always said they have never been a couple off the ice, unlike many ice dance duos. Since they started skating together at such young ages, they grew up more like a brother and sister.

When Zoueva was asked if Virtue and Moir's sibling-like relationship made it difficult to get them to portray lovers on the ice, the coach started to laugh.

"They grew up like brother and sister? Good for them. Now it's time to be a young man and a young woman," she said, chuckling.

Zoueva and Shpilband have also focused on building the couple's overall power and strength in their lifts. "We knew they were a little behind in that compared to other teams. Now they are in front of many teams," Zoueva noted.

At Skate Canada, Virtue and Moir talked about the five more steps (up the ladder) that they need to take to reach the top. They were making no predictions, however, as to how quickly they could make that climb.

"Slightly ambitious" was how Virtue described the suggestion that they could win it all this season, but perhaps her modest demeanor prevented her from stating otherwise. "I think everyone competes to win, so that's in our heads, and whether that's this year or some year down the road, we're training for that," she said.