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Canadian ice dance partners Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir clap for Americans Charlie White and partner Meryl Davis during the medal ceremony at Sochi Winter Olympics February 18, 2014. (John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail)
Canadian ice dance partners Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir clap for Americans Charlie White and partner Meryl Davis during the medal ceremony at Sochi Winter Olympics February 18, 2014. (John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail)

Virtue and Moir reveal rift with coach who also coaches U.S. rivals Add to ...

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In any other world outside figure skating, the relationship coach Marina Zueva has with Canada’s top ice dance team and their closest competitors would be considered a conflict of interest.

Ms. Zueva, a revered Russian choreographer, not only coaches Canadians Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir, but also Americans Meryl Davis and Charlie White. But in figure skating, the fact that one coach could simultaneously be in charge of the world’s two best Olympic ice dance teams – and that nothing would ever go wrong – was just part of the fairy tale. The Canadians had a standard answer to anyone questioning the arrangement: It’s fine, we make it work.

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But on Tuesday, the veneer the Canadians have maintained regarding their coach was suddenly stripped away, and the conflict exposed. “We sometimes felt like [Ms. Zueva] wasn’t in our corner,” Mr. Moir said.

“We were both pretty blunt with her in the fall and leading up to the Olympics that we weren’t happy.”

Their comments came a day after Ms. Virtue and Mr. Moir settled for Olympic silver, and Ms. Davis and Mr. White took the gold.

It was the first time Ms. Virtue and Mr. Moir have even remotely criticized their coach. But it spoke volumes about the frustration that’s been simmering beneath the surface for months. The Canadian ice dance team is well trained in front of a microphone, and they rarely if ever say something they don’t mean.

There were signs everywhere of emerging issues: When Ms. Virtue and Mr. Moir marched in the opening ceremonies in Vancouver in 2010, where they won gold, Ms. Zueva was by their side. But when they paraded with Canada’s athletes in Sochi, their coach chose to be with the Americans. “That was a tough pill to swallow,” Mr. Moir said.

But really, what did it matter? What was the ceremony other than a bit of pomp anyway? The snub, though, was symptomatic of a larger shift in the relationship between the coach and her four champion pupils. Ms. Zueva’s attention could never be divided perfectly – they all knew it – and more and more, her focus was shifting to the American contenders.

The real problems began to brew before the Olympics. When Ms. Virtue and Mr. Moir skated at the Canadian nationals in Ottawa last month, their coach wasn’t there. She was instead with the Americans at their championships in Boston.

And when they wanted to work out problems in their routine back in Canton, Mich., where the two teams train, there was a distinct feeling that Ms. Virtue and Mr. Moir were No. 2 in line at times. In December, when they placed second to Ms. Davis and Mr. White at the Grand Prix of Figure Skating in Japan, the Canadians spoke up. Ms. Virtue and Mr. Moir scored 190 points, the Americans 191.35. Fearing they were losing ground, Ms. Virtue was blunt about their concerns.

“I guess that bluntness with Marina was just sort of saying second wasn’t acceptable, and we weren’t going to settle for anything else,” she said. “We needed her to bring her A-game and in turn we promised to do the same. Whatever was missing, whatever deficiencies we saw, we had to make up for on our own.”

But the Japan competition wasn’t the only time Ms. Davis and Mr. White beat the Canadians. Several times over the past two years, including at last year’s world championships in London, Ont., the Canadians were defeated.

The prevailing theory is that Ms. Virtue and Mr. Moir’s style had fallen out of favour with the judges, ever since becoming darlings of the Vancouver Olympics. The Americans had the momentum, statistically anyway, and the looming fear for Ms. Virtue and Mr. Moir was that Ms. Zueva – as she had done in 2010 – was going with a winner.

“It’s a little delicate,” Mr. Moir said. “There were moments for sure, times we needed to take a step back and re-evaluate if our situation was ideal and if it was going to be the training that got us on top of the podium.”

The reality, though, is that the time-share relationship is one both teams entered into willingly, and with good reason.

World-class coaching isn’t plentiful in figure skating. When Canadian Patrick Chan won silver in the men’s event, the gold medal winner and fourth-place finisher were both coached by former Canadian silver-medalist Brian Orser, who is now in high demand internationally as a coach. Ms. Zueva is no different.

Mr. Moir regrets the competition was engulfed in controversy after a French sports publication alleged the judges in Sochi were conspiring to give the gold to Ms. Davis and Mr. White. Those rumours gained speed when few could explain the difference between the Canadians’ performance and that of the Americans, despite a nearly five-point difference from the judges.

Such problems have dogged the sport for years, Mr. Moir said. “It’s too bad that’s the headline no matter what,” he said, adding, “I don’t mind it particularly in this case.”

As the Canadian ice dance team moves toward an exit from competitive skating, Mr. Moir said perhaps they can help skating officials work on ways to foolproof the marking system, so that it’s not left open to innuendo and skepticism.

“I think everybody involved in the Olympics has to make the effort to rid the sport of those things, as hard as it is,” he said. “At the end of the day, we had a great forum to go out and perform to the best of our abilities and it didn’t go our way. But I don’t think the judging was predetermined. It’s just the way the cookie crumbled, I guess.”

With a report from Shawna Richer