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Virtue and Moir plan to savour Sochi, likely their last Olympic appearance

Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir say they feel the pressure now that they are defending champions.


It's the final chapter of Canada's most successful ice dance story.

So when Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir touch down in Sochi for the Winter Olympics, they intend to soak up every second of it.

"I think we might just strap GoPro cameras to our heads," Moir joked. "We're going to try our best to be present. That's really our goal. We want to take in every moment. It really is a beautiful ride, and we're going to enjoy every single little bit of it."

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That ride began in 1997, when Virtue was just seven and Moir was nine, and now, after an Olympic gold medal and two world titles, they're expected to retire after Sochi, closing the book on a partnership that has spanned nearly two decades.

Virtue, from London, Ont., and Moir, from nearby Ilderton, captured gold at the 2010 Games in Vancouver in fabulous fashion, becoming the first North Americans to win an Olympic ice dance title and ending more than three decades of European domination. At just 20 and 22, they were the youngest ice dancers to ever win gold.

But the hours and days that followed were a blur.

"People ask us, 'What was it like?' Some parts I don't even remember, it was such a whirlwind," Moir said. "Especially right after we won, there are about five days there that have gone missing. You look at photographs and kind of go, 'Oh that was there?"'

"It is overwhelming, absolutely," Virtue added. "I wish that I journalled more. I remember getting back to the athletes village and thinking 'You can either sleep for half an hour, take a shower, or write in your journal."'

She chose sleep.

The night after their gold-medal free dance, they met family and friends to celebrate at a Vancouver restaurant, and then were loaded into a car and whisked to the top of Grouse Mountain for a 3 a.m. television appearance and photo shoot.

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"At some point, and nobody really asked us, they said, 'We want to take a photo with your medal now.' And it's 3 a.m. Bags under my eyes. Those pictures were beauties," Moir said.

Mixed with the exhaustion were feelings of relief. Virtue later revealed that she was far from 100 per cent healthy in Vancouver, and had competed in pain so severe that just the 10-minute walk from her room at the athletes village to the cafeteria was excruciating.

She suffered from compartment syndrome in her legs, a condition caused when muscles can't expand within the tissue that contains them.

Virtue had undergone surgery in 2008 on her shins — think of the muscle like sausage in a casing. The surgery was like cutting the casing to allow the muscle to expand. During her recovery at home in London, Moir practised alone in Detroit, often using a hockey stick or a sandbag as a stand-in for Virtue.

She had a second surgery on her legs in the fall of 2010, which proved more successful.

The skaters are known for their innovative lifts and intricate spins, and can completely capture an audience with their elegance and chemistry.

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What will be one of the most enduring images from the Vancouver Games happened on the ice of the Pacific Coliseum. It's of Virtue — as if in mid-flight — balancing on one knee, arms outstretched, on Moir's back in their signature lift they nicknamed "The Goose."

The two were amused to discover that the lift became a popular party trick after Vancouver.

"We get that a lot, people telling us 'Look at this picture. It's me and my friend doing The Goose,"' Moir said laughing. "Even on Halloween, people have said 'Me and my girlfriend, we were you and Tessa and we did The Goose, look at this picture.' It's pretty funny.

"People are pretty good at it," Virtue added.

They shelved The Goose after Vancouver, and then briefly considered revamping it for this season.

"But we wanted to do something fresh, and we think we have some cool moves that we didn't have to rely back on The Goose again," Moir said.

Their favourite has Virtue standing on Moir's leg and leaning away from him — think of Kate Winslet standing with outstretched arms on the bow of the Titanic.

"That's my favourite move. On one leg, like she's flying," Moir said.

"I like it too because our body lines match," Virtue added. "I like the clean lines that that creates."

The six-time Canadian champions have pushed ice dancing to new limits with their virtually unmatched mix of athleticism and art.

"We have the opportunity to make people feel something, feel some emotion, and then also we get to be just pure athletes, and from a pure technical standpoint do things are really technically demanding, and very challenging," Virtue said. "So it's that balance between the two that we love. And we love to play with the limits and push ourselves."

Their free dance for Sochi is to "The Seasons" by Russian composer Alexander Glazunov. After the passion and drama of last season's "Carmen" program, this year's long program is more reminiscent of the romance and silvery grace of their Vancouver Olympic free dance to Gustav Mahler's Symphony No. 5.

"The Seasons" mirrors the story of their partnership, from their early success that included a world junior title through the more turbulent times, to now. The final 30 seconds of the four-minute program represents Sochi. Their final pose is an elegant bow, one last salute to cap a couple of wonderful careers.

It's not easy, the two say, being the defending Olympic champions.

"I feel a lot more pressure this time because it's almost as if anything other than a gold medal is a disappointment," Virtue said. "I think that's what people are expecting of us and I think that's what we're expecting of ourselves, and so that's daunting, it's a little bit scary and frightening and sometimes I stop and think 'Why do we put ourselves through this?'

"But at the same time, you talk to someone like (former Canadian rowing star) Marnie McBean and she said to us 'No one can take away your gold medal away from you from Vancouver. You will always be Olympic champions. It doesn't define you and that's not who you are.'

"That's the sentiment we want to hold on to and carry with us, because life goes on, it's not like we're saving lives, we're figure skating."

The Canadians' only real true rivals are Americans Meryl Davis and Charlie White, who share the same coach — Marina Zoueva — as Virtue and Moir, at their training base in Canton, Mich. Davis and White were runners-up to the Canadians in Vancouver, and won the 2011 and 2013 world championships.

Davis and White edged Virtue Moir by about a point in their only head-to-head competition this season — the Grand Prix Final in December.

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