Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir earn Canada's first gold medal in ice dancing; Meryl Davis and Charlie White of the U.S. claim silver

By Amy Shipley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 23, 2010; D08

VANCOUVER, B.C. -- A mere decade ago, it would have been inconceivable for the elegant sport of ice dancing to be a hot ticket at a Winter Games in these parts, yet fans packed Pacific Coliseum to the rafters Monday night. Heck, they showed up even for ice dancing practices this week, filling the lower bowl.

Whether they understood all of what they were seeing is another matter entirely -- Canadian children are raised to be hockey players, after all. In any case, Canadian flags shook, red-sweatered fans chanted "Canada! Canada!" and the excitement grew throughout the night.

By the time the last twizzling team had finished, the red-clad faithful had plenty to cheer about. Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir earned Canada its first gold medal in the sport's history with a romantic, soulful program that, quite clearly, swept the judging panel off its feet. They earned 221.57 points for the three-day competition, topping Americans and training partners Meryl Davis and Charlie White, who scored 215.74 to win the silver.

"This is our Stanley Cup," Moir said, holding up his gold medal. "What a night. What a week for us. . . . To get up there on the ice and execute like that, I've never had a feeling like that before . . . It's a little bit more fun when you're out there in front of 11,000 crazy Canadian fans."

Russians Oksana Domnina and Maxim Shabalin scored 207.64 for the bronze, and Americans Tanith Belbin and Ben Agosto, the 2006 Olympic silver medal winners, got fourth with 203.07.

Though it was Canada's gold medal, it was really a victory for North America, which established itself as the new ice dancing power with the unprecedented dominance of U.S. and Canadian teams in these Games.

Russians had won seven of the nine ice dancing gold medals awarded since the sport was added to the Olympics in 1976, and 16 of the 27 medals overall. Teams from North America had won just three medals, two from the United States and one from Canada.

"North America has really been on the verge of something big for several years," Davis said. "To have this experience and be a part of it, we're really so grateful. With the [seven-year-old] international judging system, it allowed a lot of North American teams to thrive . . . and get rewarded it."

After a Russian and French judge conspired to fix the results of the Olympic pairs competition in 2002, the largely subjective 6.0 system of the past was tossed out in favor of the international system in which skaters accrue a running total of points as they compete.

Davis and White skated first in the last group and put forth a high-speed, thrilling performance to "Phantom of the Opera" that featured complex lifts that seemed to defy physics. They laid down perfectly synchronized spins and steps, but received a one-point deduction for an extended lift. They earned a score in the free skate that demolished their personal best of 103.66; the judges gave them 107.19.

When they finished, White put his hand on the ice to catch his breath, his head hanging and his back heaving as he sucked in air. He and Davis embraced, looking pleased -- but also exhausted.

"We're so proud we were able to do that out there," White said.

Moments after Davis and White electrified the crowd, Virtue and Moir romanced and moved them, putting forth an intricate, ingenious ballet on ice to Mahler's "Symphony No. 5." They showed grace, long lines and emotion, yet they also executed stunning steps, lifts and spins. When their score was announced -- they earned 110.42 points for the free skate -- they embraced for a long time as the arena filled with riotous, raucous and long applause.

Though they competed under different flags, Davis and White and Virtue and Moir train together in Canton, Mich. The Detroit Free Press has referred to the Canadian team as "Canton-adians," but there was no confusion for the crowd at Pacific Coliseum. They two teams embraced heartily when they received their medals after the competition.

"I think all four of us have kind of dreamed of this for so long, to have it come to reality is so amazing," Davis said. Said Moir: "Not a single person left. Usually there are about 10 people around for the medal ceremony, so what a moment. . . . We worked so hard for this. We're so proud to have gold in Canada."

Virtue and Moir, both officially from London, Ontario, have never skated with other partners; they became a team 12 years ago at the suggestion of Moir's aunt. They take the ice daily at the Arctic Figure Skating Club in Canton under Igor Shpilband and Marina Zoueva, both former top-level Russian ice dancers. Davis and White, University of Michigan students, also teamed up in 1997.

"This is a groundbreaking moment for the Canton, Michigan, training center," Moir said. "This is it, as big as we could go. We did it, one-two, and we're so happy."

Belbin and Agosto waited an uncustomarily long time to skate because of the ovation for Virtue and Moir. Performing to "Ave Maria," they hoped to sneak onto the podium, but they received just 99.74 for the free skate

"The audience was really incredible," Agosto said. "They cheered for us, too."

Domnina and Shabalin skated last to "The Double Life of Veronique." Third after Sunday's original dance, they had a lot of ground to make up to move to the top of the medal stand. They simply did not do it, putting forth a more staid, slow and less dramatic performance than the top two teams mustered. Their lifts were not as inventive; they seemed more labored across the ice. They earned 101.04 from the judges.

It's been a rough Winter Games for Russia in figure skating. Last week, Russia's streak of 12 straight Olympic gold medals in the pairs event came to a halt with the gold medal victory of China's Shen Xue and Zhao Hongo.

A few days later, American Evan Lysacek upset Russian Evgeni Plushenko for the men's gold, ending a streak of four straight Olympic golds in that event for Russians.

"In general, it was okay," Shabalin said. "We are happy that we skated clean and without mistakes, because it's always hard pressure in the Olympics."

Though Russia's results in ice dancing might not be what they used to be, all of the top teams in Monday's free skate train in the United States under Russian coaches. Domnina and Shabalin train in Aston, Pa., under coaches Natalya Linichuk and Gennadi Karponossov, who won the Olympic ice dance gold at the 1980 Winter Games in Lake Placid. Soon after they arrived in 2008, Belbin and Agosto did, too -- leaving the Canton ice dance group after years under Shpilband and Zoueva.

Belbin and Agosto sought a change as Davis and White -- once too young and inexperienced to be taken seriously as rivals -- gained national and international stature, but the move did not prove a fruitful one.

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