Maia and Alex Shibutani of the United States should have won the Olympic ice dancing gold medal.
France’s Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron should have won gold, too.
And Canada’s Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir? Unquestionably the gold.
The finale to the Olympic ice dancing competition was such a beautiful thrill that each of the couples deserved to be the champions. Those three teams ended up winning bronze, silver and gold, respectively.
To place the Canadians’ achievement in the proper context, only Russians Oksana Grishuk and Evgeny Platov were able to win two ice dancing golds. Virtue and Moir, with two golds and a silver, can retire as the most accomplished ice dance team of all time. They redeemed themselves after a close call in 2014, when they placed second behind a blisteringly fast performance by Americans Meryl Davis and Charlie White.
After taking some time off, the Canadians returned to competition in 2017 with a new coaching team and a new look. Their movements became more akin to modern dance than traditional ballroom, and they utilized contemporary music to seem fresh and relevant.
So good are the Canadians that they took the most overused music in the age of skating with lyrics — selections from “Moulin Rouge” — and infused it with more passion and gusto than the Baz Luhrmann film itself. They skated with such confidence that Moir appeared to be singing along as he and Virtue flowed through a labyrinthine series of steps in difficult hold positions.
Throughout the season, the program had changed to add to its power. What got the most attention was a risque modification in which Virtue practically somersaults, legs spread, onto Moir’s shoulders. But the most powerful change was transforming its understated conclusion, with Virtue pantomiming a quiet death as Moir spun her to a triumphant crescendo. The symbolism was cinematic, a picture-perfect ending to a skating career well lived.
And it was not even the best program of the night.
That distinction belonged to France’s Papadakis and Cizeron. Skating to Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata,” the French captivated the crowd with their effortless and ethereal brilliance. They bend their knees so deeply and fluidly that they gather speed while floating on ice, rather than bouncing from one side of the rink to the next. That great technique means they can cover more ice, sustaining striking positions. Their edges were so deep that the synchronized sounds of their blues carved a new beat to the moving melody.
Papadakis and Cizeron would end up breaking their own world record, casting aside the horror of the short dance when Papadakis suffered an unfortunate wardrobe malfunction that hindered their performance. Even their brilliance Monday night could not close the gap between them and the Canadians.
The world will benefit with the French team’s intention to continue their careers, allowing us to gasp and gasp again at their breathtaking quality. With the legendary Canadians out of the way, the French will also now have some space to try out different styles and movements to widen the scope of their legend.
Tales of redemption have been found throughout the Olympic figure skating competition, and the United States found a bit of its own with a bronze medal for the “Shib Sibs.” In the United States’ most competitive field, the Shibutanis’ steady performances have long been undervalued, and they fended off two other compelling American teams Monday night.
The civil war in ice dance between the three teams ended up being a bit of a rout. The other Americans folded under the pressure, while the Shibutanis were steady and precise. Their program to Coldplay’s “Paradise” built in strength and speed as it progressed, and the Shibutanis would end up being the first ice dancers of Asian descent to ascend to the Olympic podium. They became the first brother and sister pair to win a medal in the sport since Isabelle and Paul Duchesnay accomplished this feat (those who freak out over the Shibs skating together, despite their platonic program, would have a conniption over French siblings, who won silver in 1992 while portraying star-crossed lovers Tony and Maria from “West Side Story”). They secured the United States’ first — and what could be their only — figure skating medal outside the team event.
The Shibutanis’ technical prowess was so overwhelming that there would have been a clamor over their bronze but for the French and the Canadians. Instead, the world was treated to a night of unbelievable skating. Once a joke of the Olympics, ice dancing has become athletic, modern and moving. We are privileged to live in its golden age.
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