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Rivals: Ice Dancing

By Beverley Smith, The Globe and Mail Posted Friday, February 12, 2010 10:37 AM ET

Never was a sports rivalry so chummy - even neighbourly - as the one between Canadian ice dancers Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir and their American counterparts Meryl Davis and Charlie White.

They eyeball each other every day, since they both train in Canton, Mich., with the same coaches, Marina Zoueva and Igor Shpilband, but the situation is far from tense.

Moir jokingly says they try to enforce that sense of rivalry, of which much is made in the media. "We don't want to be too friendly with them," he said. "It's a big joke between us.

"We all want each other to skate well and we train with each other every day. We know how hard each other works. We just want the best for each other.''
But when they step on the ice, they both want to win. "I don't think that's a secret," Virtue said. Moir calls himself and his partner the No. 1 team in the world, and they train with the No. 2 team.

The gloves will come off in Vancouver in mid-February as both teams seek the Olympic gold medal in the ice dancing event. Nothing less than gold will do for either of them.

"We're at the very top level of ice dance, and so our marks are going to be very close," White said. "But when we're out on the ice for ourselves, we're only competing to be ourselves, and [improve] what we've done before and make everything perfect.

"So we're not lining up head-to-head at a faceoff circle against Scott. It's something where you're going out there and trying to prove yourself and not prove someone else isn't as good as you.''

At the recently concluded U.S. championships, Davis and White upended reigning Olympic silver medalists Tanith Belbin and Benjamin Agosto with a final score of 222.29, which, if domestic votes counted, would be the second highest mark in the world ever awarded for ice dancing.

At the Canadian championships the previous week, Virtue and Moir finished with 221.95 points, which, at the time, was the second-highest world mark ever awarded. The two teams have been trading first-place marks all season. But it's been a one-upmanship battle from the time they were young skaters - in a cordial kind of way.

They aren't exactly at each other's throats.

Virtue admitted that it was kind of sad to say goodbye to Davis and White when the Canadians left for their national championships in London, Ont. And when they returned, Davis and White were off to their national championships. "We're separated for 2 1/2 weeks, and that's a really long time for us," Virtue said. "We like travelling together. We would prefer to travel as a team."

They love training with each other, and egging each other on. At breaks, they go for coffee together and "hang out," Virtue said. White and Moir both like hockey and watch games at the Buffalo Wild Wings pub near Detroit. White cheers for the Red Wings. Moir goes for the Leafs.

In fact, both White and Davis used to play hockey. White played for a hockey team for 11 years, and won a state championship. He even broke an ankle playing hockey six years ago.

Moir realized that he had played hockey against White when they were very young when, at their first world junior figure skating championship together in 2003-04, they shared hockey stories.

"I was ribbing him about how I've never lost to an American hockey team and I started telling the story about a bench-clearing brawl we had when we were eight or something. It was ridiculous," Moir said.

White looked at him incredulously. "Oh my god, I was on that team," he said.
Moir: "And he sat on the bench like a wuss when we fought, while I was out there in my little eight-year-old scrum, gloves were probably off ..."

Both teams are remarkably seasoned for being so young. Both hooked up with their partners in 1997, so they have 13 years of experience behind them, unusual for North American teams.

The career path to the top has been strangely similar. They met at a Challenge event, a U.S.-Canada tournament for prejunior skaters.

"I think it's really beneficial because we're going through the same thing and not many people can say they're on this journey with us," Virtue said. "They get it."
When Virtue and Moir became the first Canadians to win a world junior title in ice dancing, Davis and White were third. Last year, at the world championships, Virtue and Moir edged the Americans. But Davis and White defeated the Canadians for the first time at the Grand Prix Final in Japan last December.

Still, Virtue and Moir and Davis and White chat with each other during warm-ups at an event. "That's what we do every day," Virtue said. "It feels more like home if we're relaxing, if we're warming up kind of close together. Because we've been training and travelling together for so many years, I think we sort of have a routine down. There are certain things that go unsaid that we just understand and we're able to joke back and forth.

"It helps us. It's relaxing and it creates an environment that's just like what we train in."

How does a coach-choreographer deal with the expectations of two teams fighting for the same things, hoping they'll have the better routine?

"I like it," Zoueva said. "I'm the happiest coach in the world, ever."

Because she's been a large part of their development at a high level, they are both close to her heart, she said. "I try to make both teams have the same possibility, to win," she said. "Who will do a little bit better, that's up to them. If you want to be champion, be champion."

Both teams are such different styles, it wasn't difficult for Zoueva to find distinct music that suited each. While Virtue and Moir have a romantic touch and a unique chemistry, Davis and White are aggressive, powerful and dramatic, and bring an audience to their feet for different reasons.

"Everyone else has tried to create this rivalry, but we've been skating together and we've known each other for so long that we know it doesn't exist," Davis said. "It's not something that's new and we don't know how it's going to turn out. No matter how it turns out on the ice, we know that we're always going to be supportive of one another off the ice."

photo above courtesy of David Carmichael


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