Virtue and Moir begin Olympic quest at Skate Canada

FILE - In this Saturday, April 1, 2017, file photo, Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir, of Canada, skate their free dance to win the gold at the World figure skating championships in Helsinki, Finland. The pair are the heavy favorites to win Olympic gold in ice dance at the PyeongChang Games in February 2018. That quest begins with Skate Canada, an event they won handily last year. (AP Photo/Ivan Sekretarev, File)

Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir are the heavy favorites to win Olympic gold in ice dance at the Pyeonchang Games in February

It would have made sense for Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir to embark on a grand exhibition tour after last season, keeping the momentum of their unbeaten figure skating campaign right into an Olympic year.

Instead, the Canadian ice dance dynamos stepped away from the ice.

Again.

But the team that floated the idea of retirement after a 2010 Olympic gold medal, then followed through after taking silver four years ago in Sochi, were merely taking a well-earned break this time. They wanted a chance to recover physically and mentally before the run-up to the Pyeongchang Games, and tweak some technical and mechanical elements of their near-flawless skating.

"We had learned so much from last season, having competed and making that comeback," Virtue said, "so we were very clear with our team. We sat down, everyone together — our strength and conditioning, our mental prep, our whole team — we sat down and discussed the best way to set us up for the Olympic Games, and part of that was having a buffer period."

The break didn't last long.

Together with their husband-and-wife coaches Marie-France Debreuil and Patrice Lauzon, Virtue and Moir began hammering out ambitious new programs. Their short dance is a medley of Latin rock tunes by the Rolling Stones, the Eagles and Santana, while their free dance is set to music from "Moulin Rouge!"

They unveiled the programs to rave reviews at the Autumn Classic International, but will showcase them on the big stage when they begin their Grand Prix season this weekend at Skate Canada.

"The break gave us a lot longer to build a foundation and that was important to us," Moir said. "We had a great season last year, but we're still not quite where we want to be."

In some ways, that's hard to believe.

The three-time world champions not only had the best season of their careers, they may have had the best season of any ice dance couple. Their comeback began with gold at Skate Canada, continued with gold at the NHK Trophy in Japan, and was highlighted by their first Grand Prix Final championship.

They added their seventh national title in January, won Four Continents on the Olympic ice in South Korea, and capped it all by breaking their own scoring record at the world championships in Finland.

Great season, to be sure.

Room for improvement? Good luck.

"The momentum starts a lot sooner in the Olympic season," Virtue said, explaining their time away from the ice. "So we were trying to make changes technically and mechanically, and we wanted to give our coaching staff some time to break things down and rewire those movement patterns."

Virtue and Moir are unquestionably the favorites to win Olympic gold in February, to say nothing of their Grand Prix assignments along the way. But despite the decision of reigning champions Meryl Davis and Charlie White to remain out of competition, the Canadians have no shortage of talented rivals.

The American duo of Maia and Alex Shibutani began the Grand Prix season by winning the Rostelecom Cup in Russia last weekend. Virtue and Moir's training partners, U.S. bronze medalists Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue, are on deck at Skate Canada. The French team of Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron will begin their season the following week at Cup of China.

"We're right on track with where we want to be in our Olympic plan, for the lead-up to the season," Virtue said. "We're just excited to get underway."

Virtue and Moir aren't the only big names making their season debut at Skate Canada.

Three-time world champion and Olympic silver medalist Patrick Chan of Canada and American skater Jason Brown highlight the men's field. The pairs field includes world silver medalists Aliona Savchenko and Bruno Massot of Germany, and two-time world champions Meagan Duhamel and Eric Radford of Canada.

The stacked ladies field includes world silver medalist Kaetlyn Osmond of Canada and the Americans' best hopes for an Olympic medal, national champion Karen Chen and veteran Ashley Wagner.

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