LONDON, Ont. – It has happened, back in the early days, in places like Stockholm and Vienna, Bratislava and Oslo, and London and Paris and Budapest, to skaters named Gillis Grafstrom, Herma Szabo, Sonja Henie, Cecilia Colledge, Jacqueline du Bief, Emmerich Danzer and Ondrej Nepela.
But only once in what would be considered figure skating’s modern era has an absolute local enjoyed home ice advantage, fully exploited and crowned by a world title. That was Irina Slutskaya’s gold medal in Moscow, in 2005. And we’re guessing most Muscovites didn’t notice. Fair to say, then, that no host community of a world figure skating championships has ever been as completely aware of a potential champion in its comparatively small-town midst as London – the other London, our London – is this week with the dance team of Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir.
And somehow, the two-time world and 2010 Olympic champs have to shut out the friends and neighbours, relatives and well-wishers and keep their eyes on the prize in a city where they can’t take two steps in any direction without running into someone who’s had, or wants, a piece of their lives. History suggests home ice has not been a blessing, but this will be its ultimate test, because no home ice has ever been homier. “This is our city, this is our venue, there’s no doubt about that,” says Moir, who will usher Virtue onto the ice of Budweiser Gardens on Thursday for the short dance, hoping to hold off, among others, their toughest challengers and Detroit training partners, Meryl Davis and Charlie White.
“This is where we come on Friday nights to watch the [OHL London] Knights. It seems like we’re the luckiest kids ever. We have a home country Olympic Games and to have a hometown worlds is a pretty rare opportunity for athletes like us. “I thought nationals here [in 2010] was special, but to be here at a world championships … it gives me goosebumps just thinking about it.” It’s doubtful the crowd will raise the roof the way it did for the Knights’ 2005 Memorial Cup victory over the Rimouski Oceanic, who had a kid named Crosby on their roster. For one thing, the figure skating setup cuts about 2,000 seats out of the hockey capacity of 9,046.
For another, there’s a lot of media and ISU seating from which the applause will be either muted or non-existent, although the no-cheering-in-the-press-box rule has not spread far beyond North American borders.
The 23-year-old Virtue says that so far, focusing has not been a large problem.
“I think we’ll try to keep it to as normal a competition setting as possible,” she said. “We’re staying at the hotel and taking the bus. Probably actively trying not to go home. We were just mentioning turning our off phones, too, because they’ll be buzzing a little bit more.
“Everyone has been extremely respectful. They know we have job to do,” she said. “But you get that extra smile or wink from volunteers and it’s really special. Everyone’s excited, and we can feel that energy.”
Canada’s probable No. 2 dance team, Kaitlyn Weaver and Andrew Poje, are coming off a considerable hiatus – Weaver suffered a broken fibula in December and they missed nationals while she made a hasty recovery from surgery to place a plate and five screws into her leg. That they are even competing here is a triumph of relentless physiotherapy and hard work, but it’s probably not realstic to expect them to be able to duplicate their fourth-place finish in last year’s worlds.
The third team, Piper Gilles and Paul Poirier – national runners-up in Weaver/Poje’s absence – is competing at worlds for the first time, though Poirier and his former partner Vanessa Crone were at three worlds and the last Olympics, with a highest finish of seventh at the worlds a month after the Vancouver Games. Virtue and Moir know that anything less than a championship here will be a letdown to the crowd, and will set the stage imperfectly for next year’s Olympics in Sochi. They are coming off a second-place finish (to Davis and White) at the Four Continents in Osaka, where they had to stop in mid-free dance when Virtue suffered a leg cramp.
“We ended up seeing the silver lining,” she said. “We were able to sit down with our team and analyze the last few months. We were able to see where we went off track a little bit [training too hard], and only with the best intentions. “It was only because we wanted to push ourselves and we were really emphasizing speed and power. When you get to be feeling so good, you forget to take care of the details that made you feel good in the first place. We let that get away from us a bit.”