Tessa Virtue got an ominous warning late last year when she and partner Scott Moir lost their world ice dancing title in Moscow.
She was in a lot of pain, again. Severe. Worse than before, stabbing her in the shins and calves, not just the shins.
The problem came as a shock to Virtue, 22, of London, Ont., because she'd already been through the abyss with chronic exertional compartment syndrome, which sidelined her for parts of two seasons. She underwent surgery in October of 2008, and returned in time to win the 2009 Canadian championships the following January.
All was well, she said. But seven or eight months after their victory at the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver, Virtue underwent surgery again to reduce the pain. For four months after the second surgery, Virtue steamed along free of pain, delighted that she could finally train the way she wanted to, that her worries were over.
"We kind of were back to the drawing board," Virtue said this week. "And tried to come up with a solution that wasn't a third surgery."
Virtue decided to deal with the problem by retraining the mechanics of her body, using the muscles in her hamstrings and glutes as she sped around the ice, rather than her shins and calves. She spent the early days of the new season stroking and stroking and stroking around the ice, going back to basics and fundamentals, a remarkable process for a skater that had already won an Olympic gold medal.
"That was a bit of a tedious process," Virtue said. But it paid big dividends.
With the world championships in Nice, France, next week, Virtue now says she and Moir are better than ever. Their work on the basics has given them more speed and power. It has allowed them to display complex footwork with more precision and skill. Strangely enough, they are new skaters.
Even so, earlier this season, Virtue and Moir continued to be defeated by reigning world champions and their archrivals, Meryl Davis and Charlie White of the United States. At every meeting since the 2010 world championships, the Americans had taken the measure of the Canadians.
Moir wasn't pleased when Davis and White defeated them at the Grand Prix final in Quebec City last December. They still had one piece of the puzzle to put together.
The defeat at the world championships last year and the frustrations of last season – when Virtue and Moir competed only once, (they withdrew during the free dance at Four Continents and didn't finish the competition), took its toll on their psyches. It rattled them, somewhat.
"We wanted to prove ourselves," Virtue said of their early-season mindset. "I think we wanted to prove so badly that we were healthy and trained and ready to compete. And that mentality was not necessarily the right approach for us."
Moir said they felt they had to show their Olympic victory was not a flash in the pan and that "the magic was still there. Your mind starts playing tricks on you and it's a lot of pressure."
During the Olympic year, they had a different way of thinking. They went into a personal bubble, where they allowed nothing to touch them. It was "a place of positive energy," Virtue said. "We can let it get away from us if we are focused on the other distractions."
Virtue and Moir said those distractions and learning experiences are now in the rearview mirror. At the Four Continents championship in Colorado Springs, Colo., five weeks ago, they showed the results of their new training regimen, some technical changes to their routines, and an aggressive, take-no-prisoners joy. The side benefit? They defeated Davis and White for the first time in almost two years.
Virtue said she's heading into these world championships stronger than she ever has. They are well prepared and well trained. And so ready for this.