Months before the Olympics began, Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir were practising on the same ice as their American figure skating rivals, Meryl Davis and Charlie White, when the two teams nearly crashed into each other. The Americans lost an edge and Davis came sliding toward the Canadians like a curling stone. Luckily for all involved, Davis had (to keep the curling analogy going) perfect draw weight and disaster was averted. It was, Virtue joked later, "a slow-motion collision."
Surprisingly, it's the only near-collision that the world's best two ice dance teams have had in their thousands of hours of training in close proximity. In what remains one of the most unusual arrangements in competitive sports, the Canadians and Americans – bitter rivals on the ice – still share the same coach and practise at the same rink in Canton, Mich.
And just as they have been at every meaningful figure skating competition since before the 2010 Vancouver Games, the two teams are on a spectacular collision course here in Sochi. Virtue and Moir are defending Olympic gold medalists; Davis and White are the reigning world champions. So when they take the ice on Sunday to begin the two-day ice-dance competition, each will likely be the other's biggest obstacle to victory.
Virtue, 24, and Moir, 26, rode their Vancouver momentum to a pair of world titles in 2011 and 2012. But at last year's world championsips in London, Ont., the Canadians' home town, the Americans stole the crown and sent a clear message that they did not intend to play second fiddle in Sochi.
Since then, there have been murmurs that Virtue and Moir have fallen behind their American rivals, and that the judging – what would figure skating be without questions about judges? – was starting to lean favourably toward Davis, 27, and White, 26.
Those conspiracy theories were amped up at the start of the Olympics when French sports magazine L'Equipe floated a rumour, citing an unnamed Russian source, that the fix was in: An agreement had been struck between U.S. and Russian judges to trade support for Davis and White in exchange for marks favourable to the Russians in the team event.
It wouldn't be the first time skating was discredited by a judging scandal. Canadians remember all too well the 2002 Winter Olympics when Jamie Sale and David Pelletier were initially robbed of gold by colluding judges. But this particular conspiracy theory seems far-fetched since Davis and White don't need rigged results to win: The Americans have recently been generating higher marks on the international circuit.
And though Virtue and Moir have been good, by their own admission they haven't been perfect. That was evident in the team event. Head-to-head in the ice-dance portion of the competition, the Americans came out on top, and Moir and Virtue were visibly unhappy with their performance. "We got smoked today," Moir said, not wanting to make any excuses. "Not even close."
"Already we're thinking about next week and how we can improve on our score," Virtue added.
Russian coach and choreographer Marina Zueva has designed programs for both teams. For Virtue and Moir, Zueva has picked music that speaks to a Russian audience, using Russian composer Alexander Glazunov's The Seasons. And in a last-minute nod to the Sochi crowds, Virtue has chosen a newly sewn red skating dress inspired by Russian embroidery and the designs found on Fabergé eggs.
"I picked [the music] special for Russia," Zueva said, adding it would "show to everyone we work so hard to do the best performance as possible in Russia." She said the Canadians' long program is designed to tell the story of Virtue and Moir as they have grown up together, moving through the seasons.
Skating the long program to this classical score is a bit of a risk, since it's the first time the Glasunov piece has been used in skating. But the Canadians know they can't expect to win gold by simply trying to duplicate what they did in Vancouver. They must evolve if they want to fend off the surging Americans.
"Winning the Olympics is our main goal," Moir said. "We know that we can't do anything that's been done before. We don't want to be compared to anyone else. We want to create something that's special."
Some athletes studiously avoid talking about medals, too superstitious to broach the topic. Not these two. Soon after landing in Sochi, the Canadians told reporters they weren't here for silver. It's the gold they want.
"Part of saying that is holding yourself accountable," Virtue said. "If you say it out loud, you have to back it up."