Scott Moir and Tessa Virtue in conversation

On pain, nerves, the future, and how their relationship almost fell apart before the Olympics

Kate Fillion
Scott Moir and Tessa Virtue in conversation
Photograph by Colin O'Connor

2010 Olympic gold medallists and world champions Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir have skated together since she was eight years old and he was 10. In early October, Virtue had surgery on her legs to reduce the pain and pressure associated with chronic exertional compartment syndrome, so the pair will not compete in Skate Canada. However, their book Tessa and Scott: Our Journey from Childhood Dream to Gold comes out next week.

Q: Tessa, you’re still on crutches. How are you feeling?
Tessa Virtue: Relieved, more than anything, because finally there’s an answer to the pain I’ve been experiencing. For years it was, “Oh, skate through it,” or, “Work on your breathing to get more oxygen to your shins.” We were actually planning on skating this season, and it’s funny because mentally I was really blocking out the pain, not admitting it to myself. It wasn’t until I met the new team doctor at our national team skating camp and she suggested I do some follow-up testing in Edmonton that we realized surgery was even an option. We considered, briefly, postponing it until after the season, but whenever we take the ice we always want to be at our best, and I think the last two years, training in that pain, I haven’t felt that.

Q: Is it the same kind of surgery you had in 2008?
Basically, only last time they opened the anterior compartment, the shins, and this time they did the posterior compartment [the calves]. I already feel I’m further along in terms of recovery than I was in 2008.

Q: How bad was the pain off the ice?
Enough so that 10 minutes into walking around the mall, I was looking for a bench. It’s not normal that a 21-year-old panics when she gets to an airport because there’s so much walking.
Scott Moir: She’s done a really good job, obviously, skating through the pain.

Q: Before now, you didn’t want anyone outside your immediate circle to know about the severity of the pain. Why not?
It’s strategy. If judges thought she was fighting pain, they might watch for that. It could affect [scoring], definitely. We wanted to win the Olympics, and we thought we could do it without letting on about the pain.

Q: It must be disappointing to miss Skate Canada.
We love to compete, and I feel like national champion is a title I want to get every year, so to see it going to another team is going to hurt. But there are bigger goals in our minds right now. If we can compete pain-free, we’ll be in way better shape anyway.

Q: In your book, you say you stopped communicating for a few months after the 2008 surgery. Do you mean you literally didn’t speak?
We didn’t even send text messages. Isn’t that weird? This time, we’ve been diligently talking every single day.

Q: Scott, why didn’t you call her?
I think I was scared to hear what was actually going on. A couple of times the doctors had said, “Maybe she’ll be back by this date,” and I’d get excited, then it was constant letdown. Also, I didn’t want to tell her, “I’ve been at the rink all day, training.” I was thinking that’s not what she needed to hear. But it was a mistake. Clearly. It took us a long time to figure things out, because we grew apart so much in those two months.
TV: A year before the Games we’ve trained for our whole lives, and we’re feeling awkward seeing each other.

Q: Why didn’t you just call him?
Once we let it get past a certain point, there was no going back. We’re together all the time, so when two, three weeks go by and we haven’t talked—where do you start?

Q: Where did you start?
I don’t think it was until we were back on the ice that we realized we’d seriously neglected the personal side of our relationship. We needed to fight through the competitions together, and that paved the way, but it took a long time for us to trust each other again.
SM: We saw a sports psychologist together, who does sports and also psych and marriage counselling. It’s kind of funny, because we don’t have a marriage, but that really helped in that time when I didn’t understand why we didn’t understand each other.

Q: How do you cope with the fact that people have a great desire to see you as a romantic couple? There are websites full of comments like, “They need to get married and have babies,” and you’re not even dating.
[laughs] We don’t read that stuff, to start with.
SM: It is a compliment, I guess. Hopefully that means people are buying into what we do in our programs. But off the ice, we’re completely different.

Q: But as you explain in the book, there was pressure, even when you were younger, to do things as a couple off the ice, to create a public image of togetherness. Which sounds kind of fake.
I think everything we do, whether in front of a camera or not, is genuine. What we do on ice is keep the mystery alive, but when we’re off the ice, when we’re doing interviews, that’s who we really are.

Q: So just for the record, you’re dating other people, right?
Well, I am.

Q: Are you training while Tessa’s recuperating?
Yes, but I took about a week and was just at home, coaching some of my mom’s students. It’s great to go back because I’m just Scott there, not special, but you can see we have had an influence. It’s exciting for me as a male to see other guys wanting to be ice dancers.

Q: Growing up, did people think it was wimpy?
It’s tough to get away from that. There are always people that don’t understand it who are going to criticize you. Luckily I had really good friends who always appreciated what I did. I was also on the ice playing hockey, and I was fast and good, and that helped.

Q: In the book, Tessa, you say that it was often quite uncomfortable for you in the dressing room at competitions. Why?
Part of it is just my personality. I want people to like me and, if there’s any doubt, I sort of worry. I was always the youngest and I think girls, period, try to psych each other out, there are a lot of head games. It was actually a really good lesson for me to learn because I need to focus. I can now walk into any dressing room anywhere and I’m just in my own little world, staying present with what I have to do.
SM: It’s completely different in the men’s dressing room. Even walking in as a 13-year-old with 21-year-old men in the room, it wasn’t really that intimidating. The guys are a lot more laid back, we just sit and joke.

Q: Tessa, you look so confident on ice. But according to the book, you used to throw up before competitions.
I used to get sick sometimes in training, too. It was a nervousness to perform. After the last surgery, in 2008, I felt self-doubt. I didn’t feel totally healthy, I questioned my skating skills. There’s a difference between feeling nervous and feeling: “I’m not worthy of taking the ice.”
SM: It’s crazy. Because she’s the best. Ever. I still can’t get over that.

Q: You don’t get nervous?
It changes every time, and that’s one of the best things about competing, you don’t know what the feeling is going to be. There was one practice at the Olympics, I felt like my legs couldn’t bend—I was more nervous even than for the performance.

Q: Why?
In ice dance, the practices are huge. The judges are there, they’re talking. Your judge is trying to sell you to the other countries’ judges—“Look at that lift, they have tons of speed”—and you have to be on.

Q: How do you sleep before an Olympic event?
Not well!
TV: Actually, I slept better than I did in the months leading up to the Games. I was taking a psychology class at the University of Windsor, and it branched off into a sports psych section. There was a lot of talk about Olympic athletes and just the word “Olympic” would make me feel numb, physically sick. That’s when I would lie awake at night worrying. Once we were in the Village and had gone through a few practices, that was the best I’d felt. I’ve never enjoyed being an athlete so much.

Q: Are you still at university?
Just part-time. I love getting away from the rink and being in school. I’m aiming for a psych undergrad and I would love to go to law school.

Q: How big was the let-down after the Olympics?
The Olympics was better than anything we’d imagined, and then winning Worlds was awesome. In the summer I was having lows that I didn’t expect. I was really drained, physically and emotionally. I’m still motivated, but it’s different. It’s not as easy, setting new goals. I had to cross Vancouver off my wall.

Q: How far ahead do you think, career-wise?
Year by year.
TV: It’s, let’s get over this injury and see where we are.

Q: Do you think about how long you’ll skate competitively?
: I know I do. I don’t have an answer yet. I think it’s a feeling thing. After the Worlds, we knew we weren’t done, that we wanted to skate and compete more, but I don’t know if that feeling will change after this year.
TV: We wanted to take this year just to be open to the whole thing, and then at the end of the year, take our bodies’ temperatures, see if we have that internal drive.

Q: Do you know when you’ll be back on the ice?
This time it’s a little different than in 2008, when we were really anxious to get back. Without that Olympic pressure, this time it’s about being 100 per cent, getting completely healthy, and if that takes more time, that’s all right. It’s so disappointing that we missed the fall series, but it’s almost better to be in this situation with the hope of competing pain free.

Q: What do you like least about skating?
What do you think, Tess? The cold?
TV: Well, we certainly haven’t had the normal school experience, normal social lives. I don’t know that that’s negative, though. We’ve been so fortunate to travel at a young age, have the life experiences we’ve had.

Q: When you’re with people your own age, do you feel younger or older?
When I’m home, my friends are all coming home from work, their lives are a little more concrete. I feel younger, for sure.
TV: And academically, a lot of my friends are in their fourth year of university.

Q: Do you agree with the idea that extraordinary talent basically boils down to practising for 10,000 hours?
I think what we’ve learned is that it’s not just the hours, but what you’re doing during those hours. Our 10,000 hours have been really productive ones.
TV: It didn’t take us long to figure out, looking around when we were 12 and every other team was fighting and yelling at each other, that that’s not a productive way to train.
SM: It’s juvenile to get mad at each other, too. We both go out there and give 100 per cent, maybe that’s why we don’t have those problems. We’re both perfectionists, and we’re both very competitive.

Q: Has it been a big shift to start thinking about branding and endorsements, to think of yourselves as a business entity?
It was like the flip of a switch. We’re constantly saying, “Oh my God, we’ve just been thrown into the business world.”
TV: Leading into the Olympics you have everyone behind you, you have all this love, the whole world is helping you along. Now we have to protect ourselves first, be a little more cautious. I recently saw a picture of us at the Vancouver medal ceremony, and my mom asked, “Do you feel like the same person?” Part of me does, because we interact with the same people we did before the Games, and we’re not often recognized on the street. Another part of me looks at that picture and thinks, “Oh my gosh, I was a baby, so naive.” So much has happened in the last eight months.