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The free dance music for their comeback season, “Pilgrims on a Long Journey,” could easily describe the endeavour that Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir have undertaken this year. Though their enviable résumé includes Olympic gold and silver and two World titles, they still consider it far from complete. The Canadian ice dance duo jumped back into the mix with consecutive victories at Autumn Classic in Montréal — where they are now based — Skate Canada, NHK Trophy and the Grand Prix Final.

From the outset they understood that this would not be a case of same old, same old. The ice dance world has evolved in leaps and bounds since they left in 2014, and while some things might seem familiar, Virtue and Moir already know the game is no longer the same.

“It hits you like a ton of bricks, actually. There’s so many things,” said Moir, 29, when asked how it felt to return to competition. “Some days, we feel like Bill Murray in ‘Groundhog Day.’ Just trying to keep that fresh perspective is important. It’s a good time for us to remember that.”

Much of that comes from their day-to-day training environment under the guidance of coaches Marie-France Dubreuil and Patrice Lauzon. When they look across the ice they see the reigning World champions Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron and their coach, Romain Haguenauer.

Just watching Papadakis and Cizeron every day at their training rink was enough to show the Canadians how high the bar has been raised in ice dance. “There’s an interesting dichotomy because the element where we feel most comfortable, the rink, is what we know and that’s our world,” said Virtue, 27.

“And yet because we’re learning so many new things and changing things like our technique and trying to make some great strides, it’s a little bit foreign in that we’re sort of back to ground level, trying to climb back up again. In many ways, we’re coming at this from the perspective of a new team, and things feel different. It’s really refreshing and I think that’s what is keeping us going right now.”

During their time away, Virtue and Moir were aware of the level at current competitions, and Skate Canada — which they won by less than a point over American rivals Madison Chock and Evan Bates — reinforced their belief that the challenge in front of them will be anything but easy.

“The sport has grown, so we know we’re going to have to be better than we’ve ever been, and that’s part of the challenge,” said Moir. “We can’t come back two years later, be the same athletes we were and win. We watch videos of our programs, and see the improvements we want to make.”

After spending so many years training in the same rink as their former rivals, Meryl Davis and Charlie White, many wondered why Virtue and Moir had put themselves in a similar situation this time around. But they see it as an opportunity for growth. 

“People are probably a little bit surprised because, at the end with Meryl and Charlie, we got criticized for that situation and now we’ve kind of hopped back into a similar one,” Moir explained. “But we’ve always thought it was to our benefit to train with the best. We love the environment, and credit goes out to Marie-France, Patrice and Romain for creating it. We need that to train every day.

“We’re inspired by all athletes, and Gaby and Guillaume are easy ones to admire. We watch them every day and they kind of floor us — we see things that inspire us, so we’re lucky to have them as our training mates.”

Virtue and Moir are also enthusiastic about the support they receive from B2ten, an organization that assists elite Canadian athletes achieve their goals. Moir said that while he and Virtue thought they were efficient before with the off-ice team they had in 2014, the B2ten support has taken it to a new level. It developed Virtue and Moir’s off-ice training program, something both consider has made them better prepared to compete. “Our training would not be anywhere the same without B2ten,” Virtue said. “That’s the biggest difference and biggest change we’ve made.”

What has not changed is the desire to push the boundaries with their choreographic team of Dubreuil and David Wilson. Their short dance this season, which is a tribute to the late, great pop star Prince, begins with the vibrant hip-hop of “Kiss,” and eventually winds its way through the classic strains of “Purple Rain.”

“Having an iconic musician like Prince sets the standard really high, and we wanted to elevate our skating to match that caliber,” Virtue said. “That edgy glamour and rock n’ roll that Prince was so well known for — it’s been fun to bring that to the ice.”

Theirs is a journey targeted to end with Olympic gold in 2018, and Virtue and Moir do not attempt to hide that ambition. “To be honest, maybe we could have come back next season and maybe we could have made the Olympics, but I think it would have been a risk to try and make the team in one year,” Moir said. “To be where we want to be is a two-year process. We want to win — our goal is to win every competition we enter. We would be fooling ourselves if we didn’t admit that. “It’s going to take a lot and we understand that. But we’re not coming back just to be at the Olympics, and we’ll have to do our best to prove this year that we belong in that elite group of ice dancers. And next year we’ll have to take a step above that.”

Dubreuil agrees, but said her new students have already come a long way in the short time they have worked together. “They left for two years and, in four months, we almost recaptured all of those two years. But these two — they are champions, and they are so committed. They are learning to be patient because they really want this. We’ve told them that this is an 18-month journey that we are on, so the important thing is to get better every day and have a steady progression up until the Olympics. They want to really push themselves to be the very best they can be so they have no regrets when they leave the sport.”

There is a certain element of pressure, which Virtue and Moir have not hesitated to embrace. “Everyone says that we’re veterans and older now, and think that we don’t feel the pressure,” Moir said. “We kind of feel the opposite. It’s a big reason why we came back — we want that pressure. We’re stepping back into a field that doesn’t have room for us, in a way, and it’ll be interesting to find out where we’re going to slot in. We feel like we’re starting from the beginning and we’ve got a lot of work to do.”

Virtue and Moir also know the rollercoaster ride that comes with being at the elite level of the sport. “Experience is a really wonderful thing and, in a way, we’ve been fortunate to have so many ups and downs in our career,” said Virtue. “A lot of struggles, a lot of sacrifices, but that’s an athlete’s story … that experience can only help us moving forward. You never know what the next obstacle will be.”

No matter how it all turns out, right now they are exactly where they want to be. Even before they made the decision to return to competition, Virtue and Moir had set the table to handle the transition back into the competitive world.

“We were touring and performing, but we were still training because we knew, if there was a small chance that we would come back, we needed to maintain our level and up it. So we were training extremely hard,” Virtue said. “Because this is a choice for us, it was a natural evolution to step back into the physical grind. That challenge was a big part of the appeal, so I would say it felt just right.

“We thrive in the competitive atmosphere, and it just feels like we are right where we should be. We are thrilled to be back.”