Skaters cool on world stage

RYAN PYETTE -- London Free Press

, Last Updated: 7:18 AM ET

KITCHENER -- At the closing strains of another steady skate, a well-tossed rubber egg bounded onto the ice from high in the stands.

Calm and cool, Scott Moir snagged it on a single hop.

While it appears odd to fire such an object at the local favourites to show appreciation, the flying spawn of a rubber chicken highlighted a fine point. Ilderton's Moir and ice dance partner Tessa Virtue of London won't be rattled in this week's world junior figure skating championships at the Memorial Auditorium.

You're going to have to outskate them to beat them for the ice dance title. They're not going to stumble.

"I thought I was the one who was supposed to have the baseball genes," quipped Virtue, whose brother Kevin played for the Intercounty League's London Majors last summer.

The smooth 17-year-old Moir and 15-year-old Virtue are in a comfortable second spot after yesterday's compulsory dance segment -- the first of three routines that add up to the coronation of the dance prince and princess.

They trail American veterans Morgan Matthews and Maxim Zavozin by almost three points in what's expected to be a two-team race.

"It's just an honour to be out there on the ice with them," Moir said. "We're not worried about the points, or where we are or where they are. We're just going to focus on ourselves and let everything else take care of itself."

After finishing his skate, Moir went into the crowd and watched Matthews and Zavozin perform.

Moir and Virtue have yet to win an event in head-to-head competition against the Americans, who are wrapping up their successful junior career here.

But the youngsters, who are coming off am impressive fourth-place finish at Canadians in London in January, beat the vets in the pivotal free dance at the Junior Grand Prix final in Finland.

That showed Matthews and Zavozin major alterations to their program were necessary to hold off the upstarts. They wouldn't waltz their way to a title here.

"It's nice to be able to compete against someone you respect, they have a lot of talent," Matthews said.

"We made huge changes to our program because of the new scoring system. We hadn't experienced it and they had. You can read the rules all you want but it's different (on the ice) . . . You have to be ready (for the big competitions)."

Like in London, Moir and Virtue will have the home-ice advantage. They're well-tuned to the skating environment in Kitchener -- they trained in Waterloo for almost seven years and won the 2001 national pre-novice title on this same ice.

"It felt really weird driving to the rink here," Moir said. "First, London and now here. I'd say the nerves are about the same for both. It's great to have the crowds behind you."

To their coach, Moir and Virtue's performance here will simply cement their status as one of the world's best young ice dance teams.

Detroit Skating Club's Igor Shpilband is certainly an authority in that department -- he saw some of the best ice dance teams ever assembled as a youngster while riding the rails with the touring Russian Ice Stars.

He recalled one particular crowd-pleasing couple who always wowed the audience but never got its due on the international stage: Elena Garanina and Igor Zavozin, 20-year-old Maxim's parents.

Garanina currently coaches her son and Matthews with Valeri Spiridonov.

Shpilband always enjoyed the performances of Garanina and Zavozin but he refused to compare their audience appeal with Moir and Virtue. He thinks there's something in the young Canadians that few skating couples possess.

"They're mature beyond their years. They have a connection (with each other and the music) that you hardly see at the junior level," Shpilband said. "I would like to take credit for that as a coach but I can't. It's just something they have. You can't create it."

All you can do is appreciate it, guide it in the right direction and pave the way for greatness.


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