Long before their golden Olympic finish cemented their status as ice dancing royalty, Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir were inspiring many young people to lace up their skates and chase a dream that coaches hope will help Canada dominate the world of figure skating for years to come.
Ice dance, which has not always been the most high-profile among figure skating’s disciplines, has experienced ebbs and flows in popularity since Virtue and Moir burst onto the senior competition circuit more than a decade ago, those in the field said.
But over the last few years, many taking to the sport have cited the Ontario pair as motivation, crediting Virtue and Moir for injecting new energy into the discipline.
“Our sport has done really well for a long time because of Tessa and Scott,” said Kimberley Weeks, manager of the ice dance program at the Calalta Figure Skating Club in Calgary.
“They have been around for such a very long time that they really have become mentors and role-models for Canadian ice dancers.”
Virtue and Moir’s consistently first-rate performances, such as the one they turned in at the Pyeongchang Olympics this week to the delight of fans around the world, have made them the face of the sport that has grown in prestige since the pair came on the scene, coaches said.
That prestige is expected to grow after the dazzling competition that vaulted the pair into the history books on Tuesday.
WATCH: Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir have made ice dancing history, after posting the highest ever score to claim a gold medal at the Pyeongchang Games – the third Olympic gold medal of their careers. Jeff Semple has more.
Skating to a medley of songs from the movie “Moulin Rouge,” Virtue, 28, and Moir, 30, turned in a flawless free skate that, while falling short of the score posted by their similarly impeccable rivals from France, was nonetheless enough to put them atop the podium and secure their record fifth Olympic medal.
Weeks said Virtue and Moir’s visible success has influenced the popularity of the sport.
After founding the ice dance program at the Calalta club in 2009, Weeks said she has watched it steadily grow over almost a decade. Only a couple of teams were involved at the program’s launch, but there are now consistently more than a dozen pairs taking part at levels ranging from novice to junior, she said.
While the success of the program can never be attributed solely to any one performer or pair, Weeks said Virtue and Moir have had an impact.
WATCH: Calgarians fall in love with Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir
Andrew Hallam, who runs the dance program at the Toronto Cricket, Skating and Curling Club, agrees.
Aspiring skaters as young as seven have declared themselves Virtue and Moir fans, he said, recalling one young student who made the pair’s segment at the team figure skating event at the Pyeongchang Games must-watch television. Canada won the gold medal in that event.
The Toronto club where Hallam works is best known as the practice ground for elite individual skaters, such as two-time recent men’s Olympic champion Yuzuru Hanyu of Japan, but Hallam said he’s currently working with four young ice dancing teams – the maximum the facility can handle.
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Virtue and Moir’s success, he said, has helped shine a spotlight on one aspect of the sport that has changed in recent years and helped make it more attractive to a broader group of would-be participants.
“Ice dance, especially in the past 10 years with the implementation of a new judging system, has become so much more athletic,” he said.
“It’s not just about being graceful any more. The lifts, the spins, the requirements are so much more than they used to be 10 or 15 years ago.”
But the impact of Virtue and Moir’s unparalleled success is felt differently by various age groups, one former Olympian said.
Ice dancer Aaron Lowe, who co-directs the Vancouver Ice Dance Academy along with partner Megan Wing, said what proves motivational to junior skaters can feel intimidating to those at a more senior level.
In 2016, when Virtue and Moir announced that they were coming out of their two-year retirement and preparing to take the ice once again, Lowe said Canada saw eight senior pairs leave the upper echelon of the ice-dancing circuit.
While many of those departures involved partner changes, life circumstances or factors unrelated to Virtue and Moir, Lowe said he suspects the re-emergence of ice-dancing luminaries may have figured into some decisions.
Those who didn’t get the chance to skate alongside them missed out, Lowe said, adding the presence of such an accomplished pair raises the level of competition for all concerned and ultimately benefits the sport as a whole.
“Scott and Tessa … are making our dancers in our country that do stick around that much better because they’re on the ice with them,” he said. “They’re doing things that we can watch and see every day. Our teams will just benefit, even if it’s not immediately.”
WATCH: Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir ‘on top of the world’ after Olympic gold