OTTAWA — The return of veterans Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir to competition this season has been like slipping on a favourite sweater for figure skating fans. They've been the face of Canadian ice dancing for so long.
But from their new coaches to their new home base, to even a new way of skating, virtually nothing is the same about the Olympic gold and silver medallists since they stepped away from competition after the 2014 Sochi Games.
They planned it that way.
"It's just an ongoing process in the gym and also on the ice, and that's been really cool, it's been thrilling," Virtue said. "We knew when we decided we wanted to come back that we didn't want to do things the same way, we didn't want to skate the same way, we didn't want to approach anything the same. That was a big part of the draw."
Virtue and Moir will be aiming for their seventh national senior title at this week's Canadian championships, which determine the team for the world championships this spring in Helsinki.
But all of their preparation is pointing toward Pyeongchang, where Virtue and Moir are set on reclaiming their Olympic crown. And to that end, they moved from their previous home in Canton, Mich., to Montreal to work with coaches and five-time Canadian ice dance champions Marie-France Dubreuil and Patrice Lauzon.
And they've assembled a team of around a dozen sports experts, from nutrionists to physiotherapists to sports psychologist J.F. Menard, as part of a "more scientific approach," Virtue said, that they hope will guide them to gold.
"Our whole big entourage is getting quite large, we have so many experts around us that can really offer that, so whether it's a jet lag plan, a sleep routine, it's all about managing our energy so we feel at full capacity when we take the ice every single time," she said. "We're learning."
"We have so much more of a sophisticated off-ice team, and that comes with our mental coach (Menard), he's really been honest to rehearse what we're going to be doing in Korea at the Olympic Games," Moir added. "So we're trying to use every single competition this year as a rehearsal for the Olympics."
The two, who've been undefeated in their return, winning their two Grand Prix events plus the Grand Prix Final, even went so far as to strip down their skating fundamentals, poring over endless video footage. It might seem an unnecessary step for Virtue and Moir, who at 27 and 29 respectively, have skated together for almost 20 years.
It was absolutely necessary, the two insisted.
"We figured out the areas we could make the most improvements, and that was everything from the glide of the blade to the knee bend, really restructuring how we're trying to stroke, so basic fundamental skating," Virtue said.
They're also working with Cirque du Soleil acting coach Silvia Gertrudix Gonzalez.
"Acrobats are obviously pretty amazing to work with, the way they use their bodies, the way they lift," Moir said. "She comes in and rips our story apart, especially for our free dance right now, and we'll get into Prince (their short dance is to a Prince medley) after this competition, just to make sure we know exactly what we're focusing on every second."
And since everything is geared toward next year's Olympics, the Canadian championships are another chance to fine-tune their routine, both on and off the ice.
"The day-of routine, the moments before we take the ice, the key words we're sharing every practice, warming up, cooling down, managing our space, managing our energy, all of that is our rehearsal to fine tune what works perfectly for us," Virtue said.
"We're talking every meal, down to the minute when we eat," Moir added. "It's like the last two per cent we're trying to figure out, to be optimal performers."
Being back at Ottawa's TD Place Arena had Virtue and Moir feeling nostalgic. They won bronze at the 2006 Canadian championships. Their coaches Dubreuil and Lauzon won gold.
"I remember being in the elevator at the hotel with Marie-France and Patrice, and being in awe," Moir said. "Actually when we look back it's funny, I didn't understand, I still don't understand why they were so great to us, they really kind of took us under their wings, we were so young. So going to them as coaches was a natural fit."
Patrick Chan will be gunning for a ninth Canadian senior singles title this week, while Meagan Duhamel and Eric Radford are poised to capture their sixth consecutive pairs title.
The women's singles should be a fierce battle between Kaetlyn Osmond, Alaine Chartrand and Gabrielle Daleman.
Lori Ewing, The Canadian Press