HELSINKI — Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir took the ice nearly two hours before the finals skaters in Friday's short program at the world figure skating championships — a two-year hiatus from the sport had dropped them down the world ranking, leading to the early start.
But when Canada's ice dance darlings struck their final, dramatic pose to Prince's "Purple Rain," Virtue's victorious fist pointed to the rafters, the mood among the adoring Hartwell Arena crowd was: game over.
Indeed, the sport of ice dancing has missed Virtue and Moir.
The Olympic gold and silver medallists are poised to capture their third world title after roaring to 82.43 points, breaking their own world record in the short dance. And in the moments after their win, Virtue, a 27-year-old from London, Ont., talked about their quest to come back stronger than ever.
"I think that was a big part of the appeal in this comeback was to try and make our skating a little bit different," Virtue said. "We are trying to push ourselves technically. We're trying to have a bit of a departure artistically as well, but the real intention behind this comeback was to challenge ourselves.
"We knew that we were coming into a very deep and strong field so we needed to raise the level of our skating. We didn't want to come back and do things the same way. That just wouldn't have been motivating and inspiring."
Two-time defending champions Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron of France are second with 76.89, while Americans Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue are third at 76.53. All three teams train in Montreal with Canadian coaches Marie-France Dubreuil and Patrice Lauzon.
Kaitlyn Weaver and Andrew Poje of Waterloo, Ont., are sixth with 74.84 while Toronto's Piper Gilles and Paul Poirier are ninth with 72.83.
Virtue and Moir, a 29-year-old from Ilderton, Ont., took a two-year hiatus after their heartbreaking silver at the Sochi Olympics, and have made a stunning return, dominating every one of their events and leaving broken world records in their wake.
The sport also missed Moir's comedic relief. Asked about their partnership of nearly 20 years in the post-skate news conference, he answered: "It's pretty cool to have a 20-year partnership and still really enjoy going into the rink every day, and still really love doing it with your partner.
"That didn't sound very good," he muttered, to laughter. "And she's had quotes like that for 20 years. Let's move on. Fast."
On Friday, Virtue, dressed in a purple, backless cat suit with a ruffled neck, reminiscent of Prince's ruffled tuxedo shirt, and Moir, in all black, captivated the crowd with their bluesy, hip-hop number to three Prince songs. In their final, breathtaking lift, Virtue stood atop Moir's knees, arms spread wide like Kate Winslett and Leonardo DiCaprio in "Titanic."
If the veterans were feeling any nerves in their first world appearance in three years, they didn't show it.
"The pressure's real," Moir said. "Being back at a worlds after so much time, knowing that the field is very strong, seeing Gabby and Guillaume in practice every day. . . we knew we had to bring our best.
"In some sick way we were trying to remind ourselves of that this afternoon, when you're feeling the butterflies and you're trying to eat lunch and it won't go down, and you're shaky, exhausted, at the beginning of your program. But we're happy with the skate. It was really why we came back."
'Why' been a recurring theme for the Canadians. They answered that once again when they wrapped each other in a long embrace before taking the ice.
"It was sort of coming together and finding our unison, finding that synchronicity," Virtue said of the hug. "We've spent a lot of time this week reminding ourselves of our 'why.' Why we came back, why we are so happy to be here. And I think the best part of that performance was stepping on the ice and knowing that we couldn't possibly have done more to prepare for this moment."
The free dance is set for Saturday, and the title is Virtue and Moir's to lose.
The two captured Canada's heart when they won gold at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics and flip-flopped in international results for eight years with rivals and training partners Meryl Davis and Charlie White. The Americans have retired — White is working as a broadcaster in Helsinki — and Moir paid tribute to the two.
"There's a sense of appreciation that's really neat. I know for sure I wouldn't be the same athlete I am today if we didn't have trained alongside Meryl and Charlie," Moir said. "Part of us coming back is having a really positive outlook on the sport, and more and more you realize how lucky you are to be involved with such great people who are involved in the sport. I would say Meryl and Charlie are definitely two of those."
Lori Ewing, The Canadian Press