Transcript: Excellence

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NOAH RICHLER (HOST): NAFTA, NATO, Brexit, Trump; family, neighbours, mortgages, bills.

Not much room for the sublime in there.

Did you know the study of “aesthetics,” all our lofty thoughts concerning beauty and the good, used to be one of five branches of philosophy? Still is, though you’d hardly know it. Now “aesthetics” is more likely a moniker for treatments at the spa or your local nails shop—and the sublime? Well, we tweet insults, gossip and about celebrity instead.

But there are moments—despite and perhaps augmented by the tension of our times—in which we’re still prey to beauty and its lifting us out of our day-to-day struggles with the world. Maybe the dawn, or a simple aria does so—overwhelms us, blesses us. It might be the ballet you find exalting or, in these World Cup days, a footballer’s perfect strike, or, if you’re a Canadian (and even if you are not) watching these past Winter Olympics ice dancers Scott Moir and Tessa Virtue in full flight and in sync, their choreography racing and bold, and their passionate, reciprocated gaze of such intensity we can’t help but wonder if they’re in love, if they know it—and, if they’re not, well, we want them to be because we are. They brought us out of our seats, these two, we tensed along with them, waited for their scores and then—it felt like the whole nation was doing so and loads of others, too—we celebrated.

AUDIO FROM THE OLYMPICS: Representing Canada, Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir!

NOAH RICHLER: And the thing about Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir is that they’re beautiful and they’re good: unprecedentedly, record-breakingly good, but also how-to-be-in-the-world good. They’re two-time winners of Olympic ice-dancing gold and their five pair and team medals over three Olympics in Korea, Sochi and Vancouver making them the Games’ most decorated skaters of all time. But they’re especially good people, too, and emanating good; moments like that video of Scott, with a beer in hand, standing and cheering his Olympic women’s hockey team colleagues on—unselfish and a team player and wearing none of the self-congratulation that would have understandably been his due—bring us even more good feeling, teach us how to be better people—which is the point of beauty and the good, after all.

Now, I’m lucky. Pivot is lucky. I first reached out to Tessa and Scott after their PyeongChang Olympic triumph to ask if we could talk when they came around from the throes of the moment. I wanted to know about their journey to the summit, and what they saw looking forward, but in truth, I’m not even sure they’ve had time to process all that had come over them. Such extraordinary and paramount success so young: this was their moment of pivot.

TESSA VIRTUE: Thank you so much for having us, this is a real treat.

NOAH RICHLER: Now, it will come as a big surprise to many of our listeners, but I am quite a bit older than you. I have kids. If you had to pick a word for the three stages of growing up—I mean, in terms of your relationship or your working relationship—what would they be? Let’s start with when you were pre-teens.

TESSA VIRTUE: Awkward.

SCOTT MOIR: Yeah, pre-teen is awkward for sure.

NOAH RICHLER: And then, Scott, in your teens? After you came out of the tunnel?

SCOTT MOIR: I’d say that was our most difficult period, don’t you think?

TESSA VIRTUE: I think communication-wise. I think…

SCOTT MOIR: That’s–and that was the thing. We… we’ve always been so lucky to have genuine care and… like, we’re actually very sensitive people, and there’s probably not anyone else in the world that I care about how much–or, what they think of me, than Tessa, and when we didn’t communicate well, that really hurt. You know, and then we would be butting heads and not getting along, and nobody else would be able to tell, I don’t think, from the outside, but that really hurt both of us. Probably until we were young adults, right? Until just before Vancouver.

TESSA VIRTUE: Mhmm. I mean, it’s natural over two decades that it would have, you know, had that ebb and flow.

SCOTT MOIR: But it’s because it was so good for so long, that when we look back, we remember those – you know, like, (TESSA VIRTUE: Of course.) we also had a lot of amazing great times and–I mean, we’re even so fortunate to have each other. It sounds so cliché, but even just the fact that we hit puberty at around kind of the same time, because I was a late bloomer, physically, and Tessa could have just been taller than me. It was close there (laughs) for a couple months, but you know, you have to be super fortunate to have that happen, that could have just been the end of our career.

TESSA VIRTUE: Yeah, and I think working with coaches early on, that really set that precedent for us of cultivating that code of respect, because we didn’t name call, ever. We didn’t blame one another for things. We never crossed certain boundaries that would have been really hard to come back from, and I think–even to this day, sometimes it makes things strange because there’s more silence, but that’s just how we function. And Scott might be more temperamental, in a way–just because he wears his heart on his sleeve, he’s so passionate–you kind of always know what he’s thinking and feeling. And that’s a huge part of the appeal, and that’s why people are drawn to Scott, and why, you know, there’s such an allure about him. But on the flip side of that, I’m more even keeled, and I guess that’s balanced? But I can kind of revert and be very much in my own, introverted shell, so I think that just took us several years to really understand what the other needed.

NOAH RICHLER: And then is there a word for your twenties?

TESSA VIRTUE: Oh, we got off track there, sorry!

SCOTT MOIR: Yeah, we didn’t give you a word. How about sixty-five? Um… our twenties.

TESSA VIRTUE: I mean, I think you’d have to almost have to separate that into early twenties and late twenties. (SCOTT MOIR: Yeah.) Early twenties…

SCOTT MOIR: I was still a teenager.

TESSA VIRTUE: There was some…

SCOTT MOIR: I was a teenager until about last year.

TESSA VIRTUE: There was some naivete, probably, still–and then grappling with the success from Vancouver…

SCOTT MOIR: And the pressure that that brought.

TESSA VIRTUE: Yeah.

NOAH RICHLER: Let’s go back to the beginning. When did you two decide you’d be working as a pair of professional athletes, that you wanted to compete internationally and perhaps even at the Olympics?

SCOTT MOIR: Oof. I mean, when we were young, I guess we were really competitive. And luckily that matched up, because it was a year by year plan. And we would just kind of… It wasn’t like we started out and wanted to win the Olympic Games in ice dance. We just started out and wanted to win juvenile, and then the next year, like, ok, let’s win pre-novice. And we kind of came up the ranks that way, and then all of a sudden, the Olympics in Vancouver were announced and we kind of looked down the road at what could be our trajectory, and ok, that could be a special Games for us. And when we moved away from home, that’s when we started kind of taking it more seriously. I think–if we’re going to be making all of these sacrifices and this commitment, we gotta make sure we take advantage of it and be as good as we can be. I think that was–for me–the biggest point, and right around that time is when Vancouver was announced and I think it clicked for us.

NOAH RICHLER: It’s one thing to have a yearly meeting and commit to the next season. But for eight years? That’s something.

TESSA VIRTUE: I would–

SCOTT MOIR: We came to that very differently.

TESSA VIRTUE: We did. Yeah. And I would love to be right on that same page with you… (laughs) you know what I’m saying?

SCOTT MOIR: You didn’t know the Games were in Vancouver until two thousand and…

TESSA VIRTUE: (both laughing) Well, I didn’t know… not that I didn’t–it was one month before the Vancouver Olympics, where I thought, “Oh, wow, we could really do this.” That was January of 2010.

NOAH RICHLER: So that feels like a watershed moment. I mean, looking at an event eight years away, did it change the way you approached your work? Did the fantasy become the job? Less fun?

SCOTT MOIR: That’s when I really fell in love with it. It might have looked from the outside that it was less fun, because you’re right, kind of, it did turn into a job, and it was kind of like, taking it more seriously, being more professional–but that’s when I really fell in love with the sport too, at the same time. Like, that intense energy, and working together, and kind of leaving no stone unturned, which we still developed through our whole career. That’s when we really started to find kind of the passion for our work.

TESSA VIRTUE: I think there is something to that, when you’re investing every fibre of your being into this one common goal that sometimes can seem… superficial, in a sense. I mean, we’re very conscious that in ice dance, we’re not saving lives, it’s not… you know. It’s a sport.

SCOTT MOIR: Yeah. We’re doing fancy dancing.

TESSA VIRTUE: (Laughing) We are. I love seeing that through your eyes, because you are that athlete that thrives under pressure and with that intense drive and dedication. And so often our coaches would say, “Well, just have fun and just enjoy it,” and what they didn’t realize about Scott in particular was that, in the tough days, you know, having to find that grit and rely on the resilience, that’s when it is fun for him. And I haven’t seen that in many other athletes.

SCOTT MOIR: Yeah, it’s a different type of fun. I think finding that passion and enjoying the work, and even the hard days, is something that we really developed in the last couple years of our career. Also for Tessa and I, this is all happening at a very early age. We’re trying to compete against kids that are older and bigger, and probably more mature, but we’re also going through adolescence, we’re high school kids, and learning how to navigate our relationship with different outside relationships, and there, I mean, was a lot of growing pains and tough years and tough times. And of course, there was many times when we couldn’t look at each other the same, and like maybe it was time to pull the plug.

NOAH RICHLER: We’ve seen you mature as artists, and it’s wonderful, as a spectator to have lived through 2010 in Vancouver and 2014 and now 2018, we see greater maturity, we imagine this extraordinary mind-meld. Is there that?

SCOTT MOIR: There’s definitely strength in our partnership. I was just thinking through that time, when all of this stuff we had to go through, dealing with the pressure… dealing with, you know, outside relationships, and the kind of balance that brought to my life that I didn’t really expect. But we always came back and found strength in each other. And like, going in to Sochi, we felt very, very alone. But because we had each other, at the same time we didn’t. And that’s why when we look back at Sochi, we’re so pleased with our experience because we really felt like we created that by ourselves. And because we were so close and together, we just, kind of, come off a very trying time, especially myself, and then, you know, looked to Tessa, and we just built that momentum right into the Games, and you were there when I needed you most.

TESSA VIRTUE: I think we learned how to start the difficult conversations because we can communicate effectively and efficiently, you know, but–

SCOTT MOIR: We still have to work on that.

TESSA VIRTUE: But sometimes just starting the conversation is the hardest part.

NOAH RICHLER: And with any sport comes injury. Tessa, you needed to go for a couple of operations because of chronic exertional compartment syndrome, I think it’s called. Was there ever a moment, or–I mean, did that offer you a moment to reflect more? Maybe even to contemplate quitting?

TESSA VIRTUE: I never thought I had the same passion for skating that Scott did. Which… in a lot of ways, I felt like I was a poser. Or like I had somehow someone was going to find out that I wasn’t a real athlete, someday. And I’m not sure if that was just something that I always battled with because Scott had such exuberance and such natural confidence when he took the ice, but you could just see the love he has for it. And when that was taken away from me, when I was, you know, in the operating room and the doctor was saying, “Yeah, you might not return to skating and that, you know, that might not be an avenue for you anymore–competitive sport,” that’s when I realized just how much I wanted it. And it’s too bad we need moments like that to highlight the things that we hold near and dear, but it did provide a unique opportunity for me to not only rekindle that love and passion for skating–or maybe, find it in the first place–but also establish as an athlete all of the downfalls that I could work on.

NOAH RICHLER: I want to know more about the creativity, I mean, the process of invention. Can I ask about that? How does invention occur?

SCOTT MOIR: Well, I think what we’ve understood a bit more now is that there’s–that’s about the only thing that there’s not a set formula for us. Like, someone picks the music, and brings it forward, but until we’ve played with it on the ice, we don’t know. I mean, but we’re always kind of searching for some sort of inspiration. This time, we wanted to make sure that we had seven minutes, two programs, was all Tessa and Scott, that we loved. So we found the more we kind of gave input, the more we dove into that, the more fulfilling it was, but also the better the product was. Because it was–it was ours, we truly were connected to it instead of faking that until we have a product that looked okay. It kind of came from within us, so–it’s another cliché thing, but it has to kind of make your hair stand up, you have to feel something. If we don’t have that initial feeling, now we don’t even go to the next stage, which pretty much after we have a piece of music that we love, that we think–a storyline we can tap into, then we just insulate ourselves with the right people. We just try and find people that we respect and that we think would get it across the finish line.

NOAH RICHLER: What–this morning–is your biggest masterpiece?

TESSA VIRTUE: Moulin Rouge. Moulin Rouge, what we competed in South Korea. And I might not think that if I were forced to watch the video again. (SCOTT laughs). And I don’t want to, because I’m clinging onto the feeling I had during that performance and afterwards when the music ended. And we looked at each other and we knew that, you know, under the circumstances and that pressure, we had performed it as well as did.

(Audio of the closing moments of the Moulin Rouge performance.)

TESSA VIRTUE: We were most involved with the direction of that, the overall aesthetic, every note of music and highlighting the nuance, kind of layered soundtrack that is Moulin Rouge. Working with the right people. I just think–it’s certainly the one I feel most personally invested in.

SCOTT MOIR: Yeah, I agree. I never stopped being amazed by the way Tessa can transfer an idea or a dance onto the ice. And a lot of, like, that creative time isn’t where I thrive, for sure. The last couple of years, I just go, “Yes, yes, yes, you have to do that!” And what Tessa can come up with, I don’t think people realize just how much of a genius you are. And I mean, it was really Marie France and Tessa that did a lot of the programs, and they would just work together, and bounce those ideas off each other. And I joked always–I would actually skate around and go to Patrice Lauzon, who is our head coach, and kind of say, like, “I can’t believe this is my job. Like, all I get to do is watch these brilliant women come up with unbelievable movement.” And I was literally surprised, like on the daily, on how well it was transferring. And then once it kind of got into our bodies, then we threw the passion in. There’s a lot of stuff that we thought were great ideas that never make the cut, because it just–for some reason it didn’t translate or it didn’t connect with the rest of the program. And after our very first competition, we ripped apart probably forty percent of the program, and then the same at our second and our third, so the beginning concept is so important, but you know it’s gonna be very different in nine months.

NOAH RICHLER: I think I’m allowed to be a little bit of a patriot, and compare you–prefer you, in fact–to your French competitors that won the silver. I suppose because it felt like they were performing a very explicit routine, and marvellously, but a little clinically. Whereas the feeling I get when I watch you is that you’re competing against yourselves all the time.

TESSA VIRTUE: This idea–I think it’s very perceptive to note that, you know, we’re trying to best ourselves. I’m not sure I’d really thought about that, but we had spoken extensively with JF, our mental prep coach, leading into the free dance at the PyeongChang games, because we skated last. And he asked, do you want to know how they skate? Do you want to know what their score is? So we talked about that, and played it out with different scenarios, you know–if they had the skate of their lives and set a world record–does that change our four minutes? Does that change what we want to live on the ice? Y’know, we could win, or… and we decided, no. I mean, the interesting thing about skating is, yes, we compete against one other, but really we have our moment on the ice no matter what. It’s not this, you know, momentum back and forth with competitors, or…

NOAH RICHLER: Is that what coming second, you know, winning silver at Sochi in 2014, and still…?

TESSA VIRTUE: Absolutely. Absolutely. I think we got a little wrapped up in trying to please everyone around us, and trying to be who other people wanted us to be, and the type of team that would win the Olympics, according to judges or, you know, the masses, or certain officials. I think we just got totally caught up in–and in the mix of that, lost the essence of what we wanted to be, and who we really were. And this time around, just decided to stay true to our vision and… that certainly paid off. And it just feels more fulfilling.

SCOTT MOIR: Absolutely. And I would have handled things a little differently, I would have focused more on myself, not getting caught up… and like Tessa said, listen to so many different judges, different opinions, that we didn’t really need, and stay true to ourselves. Because in skating you don’t–you do compete against each other, but you have your own moment. That’s what we wanted to do more than anything, and when we kind of were standing in that opening position, last to skate at the Olympic Games, it didn’t really matter, because we were focused on having our four minutes and that was the most important thing to us–I know that we wanted to win, more than (deep breath) we ever had–but still, we just wanted to have our moment and skate that Moulin Rouge program the way it deserved to be skated with all the hard work we’d done. So getting through that was almost more important, and we let that guide us more than just coming home with the Olympic Gold medal. And you know, truly standing in that opening position, believing that the most important thing is delivering your product is so powerful, and I can’t say that we had that so much in 2014.

NOAH RICHLER: Is there a schism between your public and personal lives?

SCOTT MOIR: Mhmm. (Both laugh.)

TESSA VIRTUE: That’s an interesting question, I’ve been thinking about that a lot lately. And I was reaching out to a few people close to us that do have very public lives and asking them how they found that… that balance. I am fiercely private, and it’s very important to me to maintain some semblance of normalcy and some sense of myself that I feel is really only for those closest to me. And I used to sort of have this Tessa Virtue mask I felt I could put on, you know, into an arena where I know I’m public territory. And then I feel like over the course of the last several years that that line has blurred. Maybe that’s growing up and being more comfortable in who I am and what I stand for and really understanding myself, and that’s been warmly received.

SCOTT MOIR: What did you feel like when you started to kind of, be more yourself or comfortable in your skin, that took some of the pressure off?

TESSA VIRTUE: In a way, yes. Or it’s… yeah, I guess I did that just more…

SCOTT MOIR: Because I’m probably switching to the opposite now, where I’m starting to feel like I’m very comfortable when I sit down and do something like this. Like, you know, I am confident in what I believe in and what I want to say and what I want people to hear, but then I go to some–like, some public places and I feel like I do need to hide and I feel very uncomfortable.

TESSA VIRTUE: Yeah. That will be different to navigate because people are facebook-living your (SCOTT laughs) every move. I kind of hibernate, and I don’t leave the house as much as you do, but then–

SCOTT MOIR: I just want to go for one beer!

TESSA VIRTUE: Yeah, that’s all–it’s all very public for you now, in a different way.

NOAH RICHLER: What follows bliss? Is there ever exhaustion? Or loneliness?

TESSA VIRTUE: Definitely. Yeah, there’s an inevitable letdown or crash. And I think we’re navigating that right now, two weeks out of the Games, because there was such extreme exhilaration and elation and celebration.

SCOTT MOIR: (Laughs) Yeah.

TESSA VIRTUE: And we were on the world’s biggest stage with our teammates and then we had really realized our dreams and it was a bit of a fairytale that we had worked very hard for. But I think I’m certainly still processing that, and it will take some time and perspective to digest, but how do you possibly… feel that again? Like, what will it take for us to have that same sense of euphoria, almost? I mean, it’s hard to imagine another situation where we would have invested everything for years and years and years, that culminated in these fleeting moments that were executed just as we imagined. I mean, there’s so much that goes into those Olympic moments that make them special, that I think there’ll be a void moving forward in not having that high.

NOAH RICHLER: Does this feel like a moment of pivot as you look forward?

SCOTT MOIR: I think so. It’s funny because you talked about the Games, and the only thing I can think of is how usually, you spend the whole time thinking, “Oh, I just can’t wait for–to kind of burst this pressure bubble,” you know, to get past it and to be in that ending position. We were lucky enough, and had the experience of saying to each other, like, “These are the moments we’re gonna miss the most.” This probably is a pivot in our lives to something different, but knowing that kind of gave us the strength to really take advantage of the opportunities and that’s what we’ll be most proud of, is we were actually present. Probably the moment we won’t forget from these Games is–the performances were amazing, but walking with the flag, with that team behind us? You know, that’s something we’ll take for the rest of our lives, and yeah, there is some sadness now, because they are memories. I don’t think you do feel that again. A lot of things came together at the right time, so… But at the same time there’s a big life, and we don’t get that long to live it, to be honest, and we can say that in 30 years, and 28 and half for you, we’ve been happy with the amount we’ve been able to do in ice dance. Pretty good career, we enjoyed the heck out of it, and, you know, maybe it’s just time to move on to something else.

NOAH RICHLER: Did you ever worry for your bodies? It’s a bit of an odd question, I know, but I’m sure the combination of training and discipline and mental exercises that you’re undergoing at the moment have put you in an extraordinary physical state, and I wonder if you ever think about that looking forward?

TESSA VIRTUE: It’s funny, I–Scott laughed at me, but I said that a few times in the weeks leading up to the Olympic Games. I said, “We will never be, physically, in peak condition the way we are right now. You know, again.” And we had a team, sort of an entourage with b2ten in Montreal, our off-ice staff. But things will change now because, you know, we had everything down to a science. Every moment was accounted for, you know, that was our main goal and main priority. So, I don’t worry about the impact that all that training has had on us, but I worry moving forward (laughing). I think we’ll have to sort of navigate this new path of maintaining a certain fitness level, but maybe there’s liberation in that because it’s not so functional or specific, it’s more, you know, feel-good…

SCOTT MOIR: Yeah, I think I’m excited about that, actually. That’s something that… a goal that I’ve been able to sink my teeth into, ’cause I can say that 2018, I wasn’t in the best athletic shape of my life, but I was in the best skating shape of my life. So that’s something that actually excites me going forward, is, you know, I’ve realized in the last three or four years how happy I am when I am training, when I’m in shape, and you know, my brain thinks differently, I operate as a human completely differently. So, I’m gonna make sure that I kind of stay on top of that. After 2014, I didn’t do that. I stepped in and I totally broke from sport, didn’t go to the gym, you know, I had really unhealthy habits… and then trying to kick–

TESSA VIRTUE: Almost extremes.

SCOTT MOIR: Yeah. Well, trying to live my–what would have been my 18, 19, 20 year old years that I never had. But that didn’t make me happy, and getting back into (laughing) training shape was not easy. So I am gonna really stay on top of it, because these next three or four years, or five years, whatever we decide to tour for and skate, you know, celebrating with Canadians, should be that–should be a celebration, and I want to take the ice feeling great about that. Not kind of worried whether I am–can still do it, so. But that’ll be–I think that’ll be a good challenge for us, and we’re lucky to have that outlet in skating.

TESSA VIRTUE: Well, don’t you think that’s also just, I mean, as athletes, we’re all about extremes. And we like to think we’re well balanced, but there–and you know, we talk about being multidimensional and having identities outside of the rink and outside of the confines of those boards, but… I mean, we’re so in it, and then it’s only natural that you sort of slingshot out and you go in the opposite direction for a little while. And then it takes some time to find that middle ground and the balance, but, you know, that’s the one thing that might be different, is finding that place where, you know, we’re not one hundred percent crazy about it. And we’ve developed a skillset, hopefully, that we’ll be able to transfer into the next chapter, the next challenge, the next task.

SCOTT MOIR: I hope so, or else we really haven’t done this sport thing very well. (TESSA laughs). Because that’s the whole point, I think.

TESSA VIRTUE: I don’t mean to be so down about it, because we are so excited about what’s to come. I mean, we’re so excited to step out of that limiting world of being an amateur athlete, because now, I mean, there’s so much more available to us that we can say yes, and…

SCOTT MOIR: You don’t sound negative.

TESSA VIRTUE: Ok good, I just felt like–

SCOTT MOIR: No, no.

TESSA VIRTUE: I didn’t mean to be sort of like, poor me, I have to deal–

SCOTT MOIR: This is so hard for me!

TESSA VIRTUE: –with my Olympic gold medals! (both laugh)

SCOTT MOIR: I hope we didn’t come off negative, but this is the first time we get to sit down and reflect.

NOAH RICHLER: Thank you Scott Moir and Tessa Virtue. I’m Noah Richler and you’ve been listening to Excellence, the third episode of the podcast series Pivot produced by Angela Misri and Judy Gu of The Walrus with the assistance of Jonah Brunet. Thank you Charles Spearin for the music, and thanks most of all to Tessa and Scott, for talking to Pivot, sure, but most of all, for the joy they’ve brought us. By the way, their autobiography Tessa and Scott: Our Journey from Childhood Dream to Gold, has been updated following the pair’s PyeongChang Winter Olympic triumph, and will be available from the House of Anansi come October. Thanks for listening.