MISSISSAUGA, Ont. - Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir are back on top.
Canada's Olympic ice dance champions returned to the elite Grand Prix level for the first time since a 2010-11 season wrecked by injury and the relinquishment of their world title to win gold at the Skate Canada International and the $18,000 first prize Sunday.
The International Skating Union is pushing ice dancers to avoid overly serious drama in devising free dances this season and Virtue and Moir have hit that nail on the head.
"We wanted to do an uplifting, entertaining program," said Virtue.
They succeeded in the eyes of the judges and the Hershey Centre crowd of 3,300 that gave them a rousing ovation for their playful program based on the 1957 American musical "Funny Face." They also were head and shoulders above the opposition in the opening phase of the competition Saturday.
"It was a great weekend for us," said Moir.
Kaitlyn Weaver and Andrew Poje of Toronto won the silver medals and $13,000.
"We wanted to start the season strongly after ending last season so strongly," said Poje. "We worked our hardest over the summer to put together some great programs and we're going in the right direction."
Anna Cappelini and Luca Lanotte of Italy won bronze and $9,000.
The 2012 Skate Canada International will be in Windsor, Oct. 26-28, which will draw fans from southwestern Ontario where Virtue and Moir grew up. Virtue, 22, was seven and Moir, 24, was nine when they began skating together in 1997 in Ilderton, Ont., population 2,000, just north of London, Ont. They train at an ice dance centre in Canton, Michigan, with longtime coaches Igor Shpilband and Marina Zoueva.
"It's great for us," says Virtue. "It's in our back yard and the new rink in Windsor is beautiful.
"It'll be fun. Any time we skate close to home it's a great advantage."
Virtue underwent surgery last year to treat chronic exertional compartment syndrome in both shins. They got in just enough training to get to the world meet last March and finished second. They eased into the new season with a win at a non-Grand Prix meet in Finland earlier this month.
Their new free dance features high lifts rarely seen in ice dancing. Emulating "Funny Face" stars Audrey Hepburn and Fred Astaire, Virtue and Moir got so into the performance that they spontaneously exchanged high fives when they broke from their final pose.
"Everybody could tell that at the end I was pretty excited," said Moir. "I had my Fred Astaire moment for four minutes but at 4:01 I came out with a Scott Moir moment."
Their second Grand Prix meet will be in Paris, Nov. 18-20.
Weaver, 22, and Poje, 24, work out of the Detroit Skating Club and are coached by former world champions Angelika Krylova and Shae-Lynn Bourne. They finished fifth at the 2011 world championships. They had been at a loss for a new free dance theme but one arrived out of the blue. It's a serious, romantic piece customized for them from the French song "Je Suis Malade" and they've inserted choreography that they hope will satisfy the ISU.
"Someone sent it to us anonymously through our website," Weaver said. "I had no idea what it was and I was like, 'Should I even read this, I'm not sure,' but I opened it and I was just taken by it right away."
She'd like to find out who made the suggestion.
"I can't thank that person enough," she said. "I don't know who they are.
"They're out there somewhere. I'm hoping they'll reveal themselves when they learn this is our new free dance. Maybe they'll come forward so we can thank whoever that was because we really love this music."
They have two more GP assignments — in Sapporo, Japan, Nov. 11-13 and in Moscow, Nov. 25-27.
Cappellini, 24, and Lanotte, 26, were eighth at the 2011 world championships. Their free dance this season is to the soundtrack from "La Strada." They got second-best marks for it, edging Weaver and Poje in the free dance by 27-100ths of a point.
"We love this free dance so much," says Cappellini. "There's so much emotion to it and I think we showed that."
Tarrah Harvey, 21, and Keith Gagnon, 23, of Vancouver were last among seven couples skating to a Rolling Stones medley. They were fifth at the 2011 Canadian championships and have a long ways to go to reach an international podium, but training in gymnastics with a circus troupe has helped them develop gender-bending lifts that will eventually score for them.
"Not all the teams can do them so it sets us apart," says Harvey.
They are coached by former national team ice dancers Megan Wing and Aaron Lowe, who on Oct. 6 welcomed twins — a son, Tayson, and a daughter, Keauna — into the world.
On Saturday, world champion Patrick Chan of Toronto won the men's singles title, 14-year-old Russian newcomer Elizaveta Tuktamisheva put on a startlingly polished show for someone her age to become the youngest women's winner in this meet since Toronto's Tracey Wainman in 1981, and Tatiana Volosozhar and Maxim Trankov of Russia won pairs gold ahead of silver medallists Meagan Duhamel of Lively, Ont., and Eric Radford of Toronto.