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Afanasieva, Strudwick surge above pack in 'Battle'

Intricate lifts, smooth moves mark duo's style
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Violette Afanasieva and Jason Strudwick earned 17.4 points out of a possible 18, placing them atop the leaderboard in international beat week. -Battle of the Blades

Canadians celebrated Thanksgiving this week, but there was no rest for the competitors on Battle of the Blades. Sunday night's theme was international beat, and Violetta Afanasieva and Jason Strudwick led the pack with a Russian-style program.

"The program was a really difficult one," Afanasieva, 34, said. "Our choreographer, Renée Roca, put in a lot of footwork, the music was fast and we had some hard lifts. I'm really happy the way we put it together and the way we performed it."

Strudwick, 38, who retired from the NHL in 2012 after a nearly two-decade pro career, fed off of Afanasieva's enthusiasm for the fast-paced Russian folk music. He said the week leading up to Sunday's night's "international beat" show was intense, and he credits his partner, Roca, and Afanasieva's husband/professional partner, Pete Dack, for helping them prepare.

"She's been very trusting in my ability to hold the lifts and make sure that we're both safe," Strudwick said. "I'm enjoying all of it, but the lifts are a part I really take a lot of pride in. V looks beautiful up in the air, and I'm the vehicle to get her up there."

Afanasieva said each day she and Strudwick are trying new lifts, and she's stunned he never complains about being sore. He said his playing days were quite recent, and since then, he's kept up a constant workout regime. When he retired from hockey, he said he knew he was done with the sport.

The prospect of doing something completely new and seeing weekly improvement is exciting.

"That's part of what got me fired up. It's something I've never done before," said Strudwick, who had never worn figure skates before signing on to do the show. "It's a challenge to see how good of a figure skater I can become and mesh with my partner. That's what really got me going; that and the charity aspect.

"When you stop playing a professional sport, there are not a lot of physical challenges out there," he added. "This is a good experience for me."

Based in Edmonton, Strudwick said he misses his wife and children and is looking forward to having them visit this weekend. What he's not missing is his work, since he has kept on doing it. The host of a nightly talk radio sports show, he's been doing it from a studio in Toronto, finishing at 2 a.m. coinciding with midnight in Edmonton.

Each competitor on Battle of the Blades gets money to donate to the charity of his or her choice. Afanasieva chose the Humane Society of Kawartha Lakes (near her home in Peterborough, Ontario), and Strudwick selected Edmonton Inner City Children's Program.

"We have a very big family in Peterborough, and everyone's pet came from that humane society," Afanasieva said.

"My wife and I made a conscious decision to attach our names to a local charity," said Strudwick, who first became affiliated with his charity during his last two years with the Edmonton Oilers. He goes to the schools, hosts a fundraising golf tournament and spearheads an event where he DJ's. "They work with three schools in the inner city in Edmonton. We provide before and after school care.

"I wanted to raise the profile of the charity. That was a big part of my goal here."

Unlike the other figure skaters on the show, Afanasieva doesn't come from a competitive background. A professional skater since age 12, she's used to doing highly unusual performances.

"For my professional career, I work with props, I work with hula hoops," she said. "For Battle of the Blades, I'm back to my figure skating roots. I'm absolutely enjoying just skating."

Heading into the Olympic Winter Games, Strudwick promises plenty of figure skating content on his talk show, to go with the hockey, football and baseball.

"I'm fired up," Strudwick said. "I've enjoyed talking figure skating with everybody and learning."

The theme for this week's show is Canadian music.

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