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Busy week includes Canadian Challenges, JGP Final

Crone, Poirier worried about nationals too

Jessica Dube and Bryce Davison.
Jessica Dube and Bryce Davison. (Getty Images)

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By Laurie Nealin, special to icenetwork.com
(12/04/2007) - Ice dancers Vanessa Crone and Paul Poirier are rather rare birds in the skating world.

This week, not only will the Canadian duo go for gold at the Junior Grand Prix Final in Gdansk, Poland, they will also be worried about qualifying for the Canadian championships as singles competitors in the junior ranks.

Had they not been headed to Gdansk on Tuesday, the Toronto-based Crone and Poirier would be competing in their own backyard among some 530 other Canadian skaters in Mississauga for this week's Eastern and Western Challenges -- Canada's national qualifier events equivalent to sectionals in the United States.

Crone, 16, and Poirier, 15, won ice dancing gold at JGP Romania and JGP Croatia and topped their respective singles fields in Central Ontario sectional competition earlier this fall. Luckily for them, there is a rule that gives hope they can still qualify for nationals in singles, even if they are an ocean away from their Challenge event.

If the scores each of them posted in winning their sectionals (like regionals in the U.S.) are high enough to put them among the top-10 scores their peers record this week at the Eastern Challenge, then Skate Canada will add Crone and Poirier to the junior women's and men's entry lists for the 2008 Canadians.

As far as ice dancing goes, Crone and Poirier intend to compete as seniors at Canadians and, under normal circumstances, the 2007 Canadian junior champs would also have had to compete for the right to advance to the nationals in January. The rules help them out here, as well, as they have been granted a bye to the Canadian championship because of this week's scheduling conflict.

"Their progression has been very outstanding. They've come a long way from ninth last year at junior worlds," said Mike Slipchuk, Skate Canada's high performance director and team leader for the junior Final. "The improvement since they won the junior (national) title has been really impressive."

Joanna Lenko and Mitchell Islam, Canada's second ice dance couple who qualified for the junior Final, have withdrawn.

"Joanna is currently undergoing a battery of medical tests to determine the cause of her health issues," their coach David Islam, who is also Mitchell's father, said.

Canada's other entry in the Gdansk Final is pairs team Amanda Velenosi, 15, and Mark Fernandez, 19, of Montreal. They were sixth at the 2007 World Junior Championship.

"They are both strong singles skaters. They can do the triples and double Axels and that helps their overall package," Slipchuk said, noting that Velenosi is also a junior women's competitor whose result from a summer event will determine whether she, like Crone, will be handed a ticket to compete at nationals in singles.

As a pair, Velenosi and Fernandez will compete nationally as seniors, and they have a bye to that event.

Seniors Up for the Challenge

For the last seven years, senior competitors had been allowed to advance directly from their sectional competitions to the Canadian championships. As a result, some 40 competitors in each singles discipline would show up for the event but, ultimately, less than half of them would survive the qualifying round and short program cuts to skate in the final.

After the ISU did away with its qualifying round, Skate Canada (the organization) decided to do the same. So, this week, dozens of senior men's and women's hopefuls will compete in Mississauga for a coveted berth to Canadians. The senior men in Mississauga have their work cut out for them as seven top dogs have already been given byes to nationals, leaving just 11 tickets available for the trip to Vancouver. In the women's, only four byes were granted, so there are 14 openings up for grabs there.

Byes go automatically to last year's national podium finishers in all senior events, as well as to anyone who earned a senior Grand Prix assignment this fall.

Perhaps the most surprising names on the singles entry lists are Jessica Dube and Bryce Davison. Last week, the Canadian pairs champions won bronze at the NHK Trophy in Japan, and they head to Turin next week for the Grand Prix Final. Despite that demanding schedule and high expectations on them as a pair, the athletes are apparently determined to compete at the Challenge this week. They will then continue their tradition of entering both the singles and pairs events at Canadians.

"That's their decision to make," Slipchuk said. "We can't tell people they shouldn't... They know what their schedule is, and they'll do what they feel is in their best interest."

Pairs and ice dancers must also compete at Challenges but, with much smaller fields, it appears only one or two couples from each of those disciplines will not advance to compete another day. 12 pairs and 15 ice dance couples are the maximum allowed for nationals.

A handful of exempted skaters have elected to compete this week to sharpen their competitive edge before nationals. They are 2004 Canadian champion Cynthia Phaneuf; three-time Canadian pairs champion Craig Buntin and his new partner, Meagan Duhamel; 2007 Canadian silver medalist Christopher Mabee and sixth-ranked Joey Russell.

"You don't want to get to Canadians and think 'coulda, woulda, shoulda', so any [skaters with byes] are competing to prepare themselves better for Canadians," Slipchuk said.

Other notable entries are former U.S. competitors James (Augie) Hill and Kevin O'Keefe. They are vying for the chance to compete at Canada's nationals for the first time with their new Canadian ice dance partners Lauren Senft and Siobhan Karam, respectively.

The novice and pre-novice level skaters at Challenge this week will aim to earn a spot at the 2008 Junior Nationals in Ottawa in late January. Some 16 men, women, pairs and ice dance couples will advance from each level.