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Olympic fever expected at Four Continents

World-class skaters to test Olympic site this week in Vancouver

Meryl Davis and Charlie White impressed the crowd with their <i>Phantom of the Opera</i> free dance.
Meryl Davis and Charlie White impressed the crowd with their Phantom of the Opera free dance. (Paul Harvath)

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By Laurie Nealin, special to icenetwork.com
(02/03/2009) - The 2010 Olympic countdown begins in earnest this week at the ISU Four Continents Championships at the Pacific Coliseum in Vancouver, British Columbia. With the competition doubling as the test event for the Games, now just one year and seven days away, Olympic fever is bound to take hold.

"I think the Olympic energy and buzz will definitely be in Vancouver, and that's the thing we'll feed off of. It's cool to think that, hopefully, we'll be competing there at the Olympics," said Tessa Virtue, who, with partner Scott Moir, won the Four Continents ice dance title last year and then claimed silver at the world championships.

More than 100 competitors from four continents -- Africa; Asia; Australia and the Americas, which the ISU considers together -- are entered. In reality, among the 16 countries competing, only five -- Canada; the U.S.; China; Japan; and, thanks to Yu-Na Kim, South Korea -- are likely to see their skaters land on the podium.

With three entries in each discipline, the U.S., Canadian and Chinese teams have the largest contingents. The prize money for this ISU event -- the counterpart to the European championships -- totals $250,000 U.S. The ISU hands out significantly more prize money -- $350,000 -- at Europeans.

The Ice Dancers

The ice dancers open the competition Wednesday afternoon with their compulsory round, which will mark the North American debut of the Finnstep. The sport's newest dance was created by Finnish champions Susanna Rahkomo and Petri Kokko for their original dance in 1995.

It is a tricky dance that tripped up Russia's Oksana Domnina and Maxim Shabalin at the recent Europeans, forcing them out of the event after Shabalin re-injured his problematic knee.

Although Virtue is still on the rebound from surgery to repair painful soft-tissue injuries in her legs, she and Moir are favored to defend their 2008 Four C's title against their strongest challengers, Meryl Davis and Charlie White of the U.S. The couples happen to be good friends and training mates in Michigan. Virtue also expects world junior champs Emily Samuelson and Evan Bates, who train nearby in Ann Arbor, to make a run for the podium in their first Four Continents appearance.

Virtue said the Canadian championships three weeks ago in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, where she and Moir won a second national title, took a toll on her shins. She had to take a few days off to recover and continued rehabilitation as they trained for this competition.

"We needed to get going on the Finnstep. Once you get going, it's really fun. The steps are different, and the timing is interesting, so we're having fun with it. It's one of those dances that feels good to perform once you can skate it well. So, we're excited," Virtue said.

Teammates Kaitlyn Weaver and Andrew Poje have also been ramping up their Finnstep. Weaver, a Texan on the verge of attaining her Canadian citizenship, said they watched videos of the dance being performed at Europeans and worked at "bringing out the flavor of the quickstep."

Poje added, "It's going to be an interesting dance because not a lot of people know exactly what's going on with it, since it's such a new dance and it's so new to judges, skaters, to everyone. Everyone's going to be on the same playing field for once because, with the other dances, people have been doing them for years and had different experiences with them; whereas this one, it's the first time for everyone to perform the Finnstep."

The Men

When the men first take to the ice on Thursday, a lot of people will be focused on Japan's Nobunari Oda, who has not competed against this type of power-packed international field in almost two years. He missed all of last season, mostly due to a suspension for being caught driving a motor scooter while impaired. His countryman, Daisuke Takahashi, who won the 2008 Four Continents title, is out for the season with an injury.

A lot of eyes will also be set on Patrick Chan of Toronto, who leads Canada in the men's event that also includes another young upstart -- Takahiko Kozuka of Japan -- and a talented American trio -- Jeremy Abbott, winner of the Grand Prix Final and the 2009 U.S. title; Brandon Mroz and Evan Lysacek.

Chan, coached by Don Laws in Orlando, Fla., has never competed at Four C's before. At the conclusion of the recent Canadian nationals, he offered his thoughts on the event.

"It doesn't affect really much how you're going to do at worlds and what people are going to think about at worlds. ... It's more of a fun competition, I think," the 18-year-old suggested.

"I won [2008] nationals there [in Vancouver], so it will be very comfortable, I believe. It will feel like home," he added.

The Ladies

The women's opener goes Wednesday with three contenders likely to jockey for podium position. World champion Mao Asada of Japan recently out-skated her rival Kim for the Grand Prix title, so the latter would like to get her revenge this week, particularly since she was unable to compete at this event a year ago in her native Korea due to injury. Also, five-time Canadian champion Joannie Rochette will want to show she has what it takes to fight for a top spot. Asada won Four Continents in Kim's absence a year ago, while Rochette was second.

Team USA, led by newly-crowned national champion Alissa Czisny, has an outside shot at the podium but will need top-notch performances to get there.

The Pairs

The pairs event also opens Wednesday with the short program.

China's Qing Pang and Jian Tong, the defending champions, and Dan Zhang and Hao Zhang, the 2008 GP Final champions, are the favorites coming in. Zhang and Zhang are also the reigning world silver medalists.

Canada's Jessica Dubé and Bryce Davison will be looking to bounce back from their failure to qualify for the Grand Prix Final this season. Americans Keauna McLaughlin and Rockne Brubaker, who took their second straight national title a little more than a week ago, could also be in the medal mix.

Dubé and Davison admitted they did not train as well as they could have last fall, and it showed in their jittery performances.

"The fact they didn't go to the Final kind of kicked them in the butt," said 2002 Olympic pairs gold medalist David Pelletier, who works part-time with the team. "Judging by the way they skated [at the Canadian championships], they allowed themselves to create momentum."

Fresh from winning their second national crown, Dubé and Davison are returning to Four Continents for the first time since their horrendous accident at the 2007 event in Colorado Springs, Colo. There, the couple was forced to withdraw from the competition after Davison's skate blade sliced her cheek and nose when they got too close on individual spins. The couple gave the 2008 Four Continents in Korea a pass in favor of more training time for the world championships, which seemed to pay off when they skated to a bronze medal.

The Hometown Hosts

Honorary co-chairs for the event are former Canadian ice dancers Megan Wing and Aaron Lowe, whose 20-year partnership on the ice included 10 Canadian senior event medals and two Four Continents bronze medals. The Vancouverites retired in 2006.

Their official duties include offering play-by-play commentary for ice dance and singles events on the in-house Skate Bug system, which was tested at Skate Canada last fall, as well as backstage tours and other perks for lucky fans. In advance, Wing and Lowe also helped local television stations create instructional spots for viewers.