Champ on thin ice

ROB BRODIE -- Ottawa Sun

, Last Updated: 7:41 AM ET

LONDON, ONT. -- Never mind Joannie Rochette.

Cynthia Phaneuf has a much more formidable foe to conquer at the John Labatt Centre.

Herself.

More precisely, the paralyzing case of nerves that made the 17-year-old from Sorel-Tracy, Que., crumble during the short program at last month's Grand Prix final in Beijing. And had Phaneuf fearing a relapse with her national title on the line this week.

"I was fighting to have confidence in me," Phaneuf admitted after a shaky skate during the women's qualifying session that opened the 2005 Canadian figure skating championships last night.

While Phaneuf easily won her qualifying group, she hardly looked like the girl who skated with astonishing poise and grace in dethroning six-time national champ Jennifer Robinson a year ago in Edmonton.

There were two popped triple jumps. A hand down on a triple lutz. A wobble during a spiral.

ERRORS

"Too many little mistakes," coach Annie Barabe observed afterward.

But through it all, perhaps, an important step forward.

Phaneuf came to London this week with the memory of Beijing -- "it was terrible there," she said -- still floating in her head.

Perhaps a little too close to the front of it, her coach said.

"She was nervous," said Barabe. "It's only qualifying, but it was the first time she was competing after China ... she was (afraid) it was going to happen again."

What did happen, however, were four successful triples, including an impressive opening triple lutz. That was three more triples than she landed in qualifying last year, and we all know how that ended up.

"Before I came here, I was putting too much pressure on me," said Phaneuf. "The ice is broken now. It's going to be fine."

It's going to need to be a lot better than last night if Phaneuf is to retain her crown. That's because Rochette, the bronze medalist at the GP final, has raised her game significantly since last year.

She landed five clean triples last night, but flubbed both her lutzes.

Still, she racked up a score of 109.41 on the cumulative points calculation system, which is making its nationals debut this week. That was more than 20 better than Vancouver's Mira Leung (88.84), second in Group B.

Phaneuf won Group A with 93.66 points, ahead of Lesley Hawker of Alliston (87.50).

Only 25% of the score counts toward the overall total, so the gap between Rochette and Phaneuf is actually only about four points heading into Thursday's short program.

On the ice, though, it seemed much wider.

Rochette has never looked more composed and confident, and seems the more ready of the two to make the leap into the world's elite.

It's a far cry from a provincial meet in October in Montreal, at which Rochette landed only one triple jump and finished third in a field of eight.

"Even the junior skater came ahead of me," she said with a rueful smile. "It was a a wakeup call."

What followed was an emotional split with Manon Perron, her longtime coach, and a move to the camp of Josee Normand and 1995 Canadian men's champ Sebastien Britten in Brossard, on Montreal's south shore.

NEW ATTITUDE

Rochette has emerged from it all with a new attitude and a steely focus that allows her to quickly put mistakes behind her. In the past, two blown lutzes would have had Rochette facing the media with a serious pout on her face.

Yesterday, she faced the cameras and microphones and said matter-of-factly "it's only qualifying," and vowed her focus on the jump would be better for the short program.

"I'm happy with the jumps I did (land)," said Rochette, 19, of Ile-Dupas, Que.

The top 12 from each group yesterday earn a chance to skate again Thursday. That included first-year senior Ashton Tessier of the Minto Skating Club, who placed fifth in Rochette's group with 66.46 points.


Videos

Photos