Perfect pair on, off ice

ROB BRODIE -- Ottawa Sun

, Last Updated: 9:09 AM ET

The moment, they'll tell you, remains frozen in time. That mid-November evening in the City of Light, when they shone, perhaps like never before.

Just the way they always hoped and dreamed they would.

And now, as Valerie Marcoux and Craig Buntin set their sights on a third straight pairs crown at the Canadian figure skating championships, they feel free of the burden.

The mostly self-imposed weight upon their shoulders that almost caused them to crumble a year ago at London's John Labatt Centre, when they skated for the first time as reigning national champions.

"Yes, this is the Olympic year, but we feel less pressure on us," said Marcoux, 25, of Gatineau. "We've been through defending our title for the first time, and putting more pressure on ourselves than we really need to.

"This year, we're more prepared for all the things that could happen -- we already defended our title once, we know what to expect. We really have nothing to lose and we want to make the Olympic team, so we're going for it."

It would be a startling development if Marcoux and Buntin aren't leading the Canadian pairs contingent to Turin next month. Their improvement this season, the new comfort level they show each time they take to the ice ... it is obvious to all who have watched them closely over the years.

'MILES AHEAD'

"They're miles ahead (of last year) -- they're skating like they're champions," said CTV/TSN analyst Debbi Wilkes, a former Olympic pairs silver medallist.

"They're just powering into everything. The speed is there, the confidence ... they've grown so much into a look that's all their own. They've just got so much confidence now."

Ask Marcoux and Buntin to pinpoint when they began to feel so sure of themselves, and they immediately cast their eyes toward the Trophee Eric Bompard. If there has been a watershed moment for this team in its brief life together, the senior Grand Prix event in Paris was it.

It wasn't just about the bronze medal, their second of the season on the Grand Prix circuit. Rather, about a feeling that their total score of 174.92 -- a personal best by about six points -- clearly confirmed.

"We blew the socks off our old personal best," said Buntin, 25, of Kelowna, B.C. "We didn't even skate perfectly, so we know we can get even better scores than that."

Ah, but about the real revelation ...

"We knew when we got off the ice that yes, we're going in the direction we want to go," said Buntin. "We knew in the last 30 seconds of that (free) program that everything was on track. We knew the crowd was with us, we had the feeling we wanted to have. There's really nothing we would have changed from that competition."

Added Marcoux: "It was a real shining moment for us. From Day 1, everything was amazing. It was the best competition we've had since we've been together.

"It was the first time in a year and a half that we felt confident, that we knew we were going to skate well."

It is a further sign of their maturity as a pairs team that Marcoux and Buntin are putting themselves out there like never before this season. Especially with their free program, an eclectic mix composed especially for them by Montreal-based musician Paul Kunigis.

The name they've given it couldn't be more personal. "We call it Our Song," said Buntin. "It's fun in parts, it's sexual in parts ... it's us.

"Every time we're on the ice, we know that nobody has ever skated to this piece of music before ... that when we do it and we're in that moment, there's only us and everything in the program was designed with us in mind."

Marcoux and Buntin, if you're wondering, have been "us" for almost twice as long as they've skated together. They had been dating for three years before deciding in the summer of 2000 to take their partnership to the ice.

Marcoux is Buntin's eighth partner. She skated with Montrealer Bruno Marcotte for two seasons.

For Marcoux, being a pairs skater is like living a dream everyday. She had a brief fling at it when she was 12 and a member of the Minto Skating Club. But coaches kept telling her she should concentrate on singles skating (at the last two Canadians in Ottawa, she won a novice silver medal in 1996 and was fifth as a junior in 1999).

"They all told me to wait until I got older (to do pairs)," said Marcoux. "But when I was 19, I finally said 'I think I'm old enough now.'

"It's like a dream I (always had), something I wanted since I was a little girl. I used to love watching Isabelle Brasseur and Lloyd Eisler on TV, and I thought it was more fun to be with a partner than skate alone."

Marcoux and Marcotte just missed making the Olympic team in 2002. Now, with the special man in her life at her side, Marcoux' Olympic dream is at hand.

They are better than they've ever been and, Wilkes believes, capable of finishing as high as sixth against the world's elite in a discipline dominated by Russian and Chinese teams.

But it isn't just about a placement. They speak of another feeling, one that will surely leave them satisfied when the music stops.

"If we know when we get off the ice that we did absolutely everything we could out there, we are going to be happy," said Buntin. "We don't want to leave anything out there. No regrets."

rob.brodie@ott.sunpub.com

THE FACTS

- Event: Senior pairs

- When to watch: Short program -- Thursday, 7:30 p.m.; Free program -- Saturday, 3 p.m.

- TV: Thursday -- 7-10 p.m., TSN; Saturday -- 7-9 p.m., CTV

- Defending champions: Valerie Marcoux, Gatineau, and Craig Buntin, Kelowna, B.C.

- Olympic/world team berths: Two

- Capital content: Marcoux and Buntin; Anabelle Langlois, Hull, and Cody Hay, Grande Prairie, Alta.


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