Pairs heat up Civic Centre

ROB BRODIE -- Ottawa Sun

, Last Updated: 8:56 AM ET

One by one, they lit up the ice in a building that seems to be a haven for pairs skating greatness.

Okay, so it wasn't exactly Barb Underhill and Paul Martini at the 1984 worlds. But if last night's short programs were any indication, tomorrow's senior pairs final just might find its way into Civic Centre lore.

Certainly, this bunch did its part to finish off Day 4 of the Canadian figure skating championships on a high note, after the 4,584 in attendance endured an often tedious women's short program display.

And while two-time defending champions Valerie Marcoux and Craig Buntin hold a solid lead halfway through the pairs event, they're far from planning a triple crown celebration.

"It's a tough fight," said Marcoux, 25, of Gatineau, after she and Buntin laid down their best short program of the season.

"Everyone is here to compete, and it's fun to be a part of it."

Fun to watch, too. Utako Wakamatsu and Jean-Sebastien Fecteau opened the proceedings and put down a clean program of their own, one they also termed their best yet this season.

They're fourth.

On and on it went through the first group of four, each one of them playing, 'Can you top this?'

In the end, nobody was better than Marcoux and Buntin. They were sure and solid on side-by-side triple toe loops, and everything else that followed. This is a duo now brimming with the confidence of a champion -- something obviously missing in their first title defence in London a year ago.

"Right now, this is as good as it could have been," said Buntin, 25, of Kelowna, B.C. "It's the best short we've done all season."

With 63.16 points in the bank, the champs hold a comfortable 6.46-point lead.

Somewhat surprisingly, first-year team Anabelle Langlois and Cody Hay is occupying that second spot.

For Hay, who skated in the junior pairs event last year with another partner, it was the ultimate rush.

"It was like nothing I've ever experienced before," said Hay, 22, of Grande Prairie, Alta. "I was actually (more) relaxed here than I've been at a competition before. I don't know why, but I definitely want to bottle it."

NERVES KEPT IN CHECK

Oddly, it's been the rookie Hay keeping Langlois' nerves in check. The two were spotted laughing and joking with each other as they warmed up before their turn came.

"I haven't had a chance to be like this in a long time," said Langlois, a 24-year-old from Hull. "That's something that Cody has brought out in me that's been missing for a while. We lighten the mood together."

Though Langlois and Hay currently have a hold on Canada's second pairs berth for the Turin Olympics, it's anything but a firm grip.

Jessica Dube of St. Cyrille de Wendover, Que., and Bryce Davison of Cambridge also looked exceptional, and trail Langlois and Hay by just 1.18 points.

Given the venue, the battle is clearly yet to be won.

"You can feel the fire even before you go on the ice," said Buntin. "I remember when I was here in 1999 as a novice. That was one of the fiercest (senior) competitions I've ever seen. I get the feeling this building is bringing out a lot of that in people."

Said Davison: "Everybody has obviously brought their best to Ottawa. It should be an exciting final."

In the senior ice dance event, three-time Canadian champions Marie-France Dubreuil and Patrice Lauzon did the expected, easily winning yesterday's compulsories.

The Montrealers, who have been standouts internationally this season and finished third at last month's Grand Prix final in Tokyo, posted a score of 41.87 -- 5.1 points better than Vancouver's Megan Wing and Aaron Lowe.

The prospect of another Canadian title isn't old hat to them.

"It's nice to see our name on top," said Dubreuil, 31. "We came here to win, of course ... we also want to feel the energy and adrenaline coming up, and get ourselves in Olympic mode."

AT A GLANCE

- What: Canadian figure skating championships.

- Where: Civic Centre.

- Today's events: 9:15 a.m. -- Junior free dance; 12:15 p.m. -- Junior pairs free skate; 3 p.m. -- Senior men's short program; 6:45 p.m. -- Senior women's free skate.

- Tickets: Ticketmaster, 755-1111, or www.ticketmaster.ca.


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