Canadian pair on verge of greatness

ROB BRODIE -- Ottawa Sun

, Last Updated: 8:40 AM ET

CALGARY -- The stage couldn't be set more beautifully, the scenario couldn't possibly be any more ideal.

It's all there for Valerie Marcoux and Craig Buntin. The perfect draw position for the pairs free skate final. Red and white flags wherever they'll care to look at the Pengrowth Saddledome tonight, with a wildly supportive audience ready and willing to help lift them to new heights.

What's not to like about the idea that the three-time Canadian champions can make a mighty leap onto the podium at the world figure skating championships?

"I think their chances are good, in this environment," said CBC figure skating analyst Paul Martini, the 1984 world champion who knows more than just a little bit about the magic a home country audience can help create.

"Val and Craig have to take advantage of it the same way they did (Monday) night (in the short program) and use it. They had one of the few (short) programs that just flew out there ... great speed, great attack. Now, they've just got to do that one more time."

Marcoux and Buntin are fourth heading into the free skate final, less than a point behind Russians Marina Petrova and Alexei Tikhonov. The reigning world silver medalists skate first in the final flight tonight, then the Canadians, followed by the two Chinese pairs teams that figure to duel for the gold.

In other words, by the time their marks hit the scoreboard, Marcoux and Buntin will know whether they've given Canada its first world championship pairs medal since Jamie Sale and David Pelletier won the global title in 2001.

And what a story it would be. Canadian skating officials talked boldly before this event about the prospect of medals in three of four events. Pairs? That was the unthinkable long shot.

Yet it could well be Marcoux and Buntin getting the maple leaf medal rush started tonight.

'REALLY GOOD FEELING'

"It's a really good feeling," Marcoux said of their sudden jump upward into the world's elite this week. "We just hope we can keep it up in the long (program). Even staying (fourth) would be great ... it's so amazing to finally be up there after all these years of work."

Still, it's hard to ignore the giddy prospect of a world medal. Even though they'll both tell you they intend to try.

"We talked about it at the beginning of the season, that we'd like to be close to the podium (at worlds) or maybe on the podium," said Marcoux, 25, of Gatineau, who's bidding to become the first Ottawa-area medal winner at the figure skating worlds since Elizabeth Manley's silver in Budapest in 1988.

"I don't think it would be too far from where we were aiming. But I don't really want to talk about that or think about it. I just want to focus on (the free skate)."

It's all about avoiding the trap Buntin says tripped them up last month at the Turin Olympics, where they finished a disappointing 11th. They'd hope to improve on their ninth-place standing at the past two world championships, but got caught up in the wild thought that a medal just might be possible.

"Before we went to the Olympics, we looked at our personal best (score) in the short and our personal best for the long," said Buntin, 25, of Kelowna, B.C. "We thought 'you know what, we could be in the top three at the Olympics.' But thinking of the medal ... we lost sight of what we were doing with our own skating and got thinking about things we can't control."

So as trite and boring as it might sound, Marcoux and Buntin will take the ice tonight simply thinking about delivering their best skate. If it means a medal for them -- or not -- well, so be it.

"We wanted to be in the top group (at these worlds), close to breaking into the medals," said Buntin. "Whether we get a medal or not, it's not so important.

"But who knows? I'm not going to say no to a medal."

Martini looks at Buntin and Marcoux and sees a couple poised on the verge of great things. Not the same duo, to be sure, that found the Olympic ice to be just a tad too slippery for their liking.

"In Turin, they just looked like they never got comfortable ... You feel the pressure at the Olympics. Here, they seem far more comfortable, for whatever reason.

"I like their chances."


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