Champs move to four-front

ROB BRODIE

, Last Updated: 8:31 AM ET

One more time, the target is squarely on their backs.

But Valerie Marcoux admits to a sense of calm a few days before she and Craig Buntin depart for Halifax and the Canadian figure skating championships, where they'll chase a fourth straight senior pairs title.

"This year, there's a lot less stress on us," said Marcoux, 26, of Gatineau. "We've had less time to think about it. We did four competitions (during the fall), then Christmas came along and now it's time for nationals. We just want to go and enjoy ourselves and have fun."

Marcoux and Buntin were surprise winners at Canadians in 2004 in Edmonton. A year later in London, they'll tell you, the weight of defending that crown weighed heavily on their shoulders and it showed on the ice.

Last year in Ottawa, there was a Winter Olympics to think about.

All of that is in the past now, Marcoux said, although the desire to win on home soil remains as strong as ever.

"It's important ... we still want to win," she said. "We've defended our title before, and it's not an Olympic year.

"But it's still nationals, so you want to give it your best shot. There's still a lot of adrenaline inside."

Their stature also continues to grow internationally. A fifth-place finish at the 2006 world championships in Calgary was the perfect springboard into this season, which saw Marcoux and Buntin earn two bronze medals in Grand Prix events and reach the series final for the first time.

After a sub-par short program at that event in December in St. Petersburg, Russia, the Canadian champs rebounded strongly in the free skate, turning in the third-best performance of the night. They wound up fifth out of six teams, just one point behind fourth-place Americans Rene Inoue and John Baldwin.

"It was really important," Marcoux said of making the GP final. "We'd been first alternates the last couple of years, so it was big for us to finally make it this year."

They plan to ratchet up the difficulty level in their free program before the 2007 worlds in March in Tokyo. This week, they'll introduce a second set of side-by-side triple toe jumps, in sequence with the first.

"We've been working on it all season, and now we're ready to take that next step and try it (in competition)," said Marcoux. "We have nothing to lose by trying it here."

The pairs event runs Thursday and Saturday. Competition in Halifax begins Tuesday with -- for the last time -- senior men's and women's qualifying. Next year, seniors will have to follow the same path as juniors and qualify through the Challenge events.

AFRICAN TRAIL: Athletics Canada made it official this week, naming Ottawa's Danelle Woods and Matthew Leeder of Brockville to its junior team for the world cross-country championships March 24 in Mombasa, Kenya. Woods qualified by winning the junior women's race at the Canadian championships in November in Vancouver.

GREAT ADDITION: Kenya's Catherine (The Great) Ndereba, one of the world's top female marathoners, will make her Canadian debut during the Ottawa Race Weekend. She has entered the Nordion 10K race, which has added a new twist this year. The women will start a few minutes ahead of the men and the first finisher, male or female, earns a $5,000 US bonus.

AROUND THE AMATEUR SCENE: Orleans native and former St. Peter star Courtnay Pilypaitis, now a freshman at Vermont, earned her fifth America East women's basketball rookie of the week honour. She is sixth in the conference in scoring (13.4 ppg) ... Turin Olympians Kristina Groves of Ottawa and Brock Miron of Cornwall are headed to the world sprint long-track speed skating championships next weekend in Hamar, Norway ... Ottawa's Kathleen Forestell earned a bronze medal in women's standing slalom at a Nor Am alpine ski event for skiers with a disability last weekend in Park City, Utah.

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HELLO HALIFAX

Ottawa-area skaters entered in this week's Canadian figure skating championships at the Halifax Metro Centre, listed with home club:

SENIOR

Men: Michael Elias, Minto; Brennan Martin, Minto; Jamie Forsythe, Kingston; Tyler Cochrane, Kingston.

Women: Ashton Tessier, Minto; Kim Caissy, Gatineau.

Pairs: Valerie Marcoux, Gatineau, and Craig Buntin, CPA St-Leonard, Que.; Anabelle Langlois, Hull, and Cody Hay, CPA Mile Zero.

Ice Dance: Siobhan Karam and Joshua McGrath, Minto; Allie Hann-McCurdy, Gloucester, and Michael Coreno, Vancouver SC; Chantal Lefebvre, LaSalle, Que., and Arseniy Markov, Prescott FSC.

JUNIOR

Men: Nathan Last, Nepean.

Women: Annie Claire Bergeron-Oliver, Minto; Dana Zhalko-Tytarenko, Minto; Alexandrine Chong, Minto.

Pairs: Brooke Paulin and Nathan Last, Nepean.


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