Testing our Olympic mettle

Big event starts today in London

By RYAN PYETTE, QMI AGENCY


Local Olympic medal hopefuls Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir will do battle at the JLC this week. (File photo)

There's more in store.

That's Skate Canada chief executive William Thompson's mantra right now.

More figure skating fans. Better TV ratings. More talent to unearth, develop and display.

And with the Vancouver Olympics less than a month away, more pressure than ever before.

"Totally," the Kitchener native and former competitive skater said as Skate Canada rolled its national senior and junior figure skating championships, beginning today, into London.

"In this country, we expect medals from hockey, curling, figure skating and speed skating. There's a lot of pressure for a home Olympics."

The stakes weren't quite that high when the BMO Canadian figure skating championships glided into London five years ago.

The 2006 Olympics weren't so close on the radar screen.

The sport was still reeling from the 2002 Salt Lake City judging disaster. Most of Canada's stars were either on the verge of retirement or still just exiting the junior ranks. The ability to fill NHL-sized arenas for competitive skating was a dream dead as dinosaurs.

But things are changing.

This week, Skate Canada is back for more at the John Labatt Centre. The national championships have been fused into one week-long London party starting today at Western Fair.

Interest is stirring.

The sport's revamped judging system is not as much a puzzle. People trust it more.

And the fight for Olympic berths begins Thursday on JLC ice. This could be the most closely followed nationals in Canadian history.

"The nationals before an Olympics is always the best to watch," Thompson said. "There's obviously a lot of interest. We've sold more all-event ticket packages than we had budgeted. Things are going well. At this point, we're about 75-80% sold out. We're expecting strong TV numbers."

An Olympic boost could propel the sport into a Golden Goose. Just like the Battle of the Brians (Canada's Orser and Boitano of'the U.S.) in 1988 at Calgary.

"I don't have all the answers," Thompson said. "You can't overstate (the damage caused by the judging controversy) of Salt Lake. But with this team, we feel we have personalities on the ice that Canadian fans can get behind and will be able to follow for a long time."

And at the moment, it's not so much about more as it is about Moir.

Ilderton's Scott Moir and London's Tessa Virtue, the world ice dance bronze medalists, are Canada's top Olympic medal hope.

They finished fourth in their first senior nationals five years ago here.

In that same time span, Jeffrey Buttle, who also learned to skate in London, won his first Canadian crown, an Olympic medal, a world title, then promptly retired.

He wanted more from life than just competitive skating. He'll serve as athlete ambassador this week.

Patrick Chan is the top man taking his place. He's trying to recover from injury and is dealing with splitting from his coach last week.

Joannie Rochette remains the undisputed women's champ. She won her first of five straight national titles here.

"London was very important for me," she said. "It will always be close to my heart. It showed I could accomplish what I believed was possible. It's nice to be able to go back right before Olympics."

Jessica Dube and Bryce Davison are favourites in the pairs.

"Our champions are strong," Thompson said. "Maybe it's asking too much but I want us to get to the point where we have two or three Tessa and Scotts in our system. We want to have two or three Patrick Chans and Joannie Rochettes."

Canadian figure skating has consistently averaged a medal every Games the past few decades.

But now, they're bent on more. Four in Vancouver -- one in each discipline -- would be a Skate Canada dream haul.

"We've done a lot the past three years but if we think that's good enough, we're wrong," Thompson said. "When you stand still, that's when every other country blows right by you.

"We want to be the best in the world. That's what we expect."

So it means more skater scrutiny. More instruction.

Last Thursday, Mike Slipchuk, Skate Canada's director of high performance, flew to Michigan to check on Virtue and Moir's progress. He had just returned from Colorado Springs to meet with Chan.

"This close to the Olympics, we've targeted those athletes who stand the best chance of getting on the podium and we're seeing what things we can do to help them in these final few weeks," he said.

They're trying to squeeze every possible point and fraction from the skaters.

"Any little thing could make the difference between being on the podium or off it," Thompson said. "We've taken the feedback from the judges and tried to use it to our advantage."

Skate Canada encouraged skaters to tone down their outfits -- turn away from the frilly and sequin-filled past and showcase the sport's athleticism.

Make it easier for the judges, they suggested. But Skate Canada took flak from activists, who asked why they would try to erase the femininity of the sport.

The top contenders are familiar with the upcoming Olympic venue. They're no strangers to the Pacific Coliseum.

"We've held four straight training camps there," Thompson said. "Nothing should be a surprise. But in figure skating, familiarity of the ice is less important than it is in some other sports."

It's more about who skates the best at the right time. And that's why all those eyes will be on London.

The champs will make it to Vancouver. But who else?

"That's always the interesting part," Slipchuk said. "There's always someone who comes out of nowhere.

"We're going to see some great skating in London, but it's at the point where it's not the biggest concern if someone (a favourite) has an off day. We've seen slip-ups all year in the Grand Prix season. It happens. Our focus is building for Vancouver and we want to see our skaters on the right track.

"They don't have to do anything (risky) in Vancouver. We feel we have four with a legitimate shot at getting on the podium. We just want them to feel like they're in a position to skate at their best.

"And that's all you can really ask for."

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IF YOU GO

What: 2010 Canadian figure skating championships

When: Today till Sunday

Where: John Labatt Centre (later this week) and Western Fair Sports Centre

Who: Canada's top men's and women's figure skaters in pre-Olympic tuneup.

ryan.pyette@sunmedia.ca

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