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Virtue, Moir lead after short dance at figure skating worlds

The Canadian Press

3/28/2012 6:13:13 PM

NICE, France -- Scott Moir admits he hasn't been his usual jovial self this week at the world figure skating championships.

While this uninterrupted season of good training has been a huge blessing for Canada's Olympic ice dance champions, Moir said it has also made for greater expectations for him and partner Tessa Virtue, and they have put themselves in a "bubble" the past couple weeks.

Virtue and Moir took the first step to reclaiming their world title Wednesday, edging American rivals and defending world champions Meryl Davis and Charlie White in the short dance.

"It's the bubble, and a little bit of the pressure," Moir said, explaining his uncharacteristically quiet demeanour. (He barely bit, even, when teased about his Toronto Maple Leafs being eliminated from playoff contention a day earlier.)

"A year of really solid training, it's a different kind of pressure," Moir said. "It's not like last year when we're kind of rolling the dice. We put the work in, so we want to get rewarded for it. So I'm just trying to stay focused."

Virtue, from London, Ont., and Moir, from Ilderton, Ont., scored 72.31 points for their performance to a mix of samba and rhumba and a segment of the steamy song "Temptation" by Canadian jazz musician Diana Krall.

Moir wasn't in a bubble on the ice, singing along to Krall as they skated.

"It's my thing. I sing the girl's line," he said, laughing. "(In Thursday's free dance) I have to really focus on singing the Fred (Astaire) part and not the Audrey (Hepburn)."

The Canadians skate their long program to music from the 1957 movie "Funny Face."

Davis and White, who train with Virtue in Moir in Canton, Mich., and have paced the Canadians the past couple of seasons in a see-saw battle, scored 70.98 points. Nathalie Pechalat and Fabian Bourzat of France scored 69.13 to put them third heading into the free dance.

Kaitlyn Weaver and Andrew Poje of Waterloo, Ont., are fourth, with 66.47 points. Kharis Ralph and Asher Hill of Toronto are 15th.

In the pairs earlier Wednesday, Canada's Meagan Duhamel and Eric Radford finished fifth in the short program, won by Germans Aliona Savchenko and Robin Szolkowy. Jessica Dube of St-Cyrille-de-Wendover, Que., and Sebastien Wolfe of Terrebonne, Que., were 12th.

Virtue, 22, and Moir, 24, finished second behind the Americans at the 2011 world championships in Moscow in the only full competition the Canadians were able to complete last season. The two skipped almost the entire season after Virtue underwent a second surgery to alleviate the pain in her legs caused by compartment syndrome.

If there were zero expectations last year, there are plenty this time around, and the Canadians admitted to a case of the nerves this week.

"We had some great training coming into this competition, so a little bit more pressure to go out there and deliver when you've had three good months of really solid training," Moir said. "But when we got out there we really got into our zone and focused on being in unison and that really worked well for us tonight."

Neither the Canadians nor the Americans were thrilled with their marks, saying they were downgraded on their "choktaws" -- a turn that involves a change of foot and edge. Moir said it would take video analysis to determine the error.

"It's a really finicky thing," Moir said. "But that's dance, you've got to come here and skate. That's the best thing about the new (scoring) system, you can't just show up and muck through the steps anymore."

Weaver -- who skated in a beaded tiger-print dress -- and Poje were favourites among the crowd, which was dotted with a couple dozen Canadian flags. She clutched a dozen or so stuffed tigers, which were tossed on the ice after their skate, as she talked to reporters afterward.

"I'm going to miss this program and miss this dress because it seems to have caught on with the public," Weaver said. "We'll think of something equally as cool next year though for sure."

For Duhamel and Radford, an uncharacteristic fall in their pairs short program may have cost them a spot near the top.

Radford landed on his backside on their side-by-side triple Lutzes in an otherwise clean performance.

"When we see that score, if we landed our jump we could have been first after the short program at worlds," Duhamel said. "But maybe that would mean the long (program) wouldn't have gone so well, so this is going to fuel us a lot.

"We wanted to be top-five and that's where we planned to end this competition."

Savchenko and Szolkowy of Germany looked poised to claim their fourth world pairs title in five years, winning the short program with their skate to music from the movie "Angels and Demons." Savchenko, dressed in white, and Szolkowy in black scored 69.82 points.

Two-time world champions Pang Qing and Tong Jian of China are second with 67.10 points. Narumi Takahashi and Mervin Tran -- a Canadian who competes for Japan -- are third with 65.37.

The 26-year-old Duhamel, from Lively, Ont., and Radford, 27, from Balmertown, Ont., scored 63.69 for their tango to the classical guitar piece "Concierto de Aranjuez."

Radford's fall came on their opening element, but the Canadians, seventh at last year's world championships, recovered nicely to record their best score of the season. The two joked that they would spend their off-day Thursday practising Lutzes.

"I don't want to miss it again. That's the first one I missed all week," Radford said.

"If he ever misses something, anything, it's always a complete shock to me beside him," Duhamel said. "For a second, I was like, 'Woah, that's weird.' I never see him miss things."

Dube, from St-Cyrille-de-Wendover, Que., and Wolfe, from Terrebonne, Que., who are making their world debut as a team, scored 55.83 with a shaky performance. Dube two-footed her landing on their throw triple Lutz, and their triple twist lift was messy.

Tran, a Regina native and boyfriend to Amelie Lacoste, Canada's lone women's singles skater here, is a three-time Japanese pairs champion with Takahashi. They've skated together since 2007 and train in Quebec.

The son of Vietnamese and Cambodian refugees, Tran has no familial ties to Japan, but skating for another country is not uncommon in the sport. In pairs and ice dance, only one skater needs to be a citizen of the country the team is representing. Weaver, for example, is from the U.S.

The one exception is the Olympics, where both skaters must be citizens of the country they represent, meaning Tran won't be able compete at the 2014 Sochi Games for Japan unless he becomes a Japanese citizen.

The two drew huge cheers from the crowd for their skate to John Lennon's "Imagine."

"I felt so good, the atmosphere here is wonderful, the crowd is excellent," Tran said. "I am really happy."

Savchenko and Szolkowy, meanwhile, who have three world titles plus a silver and a bronze, return to the top after missing the European championships.

"We are just so happy to be back on the ice after my injury, it's been quite some time," said Savchenko, who skipped the European event after aggravating a thigh injury. "The program was OK, it wasn't perfect, but it was good for our first competition since the Grand Prix Final (December in Quebec City)."

Russia's top teams, who'd been favoured to finish in the medals, struggled mightily. Tatiana Volosozhar and Maxim Trankov, silver medallists last year, finished eighth after Trankov fell during their death spiral. The Russian skater complained afterward about the ice being too soft. Yuko Kavaguti and Alexander Smirnov, two-time world bronze medallists, finished way down in 11th after an error-filled program that included a fall by both skaters on a lift.