REGINA — It's the one title Meagan Duhamel and Eric Radford are missing, but one they'd stopped dreaming was even possible.
Olympic champion. Duhamel's no longer afraid to say it.
Canada's two-time world pairs champion climbed out of a year-long rut by winning their fourth straight — but "most emotional" — Skate Canada International on Saturday night, the highlight of a strong Grand Prix for Canada's figure skating team less than four months from the Pyeongchang Olympics.
"I didn't dare to think or say out loud that I wanted to win an Olympic gold medal," Duhamel said Sunday morning, tired from the previous night's adrenalin rush. "I thought 'Well, we're not even in that position anymore. We're not even in that fight or conversation anymore.'
"Over the last few weeks, I've been able to say out loud that yes, I do, I want to be an Olympic gold medallist."
If that seemed a mighty lofty ambition after their seventh place finish at the world championships last spring, the Canadians catapulted themselves back into the Olympic-medal mix with Saturday's free program that earned them 148.69 points — a mark they hadn't seen in over a year.
"We couldn't even get near 140 last year," Duhamel said. "Most of the season we struggled in the mid-130s."
The re-emergence of Duhamel and Radford is more good news for a Canadian squad that saw Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir set two world records in winning the ice dance title in Regina. Kaetlyn Osmond captured the women's singles title, and is within reach of the Olympic podium. And Kaitlyn Weaver and Andrew Poje were second in ice dance, a discipline so deep Canada could realistically have a couple of teams on every international podium this season.
Duhamel and Radford can't put their finger on where things went awry last season. Radford skated with a herniated disc at the world championships in Finland. But their troubles had started months earlier.
"We've been on a downward spiral since the Boston world championship in 2016 (where they won their second straight world title)," Duhamel said. "We were stuck in this spinning mess that was spiralling out of control."
The weight of being front-runners for two consecutive years had grown heavy, Radford said. They had no-one to chase. They struggled to find direction. Radford recalled a phone conversation last winter with David Pelletier, the 2002 Olympic pairs champion with Jaime Sale.
"He said 'You know what would be the best thing for you? If you were to go to worlds and come sixth or seventh. And then you fly under the radar and you come back and you win the Olympics,'" said Radford, a 32-year-old from Balmertown, Ont. "And when we came seventh at the worlds, I thought 'Oh my god, he actually said seventh place.'
"So I'm getting a sense of: that could happen. People thought we were out."
The turning point, said Duhamel, came after their disappointing performance at last month's Autumn Classic. They went back to the drawing board and completely reworked their long program.
"We were stuck wondering 'Are we ever going to have that great skate again?'" Duhamel said. "And a few weeks ago, we ran (the long program) clean and it was so emotional, I was teary-eyed. All we needed was that one time.
"It was so small, that little piece of hope that was left within us," she added. "But it was there."
The day after Autumn Classic, the 31-year-old Duhamel also reached out to mental trainer Rebekah Dixon.
"I felt really helpless, and I emailed her and she said 'Sure, when do you want to start?' I said 'Tomorrow,'" Duhamel said. "She said to me 'Why are you accepting failure? Why is this a possibility?' I said 'Well, I just want to do my best.' She said 'Well, in 2014-2015 when you had an undefeated season, were you just wanting to do your best?' Or were you wanting to BE the best?'
"I had accepted it was OK to come fifth, it's OK to come sixth. And it's not, because that means I didn't skate well. She used the word 'superpowers.' What were my superpowers? What was it that made me a world champion? I needed to go back to that will power, that determination, and that fight."
Skate Canada International was the second of six stops on the ISU Grand Prix circuit. Skaters compete in two events each, and the top six in each of the four disciplines earn a spot in the Grand Prix Final, Dec. 7-10 in Nagoya, Japan.
The Cup of China, Nov. 3-5, is the next stop.
Duhamel and Radford, who don't compete again until Skate America, Nov. 24-26, said they'll head back to training feeling like a huge weight has lifted.
"I feel like for the first time in so long that the sky's the limit," Duhamel said. "I feel like we can do so much more, and I don't think we've felt that alive, rejuvenated energy in a really long time. And it's exciting."