Top Teams Ready for Battle at Canadian Tire National Skating Championships

by Jacquelyn Thayer

Ottawa is no stranger to a Canadian championships; chosen this year in part to recognize 2017’s Canada 150 celebration, it’s also hosted the national skating championships 14 previous times—including, most recently, 2014’s Olympic qualifying event, where several of this year’s top skaters then contended for a spot to Sochi.

Chief among those were Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir in dance, for whom that Ottawa event was also their most recent Nationals. The couple’s comeback story so far this season has been one of fairly undeniable success; after adjusting to a new training set-up with Marie-France Dubreuil and Patrice Lauzon in Montreal, and easing back into the game with strong scores but a few small bobbles and adjustments at their first two events, the team set world record marks at NHK Trophy and the Grand Prix Final—also picking up their long-awaited career-first victory at the latter.

Now heading into Nationals, the team will be aiming for their seventh title, though take little for granted.

“You know, there’s something special about being a figure skater from Canada, with so much talent and so many legendary names that have come before you and so many great choreographers and coaches,” said Moir on a conference call before the event. “It’s so nice to be able to be a part of another national championships. Probably we thought that 2014 was going to be our last, so to have another chance—hopefully another couple here—is something that we’re not taking lightly, and we’re going to be going for the title and we fully expect that we ought to have our best skates in order to be in that conversation.”

After some significant choreographic adjustments over the course of the Grand Prix, Virtue noted that more recent tweaks will likely be unnoticeable to the casual observer. The focus, for now, is more on performance and feeling than on the technical, and to that end the pair have undertaken work with Cirque du Soleil artistic coach Silvia Gertrúdix González to enhance their free dance set to “Pilgrims on a Long Journey” and “Latch.”

“Putting more intention behind each movement and getting back to the inception of this program, what story we are trying to tell,” explained Virtue. “With so much focus on the technical elements early on in the season, it’s a great opportunity for us midpoint in the season to sort of reflect and get back to, emotionally, what story we’re trying to portray.”

But Canada’s two-time reigning champions in senior dance, Kaitlyn Weaver and Andrew Poje, have dealt with their own recent growing pains. In the off-season, the team moved to train with Nikolai Morozov, and while the adventure has left them “re-energized [and] inspired,” it’s entailed a major relocation to Hackensack, New Jersey, with occasional training spells in Moscow, and contributed to the team’s missing an early chance for feedback on the Challenger Series.

While the couple set a new personal best score in the short dance at Cup of China—with a Michael Jackson blues and hip hop program created only in September after the debut of a country swing piece at their national High Performance Camp—bronze at Rostelecom Cup paired with silver in China marked a bit of a setback; for the first time since 2012, the team missed qualifying for the Grand Prix Final. Weaver, though, found the silver lining in that disappointment.

“Sometimes you have to take one step back to take two steps forward, and that gave us a lot of time with [Morozov], which is exactly what we needed, to prepare for Canadians and to prepare for an incredible second half of the season,” she said on conference call. “So we feel rested, we feel energized and excited to compete in Ottawa next week, and it’s a city with great memories for us and we’re really looking forward to it.”

The extra few weeks post-Grand Prix meant more time for technical refocusing. “It gave us time to really go back and work on the details of skating, basic skating, things that Nikolai really wanted to focus on but we didn’t have as much time as we wanted,” said Poje. “But it also gave us a chance to revisit some of our transitions and things like that in our programs, so really try to come over and see where we could build some more depth in our programs.”

Hoping to make their own statement this week are three-time silver medalists Piper Gilles and Paul Poirier, who enter Nationals with the second-highest international total for a Canadian team this season. Despite significant scoring growth in both components and execution, stiff competition at both events and a costly twizzle error at their second meant bronze at Skate Canada International and Trophée de France—not enough for Grand Prix Final qualification. Poirier characterized the first half of the season as “bittersweet.”

“These are things we want to put behind us as we head into the championship season,” he said. “We have a lot of confidence in our material and planning and that’s what we’ll have to rely on as we head into the next few important events.”

In the time since, they added further mileage with an outing at Skate Canada Challenge in December, and have made some minor modifications to their 1970s-centric short dance. “We reworked the pattern [sequence] after the Grand Prix season because we didn’t find throughout our fall competitions that we could properly pace the disco piece for maximum impact,” said Poirier. “This has helped with the consistency of the twizzles—usually a comfortable element for us—and with building the emotional momentum of the piece.”

Detail work has been the overall focus leading up to Nationals. “We’ve been targeting steps in transitions to maximize skating quality, finding small moments to cement the relationship between the characters, and generally improving unison and line,” he concluded.

Pair Meagan Duhamel and Eric Radford, who, like Virtue and Moir and Weaver and Poje, spoke on conference call, are coming into Ottawa with a special mission—become the first Canadian pair to win six national titles. But after an “up and down” autumn that included rougher than hoped-for skates at NHK Trophy and particularly at the Grand Prix Final, where they earned bronze, their major priority is making a stronger technical showing.

“We came home from the Grand Prix Final and kind of wanted to start fresh for the second half of the season,” said Duhamel. “So we’ve reset and made some changes to our programs, redirected our focus to what we wanted to do, and I think we’re feeling really, really good to start the second half of the season with Nationals.”

The short program’s throw triple axel—only cleanly landed once in international competition—has been replaced with a more reliable throw triple lutz, which, Radford notes, has improved speed and ice coverage. “I think the entire impression of the short program as a whole will kind of be changed, because the triple axel was extremely difficult and created a little bit of a cut in the flow and the energy of the program—even when we landed it, you could tell that something big was coming up,” he said.

In the long, they’ve replaced their previous jump layout—side-by-side triple lutzes and a triple toe-double toe-double toe combo—with side-by-side triple salchows and a triple lutz-double toe combo, the goal here to strengthen GOE and program flow. For enhanced choreographic impact, they’ve swapped the order of the pairs spin and second lift, feeling that the spin came at too dramatic a phrasing in the music, diminishing that moment’s potential effect. And in both programs, the triple twist, on which they’ve yet to attain a Level 4 this season, has become a key focus for improvement.

“We completely changed our steps going into it to ensure that it will be a Level 4,” said Duhamel. “The quality of our twist is improved with this, because the flow and the speed lends itself to a more effortless twist.”

For the second straight year, Duhamel and Radford were joined at the Grand Prix Final by another Canadian pair—2016 silver medalists Julianne Séguin and Charlie Bilodeau, who kicked off the fall with personal bests at Autumn Classic International and a career-first Grand Prix victory at Skate America, but struggled subsequently, placing fifth at both Rostelecom Cup and the Final.

The season was also not without its disruptions; after Rostelecom Cup, they swapped out a jazz-oriented short to Louis Armstrong’s “Skokiaan” for a return to last season’s well-received program to Cirque du Soleil’s “Monde Inverse.” On a conference call last month, the pair attributed the change to a matter of program comfort.

“We decided to change the short program at Cup of Russia, so as soon as we got back we just started to put the music on and tried to do it again, and it really just came like this,” said Bilodeau. “We were comfortable, and the first day we were more comfortable than with the short program that we had before. So we just continued on what we were doing last year.”

That change, as of December, also included scrapping ambitious side-by-side triple loops for the more reliable salchow. The simple goal there? Cleaner skates. “We know we will land it,” said Bilodeau.

Lubov Iliushechkina and Dylan Moscovitch, bronze medalists at last year’s event, are also coming off a somewhat mixed fall season. Bronze at Skate Canada International and Cup of China marked the pair’s best Grand Prix results yet, but came with some jump difficulties in the long program at both events.

The team, though, feel prepared to defend. “We are very excited for Nationals next week,” said Moscovitch. “We’ve been training really hard since Cup of China and feel very ready.”

And they come armed with some revisions of their own—an altered layout to their “When You Say You Love Me” long, with jumping passes moved up and now placed just after the twist. “We revised the layout to make it feel more fluid, mentally and physically,” said Moscovitch. “We feel comfortable with this layout as it is more similar to what we have used in the past.”

Also making a push for the podium in this tough field will be Kirsten Moore-Towers and Michael Marinaro, whose competitive season only really began last month at Challenge. After a concussion for her in August, the slow recovery process demanded that the pair withdraw from their fall events gradually, first postponing a Challenger Series debut—ultimately not to be—and then pulling out of their Grand Prix assignments at Rostelecom Cup and NHK Trophy. By December, they were ready to take on two complete skates in competition, but with limited time for advance run-throughs. The weeks since have proven fruitful. “We are feeling great and training really well,” said Marinaro. “We have some mileage now and are ready to make magic happen.”

At Challenge, the pair executed a planned single axel-half loop-triple salchow combo in the debut of their Un Ange Passe long, which they’ll upgrade here to a double axel; programs, technically and choreographically, otherwise remain unchanged.

“We are really looking forward to this national championships,” said Moore-Towers. “It’s been a bizarre season for us, but through it all I feel as though we’ve grown closer as a team. We are excited to show the strides we’ve made together and prove ourselves as one of Canada’s best.”

The overall race among seniors for national team positioning will also be one to watch. With the mid-season retirement of dancers Alexandra Paul and Mitch Islam, national team members annually since 2011-12, opportunity for that top five status is in reach for couples including Carolane Soucisse and Shane Firus, Haley Sales and Nikolas Wamsteeker and Sarah Arnold and Thomas Williams. Pairs will feature the contest between Brittany Jones and Joshua Reagan, who have had their most successful season together to date, and new pair Camille Ruest and Drew Wolfe, who have made good strides in a short time.

Competition in Ottawa begins Monday, January 16, with the novice and junior events; all are scheduled to be streamed via Dailymotion. Senior dance opens Friday with the short dance at 4:14 PM Eastern, while senior pairs kicks off that evening with the short program at 9:18 PM. Early skaters in the short and free segments may be streamed, while Canadian broadcasters TSN and CTV will air the final groups.

Starting orders, schedule and streaming links are available on the event website.