Sensational skates at the Grand Prix Final are boding well for Sochi, as the fields close in and rivalries heat up.
As the season progresses, the gaps are narrowing and the fields are closing in on the leaders. A week ago, there wasn't an obvious challenger in the men's or pairs' event.
In fact, heading into the Grand Prix Final in Japan, it was difficult to imagine that the defending champions could be beaten. Patrick Chan had an enormous 30-point lead over the rest of the men in this season's scores and so did the defending world pair champions from Russia - Tatiana Volosozhar and Maxim Trankov - who had the same 30-point margin over the rest of the teams.
Patrick faltered in the short program in Japan and Tatiana and Max in the free program to open the door, but what was intriguing in both cases was the way that the challengers stepped up and that the underdogs won.
Yuzuru Hanyu from Japan hit one out of the park in the short program breaking Patrick's world record that he set just two weeks ago. It all came together for Yuzuru in that performance, as he aggressively attacked the jumps and played with the music to sell his program to his hometown audience. It was an easy sell and they ate it up to help lift Yuzuru to a record-breaking skate where he missed the 100-point mark by a slim .16.
As Coach Brian Orser said when the marks were posted, "Sooooo close!" Patrick and Yuzuru both delivered strong free programs each with one mistake, but the edge went to Hanyu and Patrick had his first loss of the season.
Patrick, of course - barring injury - has his Olympic spot locked up. There's no doubt he will go as this country's No. 1 guy.
That's not the case for Yuzuru, who's fighting for his Olympic life. He's up against five other guys who are all capable and who are all fighting for three spots. With the new world record in the short program, the second best freeskate and total scores ever and with the win over Chan, one would think Yuzuru might be awarded one of those coveted spots to Sochi.
But no such spot has been given and the Japanese team will be named after their nationals - which take place just before Christmas.
Patrick can find new motivation in the fact that he'll be pushed and he will indeed need two great skates like he had two weeks ago in Paris to win Olympic Gold. The Russian pairs take the same knowledge into the holiday season with the loss to the German team of Aliona Savchenko and Robin Szolkowy. It is the kind of knowledge one needs at this time of year, lest one sits back and gets too comfortable.
It was expected that the Ice Dance would be a close contest in Japan. While defending world champions Meryl Davis and Charlie White received better scores all season than Olympic Champions Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir, one could sense that Tessa and Scott were working out the kinks early in the series. And in Japan they put the technical glitches behind them and had stunning performances in both the Short and Free Dance.
Meryl and Charlie brought their 'A' game as well and came away with the win. And once again we were reminded how lucky we are to have two teams of their calibre at the same time.
It was a terrific event and a moment that stood out for me was the look on the faces of Tessa and Scott after the free dance. Total satisfaction - a look that's been missing of late.
When you're competing there are always the little things that you've done better in practice or things you had to fight through, that weren't quite right and when you finish your skate those things immediately flash through your mind and the instant self evaluation is briefly written on your face. Tessa's appraisal was immediate. Her eyes flashed in delight and she said 'yes.'
Totally satisfied. That was the performance they had been reaching for. They now have the momentum and as their rivalry demands, will have to build on it. They have to dig deep and soul search in order to answer the questions.
"What more can we do?"
"What's next to fine tune?"
The same questions that Meryl and Charlie are now asking in light of their narrow win. This is why we're so fortunate to have these two great teams. As they drive each other to strategically find the edge, they find new levels of excellence and we the audience are ultimately the winners.
In the ladies' event the clear winner in Japan was indeed the favourite going in, hometown heroine Olympic Silver medalist Mao Asada. While it was no surprise to me that Mao won gold what was surprising, actually I was quite shocked, was her captivating short program. In fact, it ranks as one of my all time favourite skates. In a word, she was brilliant and when I rack my brain for comparisons, it would be Olympic champion and the defending world champion Yuna Kim.
Yuna missed the Grand Prix season due to injury and competed in a 'B' international to gain some competition mileage for her new material, while the Final was taking place. She received some impressive scores and so the stage is set for a showdown in the ladies event in Sochi. Mao and Yuna - a rematch from 2010. Yuna by all accounts is on track to be as good as ever, while Mao is new and improved. Her jumping arsenal is bigger and better and artistically she is skating, with more joy, heartfelt emotion and conviction than ever before.
Let the games begin!