The 2014 World Figure Skating Championships begin this week in Tokyo. With Olympic champions in three of the four disciplines on the sidelines for various reasons, it is as though the page has been turned to the next Olympic quadrennial.
We will get a glimpse of the future of the sport and meet some of skating's up-and-coming talent like the new world junior champion, 15-year-old Nam Nguyen of Canada while at the same time celebrating some of the sport's stars.
The setting for this year's Worlds is perfect in that Japan is a country that is passionate about its skaters and skating. It is the quintessential skating audience; enthusiastic, appreciative and massive.
The Saitama Super Arena just outside of Tokyo holds 18,000 spectators and is predicting sell-out crowds and record-breaking attendances. The only Olympic champion from Sochi that is here is the one that matters most to these fans, hometown hero Yuzuru Hanyu. He, alongside the immensely popular Mao Asada, leads a strong Japanese contingent which could dominate in the men's and ladies competitions.
While Yuzuru is the favorite in the men's, his competition is expected to come from his training mate, Javier Fernandez of Spain and his teammate Tatsuki Machida. Asada will face Olympic bronze medalist Carolina Kostner of Italy, Russian teenager and the star of the team event in Sochi, Julia Lipnitskaya, and American Gracie Gold.
While there is a lot to get excited about here in Tokyo, Canadian superstars Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir as well as Patrick Chan will sit this one out and be much missed. Even without Tessa, Scott and Patrick, Canada is still in the hunt for three medals. With the Canadian champions out of the dance and men's, Kaitlyn Weaver and Andrew Poje along with Kevin Reynolds will get their turn to move from the shadows into the spotlight and, they hope, onto the podium.
Kaitlyn and Andrew have a clear shot at a medal. In typical Weaver and Poje fashion, they have not let up after the Games and have continued to push themselves and refine their routines. I find their improvement since the Games impressive. With the top two dance teams from Olympics out, Kaitlyn and Andrew are squarely in the mix of five teams for the podium. The race is tight, but a podium finish is in their sights and well within their capabilities.
Kevin Reynolds finished fifth at last year's Worlds but with injuries and boot problems, he has struggled this year. He did not have his best skates in the individual event in Sochi and finished 15th. We saw what he was capable of during the team competition where he laid down a stellar free skate, playing an integral role in Canada's silver medal win. He has had another month of training under his belt since the Games and he loves to skate in Japan where he has an adoring fan base. I expect that these circumstances will combine to give Kevin an outside shot at a medal. After a frustrating year, Kevin has a chance for redemption and he just may have timed it perfectly to finish on a high.
Another Canadian team member who is looking for redemption after a frustrating season is Canada's ladies champion Kaetlyn Osmond, who was plagued by injuries this season. Her break-out year last season culminated in an eighth place finish at her first ever World Championships, a remarkable debut. Her lack of training time has unsettled her this season but I have watched her handle it well with the help of her coach, Ravi Walia. She has a sparkle and exuberance that needs to be strategically disciplined in order to give her the consistency she is looking for without losing the fire. This is something that can only come with time as well as trial and error. When Kaetlyn finds her groove, she can compete with the best of them. A medal may be out of her grasp in Tokyo but there is no doubt in my mind that Kaetlyn can establish herself as one of the contenders in this new Olympic cycle.
Canada has two pairs going for the podium. Kirsten Moore-Towers and Dylan Moskvitch were fifth at the Games while Megan Duhammel and Eric Radford were eighth. They were third and fourth in the world last year and will look for similar results here. Kirsten and Dylan are known to charm their audiences and if they are to get the results they are looking for, they will have to deliver the technical details while winning over the fans.
They can go clean and will need to if they are to medal. Meagan and Eric will try to bring home the hardware by capitalizing on their strengths as individuals, the ability to do difficult side-by-side triples, to give them the edge. They take big risks to maximize points and while it didn't pay off in the individual event in Sochi, it often does and you can expect it will here, too. The Olympic pairs champions are not here but competition will still be fierce with teams from Russia, Germany and China battling the Canadians for the top spots.