After a long, hard Olympic season, the skaters at this year's World Championships reveled in the adulation of their Japanese audience.
The Saitama Super Arena, just outside of Tokyo, was packed with over 18,000 skating fans who hung on the skaters' every move.
For many of the skaters - after performing for an often-disinterested and sometimes intimidating crowd at the Sochi Games - the Saitama audience was the perfect antidote to a physically and emotionally exhausting Olympic year. You could see the skaters take the ice with the knowing attitude of, "it doesn't get better than this!" and in the end, whether their performance was, in itself, a personal best or somewhat subpar, you could sense the their joy at being there and read the gratitude etched on their faces as they acknowledged their audiences, took their bows and soaked in the moment.
In return, the skaters rose up and delivered some of their best performances ever and fittingly, hometown heroes Mao Asada and Yuzuru Hanyu both won gold. On the way to her win, Mao set the highest Short Program score ever recorded and Yuzuru edged his teammate Tatsuki Machida by less than a point to become the first man in 12 years to win World and Olympic gold in the same year.
The Canadian Team, without recent Olympic medalists Tessa Virtue, Scott Moir and Patrick Chan, stepped up and won medals in both the Pairs and Dance. Canada also qualified one of the largest teams for next year's Worlds due in part to its depth in all four disciplines.
Kaitlyn Weaver and Andrew Poje won a silver in Dance - missing gold by the tiniest of margins - .02. They had back to back, awesome skates but their free dance for me was Weaver and Poje at their finest. Their connection to each other, their ability to capture the subtleties of the music and their powerful edge work, were highlighted in their masterful tango.
What stood out for me in their performance was the fact that their program is balanced in its difficulty throughout, not just during the required technical elements.
Their skating has continued to grow and develop this season and you could feel their momentum and their sense of purpose building in the days before the competition. So when a couple of the top teams had minor baubles and left the door ajar in the short dance, they strode through. They are the real deal and will be a force going forward. Canada was the only country to have three teams in the Top 10, which is awesome in itself but even more extraordinary when you look at the fact that Virtue and Moir where not there.
Canadian teams moved back to podium position in the pairs, with Meagan Duhamel and Eric Radford winning bronze and Kirsten Moore-Towers and Dylan Moscovitch finishing fourth. The differences are so small at the top of the field in pairs that both teams, who were terrific in Japan, will have to look for new ways to reinvent themselves if they are to challenge for the top of the podium in coming years.
Moore-Towers and Moscovitch were pretty much flawless in this event, but couldn't quite get to the podium which tells me that they may need to 'up the ante' technically. Their performance in the free was, I thought, one of the highlights of these World Championships but they were a little too far back in the short to make up the distance.
They have charming programs and are extremely well trained and capable which has served them well, but has left them just off the World podium two years in a row.
They need that little bit more and the challenge is where and how to get it? More technical risk most likely. Strategy is going to be key for them going forward.
Duhamel and Radford found that a little less worked for them here. Known for taking extreme risk, they simplified slightly going into some of their more difficult elements and that made all the difference for them, compared to Sochi. It freed them up to execute their elements cleanly, perform better and the medal was their just reward.
The results were disappointing for Kevin Reynolds and Kaetlyn Osmond in the singles events in Japan but they have both had that kind of a season. Much has gone wrong for them this year except when it mattered most. With an Olympic Medal on the line, they delivered big time at the team event in Sochi. Without their solid showing , Canada would not have won silver. That silver is the lining in an otherwise 'glad it's over' kind of season.
The good news is that there is a whole spring and summer ahead to regroup, heal and rebuild. Kaetlyn can - for the first time - look forward to two Grand Prix assignments this year. She qualified last year too, but injury took her out. It's what she needs the most, experience. She has come so far in such a short time with little international experience to build on.
In an Olympic season that is relentless, missing training time going in as both Kevin and Kaetlyn did, undermines everything. I believe that this approaching 'offseason' is a crucial time for them as they head into the next Olympic quadrennial. It's right now when they must make up for lost training time and get back on track.
Bright lights for team Canada at this year's Worlds were 15-year-old Nam Ngyuen and 16-year-old Gabby Daleman who both hit personal bests in their free programs and showed that they are ready for the big time. They were not intimidated at all by the size of the event or the numbers in the stands in fact they fed off it. Both are charming and feisty at the same time and one saw clearly that they aren't prepared to wait their turn.
So the stage is set for the next four years and from what we saw in Japan, Canada is in great shape going forward.