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The podium results of (left to right) Scott Moir, Tessa Virtue, Jeffrey Buttle, Jessica Dub and Bryce Davison at last year's world championships, have catapulted Canada into a figure-skating powerhouse. ((Paul Chiasson/Canadian Press))

The 2010 Olympic Winter Games in Vancouver are less than 16 months away. That means the race to make Canada's Olympic figure skating team starts now.

"Every season is important but we have to look at having the best possible team for 2010," says Michael Slipchuk, Skate Canada's high performance director.

"Next year is the most important obviously, but I think of this as an 18-month training plan with worlds in the middle of it."

Canadian skaters topped the medal count at the world championships last season in Sweden, reaching the podium in three of the four disciplines. Jeffrey Buttle highlighted Canada's performance by winning men's title. The ice dance team of Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir earned silver, while teammates Jessica Dubé and Bryce Davison captured bronze in the pairs. The results in Sweden have catapulted Canada into a powerhouse in this sport.

Canadian success no fluke

Slipchuk says that the success is no fluke.

"It's a testament to the hard work done by the coaches and the skaters," he boasted. "I think that the success that we had at worlds last year has flowed through skating in our country. We are having some wonderful success on the junior grand prix circuit, which will translate [into a] strength in the future for the senior ranks."

Skaters will be carefully weighing the odds of what to include in a free program in the light of new rules this season. In singles, there are higher evaluations for both successful quad jumps and the triple axel. There are also higher penalties for falls on these elements.

Skaters must decide if it is worth their while to attempt one of these jumps if they aren't confident about their ability to land it.  As examples, a fall on a fully rotated quad toe would reduce the value to that of a triple toe, and the same fall on the triple axel will make that jump worth less than a cleanly executed double axel.  Single skaters will also be required to perform three spins rather than four in their free program.

Also, be prepared for more pairs teams to include lifts later in their free programs.  The 10 per cent bonus for elements included in the second half of the program has been expanded to include lifts in addition to the jumps and throws.

Driving force

Dr. Patricia Chafe is Canada's secret weapon.

She was one of the driving forces behind the creation of the new judging system, the training of Canadian officials, and knows it better than anyone.

Assessing the programs of Canada's top skaters is her focus.

Chafe helps them find "all of the little things in a program that add up to more points in the total score in the end."

She works with the coaches and the skaters to optimize their scoring potential, "which is giving them the confidence in their skating to know what is possible."

It's this kind of in-depth knowledge that can give Canadian skaters the competitive edge.

Canada's secret weapon

Skate Canada's secret weapon in disseminating all of this information is Dr. Patricia Chafe, who has a PhD in mathematics. She is the organization's consultant in performance analysis.

"Our skaters are at a point where they have a depth of knowledge about the system enabling them to no longer think about it and just skate," she says.

The international landscape has also undergone some dramatic changes. Within the last month, Buttle and two-time world champion Stephane Lambiel of Switzerland have announced their respective retirements from amateur competition. With the door open, any number of skaters could take the top spot. Japan's Nobunari Oda is back after a one-year absence, as are world medallists Johnny Weir from the U.S., (bronze in 2008), Japan's Daisuke Takahashi (silver in 2007), and 2008 European Champion Tomasz Verner of the Czech Republic. 

France's Brian Joubert has the most to prove and is intent on regaining the world title he lost in 2008. A field this even also means that skaters like Canada's men's champion, Patrick Chan, can make a charge on the world podium. The good news for Canada is it has three spots available for the world team on the men's side.

Asia tops ladies field

Asia dominates the ladies field with Mao Asada of Japan leading the way as the defending world champion. She is closely pursued by rival and two-time world bronze medallist from South Korea, Yu-Na Kim.

Canada's champion, Joannie Rochette, will definitely be in the mix. She's a skater that has maturity and the tricks needed to land a medal at this year's worlds. Italy's Carolina Kostner can be inconsistent, and others like the Americans Kimmie Meissner, Caroline Zhang and Ashley Wagner, have all had issues with under rotating jumps. Canada will send two entries to the world championships.

Dubé and Davison, meanwhile have added a triple twist to their repertoire, giving them an edge as one of three possible Canadian pairs team for the worlds.

The trick in this event is to skate two clean programs. Defending world champions Aliona Savchenko and Robin Szolkowy from Germany are looking to stay the course, hoping for back-to-back titles.

The 2006 champions Qing Pang and Jian Tong of China, along with compatriots and 2006 Olympic silver medallists Dan Zhang and Hao Zhang, are equally determined to not let that happen.

Virtue, Moir new face of ice dancing

Canada's Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir continue to be the new face of ice dancing with leading edge programs combining artistry and athleticism. The Canadian duo are a formidable team for anyone, including defending world champions Isabelle Delobel and Olivier Schoenfelder from France.

As a side note, one of the compulsory dances for the season will be the Finnstep or Sunshine Quickstep, created by 1995 European champions and world silver medallists from Finland, Susanna Rahkamo and Petri Kokko. The dances are beyond complex.

Look for renewed energy and strength from American dance champions and three-time world medallists, Tanith Belbin and Benjamin Agosto, as well as the senior Grand Prix debut of Canadian 2008 world junior silver medallists Vanessa Crone and Paul Poirier.

"Worlds will be the most important event this season as it is there that the number of entries for the Olympic Games will be decided. We are looking for a minimum of two entries per discipline and are very optimistic that what you need is well-rounded skaters which is what we are seeing," says Slipchuk.

Added Chafe: "I think in particular because of the size of our Grand Prix and world teams this year, there are lots of opportunities for potential Olympians to learn everything they can from high level competition which will help them achieve optimal performance at the Olympic Games."