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Phaneuf is surprise leader at Canadians

Virtue, Moir strengthen lead in ice dancing at Canadian championships

Cynthia Phaneuf, who won the Canadian title in 2004, is back on top after Friday's short.
Cynthia Phaneuf, who won the Canadian title in 2004, is back on top after Friday's short. (Getty Images)

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By Laurie Nealin, special to icenetwork.com
(01/16/2009) - Quebec women went 1-2-3 in the short program at the 2009 BMO Canadian Championships on Friday afternoon, but the leader isn't who everyone expected it to be.

Four-time defending champion Joannie Rochette made two major errors and one minor one on three jump elements and had to settle for second behind Cynthia Phaneuf.

Phaneuf celebrated her 21st birthday in style on Friday, putting 55.16 points up on the board to Rochette's 53.58. Amélie Lacoste is third with 53.55.

At 15, Phaneuf was the 2004 national champion and has been on the comeback trail ever since. A major growth spurt and injuries thwarted her ambitions for three years. It also shattered her confidence, but Phaneuf has been working with a sports psychologist to change that.

"Before, I was all stressed out on the [competition] ice. I wasn't able to use my stress well. Now I can use it the right way," Phaneuf said.

"I'm feeling so good for my birthday. Even if I did one mistake, I just felt so good on the ice," she said, referring to her fall on the triple Lutz, which was supposed to be part of her jump combination.

"My goal is to be on the world team. I don't have a lot of pressure. I just want to have fun [in the final], like I had today. I just want to skate well and go out with the same smile I had today."

Canada has just two berths for women at the world championships in Los Angeles.

Phaneuf opened her sophisticated program with a soaring double Axel and treated the audience to three fabulous, fast-turning spins, including a unique layback spin performed on a forward-outside edge. Her spins were all graded Level 3 or 4 in difficulty.

Rochette's troubles started early when she singled her planned double Axel. The triple flip-triple toe jump combination looked good, but the technical panel downgraded the second jump. Finally, Rochette fell on her triple Lutz.

Coach Manon Perron suggested her skater put too much pressure on herself.

"She wants to do so good. She forced things. It's just wanting it too much. She just has to be more loose and go into it with more freedom," Perron said.

The short program has been problematic for Rochette this season, particularly at the Grand Prix Final where she was last among the six finalists. Her goal here was to finally get a clean short under her belt. It didn't happen, and Rochette is determined to change that.

"I've been training really well in practice, so I know it's not my training that is wrong here," said Rochette, whose season goal is to land on the world podium.

"I felt good in the warm-up. I did two jumps of each. ... I just have to figure out why I'm getting so stiff like that in the short program and make a change in my preparation for that."

All is not lost for Rochette. Based on her long program performances earlier in the season, she should have little difficulty overtaking Phaneuf in Saturday's final to claim her fifth Canadian crown.

Meanwhile, Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir brought the Saskatoon audience to its feet in their rendition of a 1920s Charleston. The judges liked it too, awarding the world silver medalists virtually unbeatable scores.

With 63.76 for their original dance, Virtue and Moir have amassed 103.09 points through the first two rounds. After missing the first half of the season as Virtue recovered from surgery on both shins, they are all but guaranteed to repeat as Canadian champions.

Virtue and Moir, who train in Detroit, offered a cleverly choreographed routine with charming character nuances woven into the steps. Virtue said they were going for a Great Gatsby-like feel.

Their competition here will serve as a "building block" to the 2009 Four Continents Championships and the 2009 World Championships, Moir said.

Vanessa Crone and Paul Poirier are second overall with a substantial lead -- 91.18 to 84.81 -- over Texas-born Kaitlyn Weaver and Ontario native Andrew Poje. It will be nearly impossible for Weaver and Poje, the 2008 national silver medalists, to close that gap in tomorrow's free dance final.

Asked about rivals Crone and Poirier, Weaver said, "They are a very good team, and they have a lot of things that judges are looking for right now, which is the levels [of difficulty]. That's something we can learn from them -- that they're always consistent.

"We feel we can bring more emotion, more maturity to the competition, so we're capitalizing on that but also making sure we don't have a weakness. We can only focus on ourselves, what our goal is. They have a lot of great hype behind them, but we still believe in ourselves," she added.

Crone and Poirier, the 2008 world junior silver medalists, who were fourth nationally a year ago, turned heads during the Grand Prix season, winning the silver medal at Skate Canada in November. They are an athletic duo, as was evidenced by the highly difficult spins and lifts in their Chaplin-esque original dance set to ragtime piano music by Scott Joplin.

The women's and ice dance finals are Saturday.