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Virtue, Moir win CD; Pang, Tong lead pairs

Canadians open strong in first afternoon at Four Continents

Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir won Wednesday's Finnstep at Four Continents.
Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir won Wednesday's Finnstep at Four Continents. (Getty Images)

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By Laurie Nealin, special to icenetwork.com
(02/04/2009) - The Finnstep -- figure skating's newest compulsory dance, which made its North American debut today at the 2009 ISU Four Continents Championships -- is proving to be hazardous to some ice dancers' health.

A little over a week ago at the 2009 European Championships, the defending champions, Russia's Oksana Domnina and Maxim Shabalin, withdrew after he fell during the Finnstep and re-injured his wonky knee.

Shae-Lynn Bourne, the 2003 world ice dance champion with Victor Kraatz and current coach of Canada's Kaitlyn Weaver and Andrew Poje, said, "The timing can make or break you. It is definitely the fastest dance. It's like a ballroom quickstep with lots of runs, hops and toe-steps, and they do the steps very close together."

Fortunately, all 11 couples made it through Wednesday's compulsory round without incident at Vancouver's Pacific Coliseum.

Canada's world silver medalists Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir fended off a strong challenge from their American training mates, Meryl Davis and Charlie White, to top the leaderboard heading into Thursday's original dance.

Virtue and Moir, winners of this event last year, scored 36.40 points for their Finnstep; Davis and White earned 35.23 for theirs. Canadian youngsters, Vanessa Crone, 18, and Paul Poirier, 17, are third with a score of 32.43.

Virtue and Moir admitted they had only been able to seriously train the dance in the last 10 days or so, as Virtue continued her rehabilitation from surgery to her shins last October.

"I'm feeling stronger every day and continuing recovery. At least we're on the other side of [the Finnstep] now," said Virtue, who missed the entire 2008 Grand Prix Series because of her injury.

"You have to take your hat off to Tessa. I don't think very many people could have come back as fast as she has. It's a battle every day," Moir said.

Davis and White, the newly-crowned U.S. champions, were absolutely beaming when they finished their Finnstep.

"There's always little things that could have gone better. Overall, we couldn't be happier," White said.

The Americans won silver a year ago when this championship was held in South Korea.

Virtue said she has been impressed with the improvements her good friends Davis and White have made this season: "Meryl and Charlie are looking so good. We're so proud of the work they've put in. It's been interesting to watch how their programs progressed, how they've evolved. So we're excited for them," she said.

Davis and White are equally impressed with their friends' determination to overcome their setback.

"They've been handling it better than anyone can imagine," Davis offered.

Emily Samuelson and Evan Bates, the 2008 world junior champions, thoroughly enjoyed their ISU senior championship debut, ranking fourth with 31.41 points.

"It was incredible. That's the biggest compulsory dance crowd we've ever seen," said Bates, who, with Samuelson, won the U.S. silver medal just over a week ago in Cleveland.

"I think we might be the last team in the history of ice dance to compete the Finnstep -- we're pretty excited about that," he chuckled, referring to the possibility that the ISU will eliminate compulsory dances from competition, like what happened with compulsory figures in 1990.

Weaver and Poje, the third-ranked Canadian couple, placed fifth (30.62) on Wednesday, but they came close to being sidelined by the lightening-quick Finnstep, even before the competition began. The Texas-born Weaver came out of her practice Tuesday morning with a bloody gash that required sutures to close.

"On the double twizzle at the very end of the pattern, we got a little too close, and Andrew's heel [of the blade] nicked my left knee and I have an inch or so cut," Weaver said. "It's not bothering me when I skate this dance. I just have to make sure I keep icing it."

The third American team, Kimberly Navarro and Brent Bommentre, are a sliver out of the top five with 30.59, just three hundredths of a point behind Weaver and Poje.

This week in Vancouver, competitors from the Americas, Asia, Africa and Australia are getting a taste of what it will be like to compete at the 2010 Olympic Games in this city. The venue is the same one where the Olympic figure skating and short track speed skating will be contested. This week's competition is doubling as the official test event for the Games.

"It's hard to drive around or walk around Vancouver without [the Olympics] crossing your mind," Davis said. "Everywhere you look there's some kind of preparation happening."

Pairs

China's Qing Pang and Jian Tong and Dan Zhang and Hao Zhang, who recently finished 1-2, respectively, at the Grand Prix Final, staked their claim to the pairs podium in Vancouver as well. Pang and Tong won the short program with 65.60 points; Zhang and Zhang were third with 63.20.

Pang and Tong, who won last year at Four Continents, took first place despite Pang doubling her planned triple toe loop and both of them struggling with their individual spins in their routine set to the sultry strains of "Midnight Blues."

Tong suggested that the movements that did go well, such as their huge throw triple loop, might have countered the points lost for their miscues. The personable duo said they were very pleased to be back competing in Canada for the first time since the world championships in Calgary in 2006.

World bronze medalists Jessica Dubé and Bryce Davison took second place with 64.36 points. Skating to "Fix You" by Coldplay, the Canadians delivered the short program performance they had been hoping for all season, hitting every element without any major faults. They did, however, take a one-point deduction for going one second over the allowed skating time.

"Other than that [deduction], we're really happy, and we did a very nice performance," Davison said.

Dubé noted that when their part-time mentor David Pelletier is at the boards, they seem to deliver strong performances.

"He stays so calm. He always knows what to say to us to help us stay focused," she said of Pelletier, who was the 2002 Olympic pairs co-gold medalist with on- and off-ice partner Jamie Salé.

Zhang and Zhang, who are not related, took the world silver medal a year ago. On Wednesday, they showed the most spectacular tricks -- a gigantic triple twist and throw triple loop -- but she singled her Salchow.

Canada's Meagan Duhamel and Craig Buntin, in their second season together, are fourth with 62.08 points.

Veterans Rena Inoue and John Baldwin of the U.S., appearing at Four Continents for the sixth time, are well back in fifth with 56.78 points. Their teammates, Keauna McLaughlin and Rockne Brubaker, who won their second straight national title a little more than a week ago, are in seventh in their Four Continents debut. McLaughlin, 16, was too young to compete at this event last year. Both couples struggled on some of their elements, and McLaughlin went down on their throw triple loop.

The final American duo, rookies Caydee Denney and Jeremy Barrett, who won the short program last month at the 2009 AT&T U.S. Figure Skating Championships en route to a silver-medal finish, delivered a solid program to rank eighth among 11 pairs with 53.60 points. They showed a huge triple twist and excellent unison on their side-by-spins, but Denney stepped off the landing of their throw triple Lutz and their death spiral slowed noticeably after the hand change.

"It felt good. We had a great warm-up -- nice and calm. It wasn't our best program of the year, but we fought for everything," Barrett said. "Our main focus is worlds and making sure we're prepared for that."

The pairs final is slated for 4:35 p.m. ET on Thursday.