LONDON, Ontario - In the one skating event that is really a North American showdown, U.S. ice dancers Meryl Davis and Charlie White are already making life difficult for the hosts at the World Championships -- the last chance to establish international pecking order before the Olympics. Davis and White produced a world-record score of 77.12 points in the short dance Thursday to grab a strong 3.25-point lead and put home town favorites Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir into a hole ahead of Saturday's free dance. Virtue and Moir enter as defending Olympic gold medalists and world champions in 2010 and 2012. Davis and White were silver medalists at the Games and world champs in 2011.
With a year to go before the Olympics, the two couples are almost certain to finish one-two at the Sochi Games in the one skating event that rarely has falls and is, therefore, the most predictable. Even so, such a gap between the top two places was entirely unexpected. "It was our best-ever skate," said White. 'You know it's a good sign if you're smiling from beginning to end . . . It was one of those dream skates."
Though the Canadians skated well, Moir took responsibility for a small footwork error he said left his couple behind. "I missed a level on our side-by-side [spins], so it wasn't a perfect program," he said. "But honestly this is the one time when I can say we don't care what the judges think. We're skating for our friends here."
Virtue and Moir were both born in London and the shops near the arena are dotted with posters of the two skaters. Moir said he was surprised by the lower scores. "It's disappointing and unexpected," he said, "but that will make us stronger on Saturday." With an ambitious free skate planned to the music of Carmen, Virtue and Moir can hardly be counted out. Their last big, four-minute program on home ice at a major competition earned them gold at the Vancouver Games and was one of the sport's most captivating free dances. "We're further behind than we'd like to be now," Virtue said, "but we're very confident in our program."
Count Kim Yu-na's return to major international skating as a success. The Olympic champion from South Korea took two years off from competition and with just limited skating under her belt this season, she took the lead after the ladies short program Thursday. Kim looked very much like the woman who handily won gold at the Vancouver Olympics with style and grace that left her well ahead of the field. The layoff and subsequent years of post-Olympic celebrity left questions about how well she would fare with a comeback. Kim quickly answered those questions. On Thursday, she hit each of her jumps, including the triple Lutz-triple toe combination early in the program and had only a slight mistake on her first spin that she shortened after getting off balance at the beginning.
But what is it that makes Kim stand out? "Well, when she skates, it really looks like a program," says Ashley Wagner, the top U.S. skater in fifth place. "It's a complete story from start to finish." And how did Kim rate her performance? "Apart from the first spin," she said, "I would give myself a hundred percent."
Kim holds a three point lead over Italy's Carolina Kostner after the first day's competition, followed by Japan's Kanako Murakami, Canada's Kaetlyn Osmond and Wagner. Gracie Gold, the other U.S. skater, is in ninth place.
The positions for Wagner and Gold have significant implications for next year's Olympic team. If the placements of the two U.S. women add up to 13 or less, the U.S. team will have three entries in the women's competition in Sochi. If that number is 14, as it stands now, or higher, the team will have only two skaters. You can be sure Mirai Nagasu, Christina Gao, Agnes Zawadzki, Courtney Hicks and company are huge fans of Wagner and Gold this week.
Wagner called her program "very conservative, very safe." She planned a risky opening jump, a triple flip, triple toe loop, but turned the second jump into a double. That wasn't a mistake, because she landed the jumps cleanly, but she still gave away points that could have improved her standing. "The first jump was a little unsure," she said. "So my coach [John Nicks] told me before the program to play it safe if it didn't feel right." Look for Wagner to be more aggressive in Saturday's free skate. "Absolutely you can take more chances in the long program because there are more elements," she said. "A mistake means more here and I want to be sure we get three girls on the Olympic team."
Competing at her first worlds, Gold was relatively clean. Judges hit her for one bad spin and a missed edge, but she had no major blunders. That was a huge improvement over her performance at Nationals this winter, when she earned the top score in the free skate after a disappointing short program. "I was glad I could show the judges what I could do under pressure," she said. "It's a big step to see the idols you saw on TV sitting next to you in the locker room."
Kostner was an unlikely world champion in 2012, especially since she had never won a world or Olympic title until her tenth try. Kostner then raised some eyebrows by deciding not to compete on the international grand prix circuit this year before coming to worlds. Kostner said she stayed away simply because she needed time to herself. "I had already given up [on winning a major title,] before it happened," she said. "So this season, I had to take time for Carolina, to be a normal 25-year old." Against a trend of high-kicking, slick-jumping elves, Kostner still stands out from the crowd. "I have had a lot of time to think about what figure skating should be," she says. "I think it should be a form of art, and not just jumping. I'm not a person who talks a lot, so figure skating gives me a chance to express myself."
Always a pre-meet contender, Japan's Mao Asada, a two-time world champion, also faltered, pulling out of her third a jump in the program, a triple loop, and turning it into a single. "My weight was not on my edge as it should have been," said Asada, who stands sixth and has considerable ground to make up being 7.87 points down. "I wanted to do what I did at Four Continents, so I'm sorry about the result."