OTTAWA – Loaded with rookies, but brimming with promise — Canada’s young figure skating team for the Sochi Olympics might turn out to be its best ever.
Three-time world champion Patrick Chan and Olympic ice dance gold medallists Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir headline a 17-member Canadian figure skating team for Sochi that has 14 first-timers.
The team has set a goal for three medals in Sochi — in men’s singles, ice dance, and the new team event — which would match its best ever result of three in 1988 in Calgary.
But Canada’s figure skating team — the largest among all countries at the Games — has other podium threats in Meaghan Duhamel and Eric Radford, bronze medallists at the 2013 world championships, and ice dancers Kaitlyn Weaver and Andrew Poje, fifth at last year’s worlds.
“Do we have the potential to possibly get more? Yes,” said Skate Canada’s high performance director Mike Slipchuk. “But we don’t want to set a number that is possibly unattainable but also puts undue pressure on skaters that don’t need to feel that burden.
“We see it at every Olympic Games though, anything can happen. So if that door opens for an opportunity, then we’re ready to step right through.”
The No. 1-ranked Canadians are virtually a lock for a medal in the team event, which has a male, female, pairs team, and ice dance team from each country skate a short and long program.
For Chan, and Virtue and Moir, the team event that begins two days before the opening ceremonies, is the perfect chance to deal with some of the pressure they’ll be shouldering as gold medal favourites.
“It would be cool to have a medal in your pocket already going into your individual event,” Chan said. “I think it would be like ‘Hey the medal is really not that big of a deal.’ It’s exciting, it’s awesome, but we still have a job to do, there’s still life after winning a medal. It will relieve a lot of pressure on us individually.”
Virtue and Moir, who will have six days between the end of the team event and the beginning of their individual event, said there was never any question whether they would skate for a team medal, even if it means skating four times.
“Another shot on Olympic ice in front of that crowd and to get a shot at an Olympic gold medal, you’ve got to take it,” Moir said. “We’re good for that. We can do four performances.
“It’s so exciting, what a privilege to take the ice four times and compete for an Olympic medal,” Virtue said. “It’s also our job to be there and be in shape and represent Canada to the best of our ability. So that’s something we take really seriously.”
The team was unveiled in a ceremony Sunday following the Canadian championships that saw a couple of surprises. Fifteen-year-old Gabrielle Daleman of Newmarket, Ont., won silver in women’s singles and was named to the team, while Liam Firus, a 21-year-old from North Vancouver, B.C., snuck in to grab the third spot in men’s singles.
There were hugs and tears as each skater was called up one by one and presented with a red and white Canada team jacket.
“We’re right here smack dab in the middle of our dream come true,” said Duhamel who won her third consecutive national pairs title with Radford. “We’re living our dream, and there’s nowhere that I or Eric would rather be right now and I think that we’re a little bit in shock and excited, elated, and relieved.”
Duhamel and Radford are also thrilled to kick off their first Games with the team event, which will see the top five countries after the short program advance to the long program.
“We’re going to win a gold medal in the team event and that’s the most amazing thing, and Eric and I will skate 10 times if we need to to take a part of it,” Duhamel said.
Teams can switch up to two members between the short and long programs. Because of the quick turnaround with men’s singles and pairs, Canada will probably use its substitutions in those events.
The 10 teams competing, based on world ranking, are: Canada, Russia, the U.S., Japan, Italy, France, China, Germany, Ukraine, and Great Britain.
Canada won two medals four years ago in Vancouver: Virtue and Moir’s gold in ice dance, and a bronze by Joannie Rochette in women’s singles.
The 24-year-old Virtue and Moir, 26, are expected to retire after the Games, closing the curtains on a competitive partnership that has spanned almost two decades.
The veterans have gladly taken on the responsibility as leaders of this young team.
“It’s something we take pretty seriously,” Moir said. “It’s going to be a very different Games, so for Tessa and I preparing, part of our process is to kind of start brand new and not expect it to be Vancouver.
“But we do have some experiences that some of the other team members don’t have. We’re going to help them as much as we can. Figure skating is unique, you go there as a team, you live together, it’s a family feeling. Tessa and I take that role very seriously.”
Skate Canada officials felt the Canadian championships provided plenty of optimism not just for Sochi, but for international competition down the road.
“It was a great week of skating and just felt really good about the momentum the team has right now and for the next two weeks before we get to Sochi,” Slipchuk said.
Slipchuk was pleasantly surprised by the men’s competition — third place, which Firus claimed, was a virtual toss-up going into the event.
The women’s event also held plenty of promise, with teenagers dominating the field.
“Again, the six ladies that were in the last flight (of six skaters), it could of went anywhere,” Slipchuk said. “That was another positive for us to see. And more encouraging. . . there’s just a lot coming up through there. What has been established by Kaetlyn two years ago, these girls have just picked up and they’re challenging her, and that’s what we want to see.”
Figure skating events run every day of the Games except for on the days of the opening and closing ceremonies.