Ice dancing will crown new world champions this coming weekend at the World Figure Skating Championships in Saitama, Japan, for the first time since 2011.
The discipline that has been dominated by two teams since before the Vancouver Games will be without both of those duos, Americans Meryl Davis and Charlie White as well as Canadians Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir sitting out the competition to assess their respective futures.
So who will step up? That remains to be seen.
Yelena Ilinykh and Nikita Katsalapov were the breakthrough ice dancing stars at the Sochi Games last month, the Russians winning their first medal on the world stage with a bronze at the Olympics.
They headline a field that includes a mix of veterans and up-and-comers.
The U.S., without the experienced team of Davis/White, will look to Madison Chock and Evan Bates (eighth in Sochi) and Maia and Alex Shibutani (ninth) for solid results. A third team, Alexa Aldridge and Daniel Eaton, will also compete.
— Alexandra/Daniel (@AldridgeEaton) March 24, 2014
“Our Olympic experience both on the ice and off the ice was a culmination of a ten-year chapter in our lives,” Alex Shibutani said in a phone interview with NBCSports.com last week. “It was difficult to come back and corral that energy at first, but we felt that our skating at the Olympics was really strong. We’ve been training really, really well the last few weeks.”
To maintain the three spots at the World Championships in 2015, Chock/Bates and the Shibutanis will need to combine for 13th overall. (Aldridge/Eaton are not considered to factor into that equation.)
“We never really go into a competition seeking placement or put too much emphasis on where we want to be,” Alex noted. “We just want to skate the best we have all year.”
The field is wide open without the top two teams. French veterans Nathalie Pechalat and Fabian Bourzat will look to recapture their bronze medal from Worlds in 2012. Pechalat/Bourzat were fourth in Sochi and have said this will be their final competition.
The field also includes Yekaterina Bobrova and Dimitry Soloviyev of Russia (fifth in Sochi), Anna Cappellini and Luca Lanotte (sixth) and Canadians Kaitlyn Weaver and Andrew Poje.
Other than Pechalat/Bourzat, Bobrova/Soloviyev and the Shibutanis are the only teams to have won a medal at Worlds in the past, the Russians taking bronze last year and the Americans doing so in 2011.
“We’re in such a good place going into this Worlds,” Maia said. “We feel like we’ve reached a whole other level since Sochi, which is really exciting for us.”
The Shibutanis train at the same rink as Davis/White and Virtue/Moir under the tutelage of coach Marina Zoueva. The Shibutanis said Zoueva’s focus has been solely on them since returning from Russia, a welcomed change in their routine. Davis/White are participating in “Dancing With the Stars” this season.
But what will Worlds be like without their team leaders and the Olympic champions?
“We’ve traveled with Meryl and Charlie more than any other team, so we have a very close relationship with them,” said the Michigan-based Alex. “There was always a great dynamic for us training with the top two teams in the world over the past six years because the skating level was so high.”
Without the home crowd to boost them, it could be a race to gold for the Russian teams of Ilinykh/Katsalapov and Bobrova/Soloviyev, with Pechalat/Bourzat and Cappellini/Lanotte nipping at their skates. Cappellini/Lanotte won the European Championships in January.
Yet a “favorite” stamp should go to Ilinykh/Katsalapov, whose dark interpretation of “Swan Lake” brought the house down in Sochi and could bring them gold in Saitama.
Icenetwork.com will provide live coverage for subscribers. The short dance is set for Thursday night (9:50 p.m. ET) and the free dance will take place Friday (11:30 p.m. ET). NBC will air a World Championships recap show April 13 from 3-6 p.m. ET.