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Canada's Kaitlyn Weaver and Andrew Poje (L) perform during the Ice Dance Compulsory Dance at the 2010 BMO Canadian Figure Skating Championships London, Ontario, January 14, 2010.

MARK BLINCH/REUTERS

The absence of 2010 Olympic ice dance gold medalists Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir from the Canadian figure skating championships this week has left a void, but also an opportunity.

Vanessa Crone of Aurora, Ont., and Paul Poirier of Unionville, Ont., can move on up to their first senior national title after taking silver the past two years.

Kaitlyn Weaver and Andrew Poje of Waterloo, Ont., are coming off their best international season, and don't see why they can't be the top team, either. They were second in Canada three years ago, but third the past two. (Last season, they missed a spot on the Olympic team by only a half-point when Crone and Poirier edged them.)

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And then there's Alexandra Paul and Mitchell Islam of Barrie, Ont., last year's Canadian junior champions, who were a hit at the Skate Canada Grand Prix last October in Kingston with their precociousness.

Crone and Poirier have the best résumé, with a bronze medal at the Grand Prix Final last month.

"It was definitely a confident booster," said Crone, who had pulled a ligament in her bicep in practice before Skate America, where the pair took the silver medal. "We really went out there and proved to ourselves that our hard work is paying off. We're ready to be in that top group [in the world]"

Crone and Poirier are aiming to peak at the 2014 Sochi Olympics and follow in the golden footsteps of Virtue and Moir, who also claimed the national title in 2008, 2009 and 2010. (The three-time champs opted to skip nationals to allow Virtue more time to recover from surgery to alleviate the pain in her legs, the result of chronic exertional compartment syndrome.)

Crone and Poirier aren't thinking of Sochi just yet, however, setting small goals as they go, and they're not one bit upset that the defending Olympic champions are hanging around indefinitely, clouding their way to the top.

"I think [the continuing rivalry]would be awesome," Crone said. "They're great competitors and good teammates and good friends. They've made a huge impact on ice dancing. … Nobody knows what to expect from this next season, but I think they should just do what is right for them. And whether they are here or not, we're going to be training harder. And if they come back, then we'll work just that much harder."

Poje agrees, adding Virtue and Moir have lit a fire on the dance scene, showing Canadian and North American ice dancers have come to the fore in a sport formerly dominated by Europeans.

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"We've always wanted to push ourselves and Tessa and Scott help us to push ourselves," Poje said. "But when they're not here, then it gives us that extra little rush to step up and be that top team.

"We want to be the top team here and we want to show people that we're ready to be there."

Weaver and Poje have made strides in their skating, enough that they earned their way to the Grand Prix Final this year for the first time. They also claimed the silver medal at the 2010 NHK Trophy in Japan.

Missing out on the 2010 Olympic team made Weaver and Poje realize they may have approached things a little too timidly last year. In 2011, they promise to hold nothing back.

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