Budweiser Gardens is a long way from Sochi, Russia, but not in the mind of Maxim Trankov. The 6-foot-1 Russian, wearing a Nike T-shirt and sitting next to his partner, Tatiana Volosozhar, leaned into a microphone Wednesday and declared that their goal is redemption for Russia's once mighty figure-skating dynasty.
"Our goal is to give back [Olympic] gold for Russia," said the 30-year-old Moscow native, facing reporters gathered under a billowing white media tent set up for the 2013 world figure skating championships.
"Our gold medals have a long, long history," Trankov added. "Only once did we lose. And we just want to make a new history."
That one loss happened at the Vancouver Olympics, where, for the first time since 1964, the Russian national anthem was not heard at the figure skating rink. It was a crushing blow for a nation with a glorious figure-skating history. And with Sochi less than a year away, Russia's situation isn't looking much brighter this week. The Russians have only one medal contender in the pairs, which is significant because results at worlds determine how many skaters each country sends to the Sochi Games.
At the pairs competition on Wednesday, the results looked like Russia's figure-skating glory days. The top spot belonged to Volosozhar, 27, and Trankov, who skated a near-perfect gangster-themed short program that earned them a score of 75.84, their highest score in a season where they have been undefeated.
Just behind them are Meagan Duhamel, 27, of Lively, Ont., and Eric Radford, 28, from Balmertown, Ont., whose electric skate produced their season's-best score, 73.61, and ended with the crowd on its feet and an ecstatic Duhamel jumping into Radford's arms.
In third are Aliona Savchenko and Robin Szolkowy of Germany at 73.47.
That Russian lead, however, masks a troubling reality. Russian ice dancers, once a perennial gold-medal favourite, are a long shot to overhaul Canada's Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir, and Americans Charlie White and Meryl Davis. There is a bumper crop of young Russian female singles skaters pushing their way up through the ranks, but questions remain as to whether there will be enough time to break through before Sochi.
Still, many Russian figure-skating experts say it would be unwise to count the Russians out.
"I think the Russians politically and economically went through this very difficult stage … but I think the popularity of the skating is coming back," said Igor Shpilband, a Russian who coached Virtue and Moir to their gold medal in Vancouver, and is based in Detroit. "The government shows a lot of interest in sport, especially in figure skating. I mean, [Russian President Vladimir] Putin attended the preview event in Sochi.
"This is really unheard of for a North American country," Shpilband added. "I don't ever remember a U.S. president that would come and see the figure skating."
Some coaches who fled Russia for better paying coaching careers overseas have been called home to join the effort, said Shpilband, who began coaching a Russian ice dance pair last March.
Besides trying to lure back coaches, Russians are also grasping at old champions. When an injury halted the hyped comeback of three-time Olympic medalist Evgeni Plushenko this season, Russia looked for someone who could skate on Plushenko's behalf and earn him a spot at the Sochi Olympics.
That person is Maxim Kovtun, the 17-year-old reigning junior world champion who is virtually unknown in the senior ranks, despite a fifth-place finish at the 2013 European championships. In London, he must make the top 10 to earn Russia two spots in the men's singles in Sochi, and to ensure Plushenko gets a chance to compete, if he's healthy.
"[Kovtun] has a very big task, and I don't know if he knows that," said Brian Orser, an Olympic silver medalist who now coaches two of the men who are challenging Canada's Patrick Chan for the world title. "Hopefully he doesn't. Hopefully he just goes out and skates."
Canada has a second team in the top five after the first day of pairs competition. Kirsten Moore-Towers of St. Catharines, Ont., and Dylan Moscovitch of Toronto are fifth after scoring a season's-best 69.25. Canada hasn't had two pairs finish in the top five at a world championships since 1986.
"Our whole lives have been geared toward being on the world podium, but more so in the last year when we left the worlds in fifth place," Duhamel said. "Every single day has been put toward being on the podium here in London. We had so much pressure, I felt so sick. I wondered, 'what if I go to jump and my legs don't do it?' I felt like I might collapse. But as soon as the music started, we felt like we were in control."
Trankov says he and Volosozhar feel no pressure from their countrymen. "We feel only the love of the people in Russia. Everybody is just cheering for us and trying to help."