Delayed skating worlds still promise drama

An odd sporting time warp will end next week when the top figure skaters who were supposed to compete at the world championships in Tokyo the week of March 21 gather in Moscow for the event postponed by the catastrophic earthquake and tsunami in Japan.

In interviews this week, U.S. skaters said that after the initial period of uncertainty -- worlds were in limbo for almost two weeks as officials pondered canceling them altogether -- they slipped back into the harness of their daily routines without much trouble and even benefited from the extra month on the ice.

Still, what is set to unfold at the Megasport Arena in the Russian capital isn't just a worlds on tape delay. The skaters, as U.S. bronze medalist Ross Miner put it last month, can't help but be aware of "the people we were supposed to skate in front of."

The toll of dead and missing is approaching 30,000. The aftershocks continue. On Thursday, authorities drew a 12-mile circle around the compromised Fukushima nuclear plant and legally barred residents from entering the "no-go" zone. Health officials say they will start testing breast milk for radiation levels.

Those ongoing horrors will put a new, dramatic filter on an old rivalry between two women, defending champion Mao Asada of Japan and reigning Olympic gold medalist Kim Yu-Na of South Korea, who hasn't competed in more than a year. The already considerable pressure on both will be heightened. Similarly, men's defending world champion Daisuke Takahashi will surely feel an extra responsibility to perform well.

The American delegation comes in with a wide variety of expectations and goals. Ice dancers Meryl Davis and Charlie White wisely eschew much talk of making history, but they're undefeated this season and their desire to become the first U.S. duo to capture a world title is palpable.

Ironically, the extended season probably helped no one more than Davis and White's friends and rivals, Olympic gold medalists Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir. Off for most of the season while Virtue recovered from leg surgery, the Canadians were unable to complete the only event they entered when Virtue injured herself midroutine at the Four Continents championships. The lift that caused that problem has been modified.

Yet the fact that both dance teams train in the same suburban Detroit rink -- along with the No. 2 U.S. tandem, Maia and Alex Shibutani -- probably helped them maintain a bubble of intensity. White described the odd sensation of seeing other skaters begin to choreograph their programs for next season even as the worlds contenders remained "stuck in the past."

"It feels like both the end of this season and the beginning of the next at the same time," he said.

National champions Ryan Bradley and Alissa Czisny are both looking to cap seasons in which they shed their old skins. The effusive Bradley told reporters that this, his third trip to worlds, is the first on which he really feels he belongs.

"My first year [2007], I was second at nationals, but I felt like the third man," he said. "Evan Lysacek and Johnny Weir are giant entities. I think that got into my head."

He wound up 15th. Last year, Bradley was an alternate, got the call for worlds at the last minute and finished 18th, skating with a broken bone in his foot.

Bradley nursed injuries and ambivalence last summer and fall, and got a late start this season; he admitted that the delayed worlds, albeit caused by horrible circumstances, means he will be in better shape.

"I was technically sound, but training-wise, I wasn't where I wanted to be," he said. "I feel like a much more solid skater and not just a jumper."

Czisny, the Grand Prix series champion, went from not-quite-worst (10th) at the 2010 nationals to first in 2011. She candidly declared that she wants to help win back a third U.S. women's spot for the 2012 world championships.

It's a loaded task for Czisny. At the 2009 worlds, she came in as the U.S. gold medalist and stumbled to 11th, essentially costing the U.S. a third slot at the 2010 Olympics and worlds. Czisny and 2011 U.S. runner-up Rachael Flatt, who finished fifth in 2009 and ninth last year, will have to notch combined placements of no greater than 13 to get the job done.

Flatt is at a crossroads. She's poised to attend Stanford University as a chemical engineering major, where she plans to take a full course load and see whether she can manage to train and compete as well. Flatt's trip to Moscow marks the probable end of her affiliation with the Broadmoor Skating Club in Colorado Springs and longtime coach Tom Zakrajsek.

Her decision to continue competing this year, deferring college, was questioned in some quarters. But Flatt's mild, cheery manner belies a fierce ambition and self-belief, and she kept hammering away at improvement. Her short program will be as good as anyone's in Moscow if she skates it clean and with verve, and she said she has been focusing on raising the artistry of her long program to the same level.

Finally, the U.S. is sending two younger men, Miner and Richard Dornbush, and one pair, Caitlin Yankowskas and John Coughlin, for their senior world debuts. U.S. silver medalists Amanda Evora and Mark Ladwig were ninth at the 2010 worlds.

Will better fitness trump burnout? Will the emotion of external events fuel athletes or make them falter? Stay tuned.