by Daphne Backman | Photo by  Robin Ritoss

All eyes will be on Helsinki this week for the 2017 World Championships, held March 29 to April 2.

Competitors will not only fight for medals or to qualify for the free dance, but also for a spot at the 2018 Winter Olympic Games as 19 of the 24 Olympic ice dance slots will be determined by final placements. Helsinki has previously served as host for this event three times, last in 1999.

The 32-team event roster is one of the most competitive in recent years. It includes three world champions and four teams who are World Championship medalists. Even small mistakes could force a favorite off the podium, or be the difference between making the top 10 or the cut for the free dance.

Just over a year ago, Canada’s Tessa Virtue & Scott Moir announced their return to competitive skating. In September, they debuted at the Autumn Classic International and have never looked back, winning every competition they entered this season, including their seventh national title as well as the one that had previously eluded them, the Grand Prix Final. Although they head to Helsinki as the favorites for gold, they are not a lock for the top step and will need to hit difficult level four step sequences to stay in front of the pack.

In 2016, Gabriella Papadakis & Guillaume Cizeron of France were the first team since 2007 to repeat as world champions. They started this season with a decisive win at Trophée de France, but mistakes in each of their subsequent events left them playing catch up after the short dance, where they finished behind teams they had easily beaten in the past. Papadakis & Cizeron have finished second to Virtue & Moir both times they have faced them—NHK Trophy and the Grand Prix Final—and they cannot afford to make a single error in Helsinki if they hope to have a chance to claim the gold medal.

Last season, Maia & Alex Shibutani claimed their first U.S. national title as well as the silver medal at the World Championships. While their programs and their performances have been solid, they have not quite captured the emotion that they achieved with last year’s “Fix You” free dance. The “Shib Sibs” are superb technicians which has kept them a step ahead of other teams this season.

Fellow Americans Madison Chock & Evan Bates are the only team to have defeated Virtue & Moir in any phase of competition this season—they just squeaked past them in the free dance at Skate Canada in October. Their free dance performance to Queen and David Bowie’s “Under Pressure” won the EDI Award for Best Ice Dance Performance at the 2017 Prudential U.S. Figure Skating Championships. However, Chock & Bates settled for silver behind the Shibutanis. To earn their third consecutive World medal, they will need to receive credit for their intended levels and push the performance factor in both programs even further.

Italy’s Anna Cappellini & Luca Lanotte, the 2014 World Champions, have finished fourth at each of the last two World Championships, and recently won their third consecutive silver medal at the European Championships. Their programs this season, especially their free dance to music by Charlie Chaplin, are playful and charming. A shot at the podium will depend on them maximizing the technical elements, and also relying on mistakes by others.

Since moving to Montréal in the spring of 2015, Madison Hubbell & Zachary Donohue have continued to close the gap between themselves and the top teams, including their Team U.S.A. countrymen. Mistake-free performances in Helsinki could result in at least a repeat of their sixth place finish at the 2016 World Championships.

Canada’s Kaitlyn Weaver & Andrew Poje made significant changes in the off-season, including moving to a new training location and a new coach, Nikolai Morozov. In addition, they have been slowly adjusting to a new skating style. With the return of Virtue & Moir, they have not only been aiming for the top of the podium, but also fending off fellow Canadians Piper Gilles & Paul Poirier, who have continued to improve. Gilles & Poirier have two well-choreographed programs and should be able to stay in the top eight, with a chance to move up if they skate their best.

Russia’s Ekaterina Bobrova & Dmitry Soloviev will compete at the World Championships for the first time since they won the bronze medal in 2013. Coupled with Alexandra Stepanova & Ivan Bukin, they will not only shoot for the podium, but they are also aiming to regain a third Russian dance spot for Pyeongchang.

The event gets underway with the short dance on Friday, March 31. Only 20 teams will advance to the free dance, which takes place on Saturday.