The 2019 World Championships take place this week in Saitama, Japan. Since the 2019 World Team Trophy, which takes place next month in Fukuoka, Japan, will only feature a few teams, this is the final event of the 2018-19 figure skating season for many of the ice dancers.

Japan is a popular host of ISU competitions, in part due to the enthusiasm of the nation’s passionate skating fan base. In addition to the annual NHK Trophy, which is part of the Grand Prix of Figure Skating series, the country has hosted the Grand Prix Final and Junior Grand Prix events multiple times.

Japan has held the World Championships a total of seven times. The last time they were held in Japan, Saitama was the host city, and it was Anna Cappellini & Luca Lanotte of Italy who took the top spot on the podium in a closely contested competition, with the top three separated by .06 points.

This year’s roster lists 27 teams representing 20 countries. It includes three-time and defending champions Gabriella Papadakis & Guillaume Cizeron of France as well as the silver and bronze medalists from last year’s event, Madison Hubbell & Zach Donohue of the United States and Canada’s Kaitlyn Weaver & Andrew Poje.

Earlier this season, after missing their first Grand Prix due to injury, Papadakis & Cizeron debuted internationally at Internationaux de France in late November, where they handily won the event and set new world records. They broke these records in mid-January at the European Championships. Papadakis & Cizeron head to Japan with two programs that have been well received by fans and judges, and they certainly have the opportunity to win their fourth world title.

While Papadakis & Cizeron seem poised to take gold, the rest of the top ten could feature several tight battles. Many of the teams have been scoring within the same range this season. Mistakes have been more costly this year with the introduction of the +5/-5 GOE system, and the technical panel’s scrutiny of each element has made it difficult to achieve the highest level on the second part of the Tango Romantica pattern.

Hubbell & Donohue won their first Grand Prix Final and second U.S. Championship title this season, but finished off the podium at Four Continents when the opening stationary lift in their free dance travelled quite a bit. Having won every other event on their schedule this season, the team will head to Saitama prepared to fight for another podium finish.

Weaver & Poje, last year’s bronze medalists, took a break from the Grand Prix series and performed as part of the 60-city Thank You Canada Tour. In January, they won their third Canadian title in a narrow victory over Piper Gilles & Paul Poirier, finishing second to them in the free dance. At Four Continents, Weaver & Poje won silver over their countrymen with a similar point spread, with Gilles & Poirier once again finishing ahead of them in the free.

Gilles & Poirier’s free dance to “Vincent” has captivated audiences all season, but their rhythm dance has been a bit of a hindrance, particularly at Skate Canada International, when a trip in the pattern left them in sixth place for the segment. As a result, they have reworked their rhythm dance, complete with a new dress for Gilles.

Madison Chock & Evan Bates of the United States missed most of the season due to Chock’s recovery from last year’s foot surgery. After winning Mentor Torun Cup in their return to competition, the team finished second at the U.S. Championships and then won gold at the 2019 Four Continents Championships. After relocating their training base to Gadbois last summer, they have returned to competition with programs that have breathed new life into their skating.

Both Alexandra Stepanova & Ivan Bukin and Victoria Sinitsina & Nikita Katsalapov of Russia have swapped placements with each other this season. Sinitsina & Katsalapov finished second at the Grand Prix Final and won the Russian national title, but Stepanova & Bukin were the highest-placing Russians at the European Championships, taking home the silver medal.

Italy’s Charlene Guignard & Marco Fabbri have blossomed this season into a leading team, reaching several milestones and moving themselves firmly outside the shadows of Anna Cappellini & Luca Lanotte. After winning two silvers on the Grand Prix series—their first Grand Prix medals—the team qualified for their first Final, where they won a surprise bronze medal. They won another bronze at the European Championships.

Beyond a goal of reaching the podium, there are other milestones that some teams will aim to achieve, including qualifying for the free dance, which requires a top 20 placement in the rhythm dance, or reaching the top ten.  Also at stake are each country’s allotment for the 2020 World Championships, which is dependent on the placements of teams at this year’s event. For Saitama, only Canada and the United States are sending three teams. Russia, in particular, has a chance to regain a third spot for next year.

Nine teams will be making their World Championships debut, including the Spanish team of Sara Hurtado & Kirill Khaliavin, who have already been to three European Championships and an Olympic Winter Games. With two Spanish teams of similar scoring potential, Hurtado & Khaliavin will aim for the top ten, which would secure a second spot for Spain next year.

The event gets underway on noon on Friday, March 22, which is 11 p.m. (EDT) on Thursday. The free dance is contested on Saturday, March 23 at 12:30 p.m., which converts to 11:30 p.m. (EDT) on Friday.