13GPF-SrDFD03-9067-PB-RR 595by Melanie Hoyt | Photos by Robin Ritoss

With the 2014 World Figure Skating Championships underway in Saitama, Japan, 33 dance teams from 24 countries wait to begin their final competition of the Olympic season. This year, the top two teams from the Olympic Winter Games—and the top two teams in the discipline for the past five seasons—have elected to skip this championship. The absence of 2014 Olympic champions Meryl Davis & Charlie White and 2010 Olympic champions Tessa Virtue & Scott Moir means that the race for all three medals is more unpredictable than it has been since before their takeover.

The teams vying for the medals in Saitama have strong credentials, including a slew of bronze medals. The past three World bronze medalists will compete, as well as the recent Olympic bronze medalists. This group includes the usual Grand Prix Final bronze medalists and the past three European champions. The top two teams may be sitting this one out, but the event still promises plenty of intrigue, excitement, and quality skating.

Longtime French competitors Nathalie Péchalat & Fabian Bourzat (pictured, right) are in Saitama to end their career on a high note, hoping for a medal, which eluded them in Sochi and at the World Championships last year. Known for their innovative programs and artistic sensibilities, the 2012 world bronze medalists brought a newly-reworked short dance to Sochi and, thus, were a little bit careful in that segment of the competition. With two competitive outings for that program now, due to the Olympic team event, Péchalat & Bourzat should be able to perform more freely this week, perhaps setting themselves up very well for their “Le Petit Prince” free dance. At any rate, their fans across the globe will have the chance to bid the longtime competitors adieu, with gratitude for a beautiful career.

Russians Elena Ilinykh & Nikita Katsalapov head to Japan with the most momentum, having just won the bronze medal in Sochi, as well contributing to gold in the team event. Ilinykh & Katasalapov topped 100 points in the free dance in Sochi and easily brought the partisan audience to its feet, and all will be interested to see how they fare on neutral turf. Last season, they were only ninth at this event, though. Then this year began with a rocky start, and major mistakes kept them from winning a European title that the judges seemed poised to award them. If they can maintain the consistent trajectory that they found at the Olympics, they could end the week by making their first world championship medal a golden one.

Reigning world bronze medalists Ekaterina Bobrova & Dmitri Soloviev are their Russian teammates. Their solid performance in the team short dance in Sochi helped Russia earn the gold, but Bobrova & Soloviev fell a bit flat in the individual dance event, finishing fifth. Their abstract bird-themed free dance took several directions over the season, and they eventually dumped the program and reverted to last year’s free dance at the Olympics. It helped them earn a new season’s best score, but the team was disappointed with the standings.

Victoria Sinitsina & Ruslan Zhiganshin, who were 16th in Sochi, round out the Russian team in Saitama.

Anna Cappellini & Luca Lanotte of Italy won the 2014 European Championships ahead of Ilinkyh & Katsalapov, but were almost 14 points behind them in Sochi. They performed well at their second Olympic Games, though, and seem ready to take on their eighth World Championships, hoping to move up from a close fourth-place finish in 2013. Their charming programs suit their personalities and if they can hit their technical elements, like they did at Skate America this season, they have a great shot at a medal. They train part-time with Péchalat & Bourzat in Novi, Mich., under Igor Shpilband.

14FourC-DFD-3593-GP-RR 595Canada’s Kaitlyn Weaver & Andrew Poje will be competing in their sixth World Championships, but this is the first time that they have been Canada’s lead dance entry. They were seventh in Sochi, less than a point behind Cappellini & Lanotte, and their passionate tango free dance was ranked fifth. Hitting their levels, particularly in the short dance, will be key for them this week. If they can set themselves up well, they know that the strength of their free dance could launch them onto the podium. While they are the only team among the major podium contenders without a World or Olympic medal or a major ISU championship title in the last quad (though they did win Four Continents just before the 2010 Olympics), they have been extremely consistent at the World Championships. Since 2011, they have placed no lower than fifth, even when fighting back from a devastating injury last year.

The Canadian team will also feature Alexandra Paul & Mitchell Islam, 18th in Sochi, and Piper Gilles & Paul Poirier (pictured, left), 18th at this event last year. Both teams aim to improve upon their ranking, and Canada will need a big effort from at least one of them, if three spots will be maintained for 2015.

Team USA, with Davis & White, will also have their eye on keeping three spots for next year, with the task likely falling to Madison Chock & Evan Bates and Maia Shibutani & Alex Shibutani. They were eighth and ninth in Sochi, respectively. The Shibutanis, in particular, have room to improve after a couple of mistakes in the free dance. They were world bronze medalists in 2011, but they have not scored as well since then.

Alexandra Aldridge & Daniel Eaton, world junior bronze medalists in 2012 and 2013, will take Davis & White’s place in Japan. Madison Hubbell & Zachary Donohue were first alternates, but had to pass on the assignment because Hubbell was scheduled to have surgery to repair a torn labrum last month. The second alternates are their training partners.

Some fans and journalists have complained that a post-Olympics World Championship feels like an afterthought to the season. Perhaps it depends on the year. This year, with final dances for some and new opportunities for others, the dance event should bring just as much drama as ever.

The short dance will be held on Friday morning in Japan, and the free dance is scheduled for Saturday afternoon.