NICE, France - The world championships marked the one and only full competition for Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir last season, coming after another frustrating few months of rehabilitation for Virtue.
A year later, Virtue insists she's never felt better.
Canada's Olympic ice dance champions are looking to reclaim their world figure skating title this week, and for the first in four years, have a full season of training and competing — painfree — to bolster their quest.
How much better prepared are they this time around? They did more run-throughs of their programs in practice last week than they managed in all of last season combined.
"The cool feeling now is we've already accomplished so much with this whole season, right from summer and training all the way through and the Grand Prix circuit to now," Virtue said. "The work is done. Now we just get to enjoy it. We're in a place we haven't been in a really long time."
Virtue and Moir will skate their short dance Wednesday to kick off what's expected to be the most closely contested event at the competition. The pairs short program is also Wednesday, while Canada's Patrick Chan begins his quest for a second straight world men's title on Friday.
The 22-year-old Virtue, from London, Ont., and Moir, 24, from Ilderton, Ont., haven't had a decent season of training, they say, since 2007-08, because of Virtue's relentless leg issues. Even in 2010, when they claimed Olympic and world gold, they only had a two-month window when Virtue skated without pain.
She's undergone surgery twice on both legs to alleviate the compartment syndrome that causes constant pain — the second of which kept the two off the competitive ice last season for almost all but the world championships. (They skated at Four Continents two months earlier but pulled out during the free dance when Virtue felt tightness in her thigh).
The pain struck again after last year's world championships in Moscow, where they lost to American rivals Meryl Davis and Charlie White, but rather than go under the knife for a third surgery last summer, her Saskatoon-based trainer Bruce Craven developed a program to retrain Virtue's muscles to help take the pressure off her ailing lower legs.
"We were back to the drawing board," Virtue said. "Part of that process was training the mechanics of my body and how I move so that I would take the stress and the load out of my shins and calves and that was a bit of a tedious process. But it forced us to go back to basics and we spent a lot of time on the ice working on our fundamentals and that's paid off."
There were numerous times last season when the Canadians couldn't make it to the end of their program in practice — not great for the confidence prior to competition.
"You need to be really prepared when you're going into a world championship, especially when you're defending Olympic champions, you want to show everybody that that wasn't a flash in the pan, and you still have that magic," said Moir. "So your mind starts playing tricks on you and it's a lot of pressure. Luckily those are in the rear-view mirror."
Davis and White edged the Canadians at the Grand Prix Final this past December, but Virtue and Moir came out on top at the Four Continents in February. They aim to stay there.
"We feel prepared and confident, and we're not taking that feeling for granted," Virtue said. "We know just how awful it is to not feel that way and not feel trained and ready. I think it will be different stepping on the ice, having the ability to take it in and enjoy it and not necessarily worry about making it to the end of the program. But rather focus on expression and just being in the moment and performing the programs that we love so much."
Kaitlyn Weaver and Andrew Poje of Waterloo, Ont., won the bronze medal at the Four Continents championship, and are top-five contenders. Kharis Ralph of Toronto and Asher Hill of Pickering, Ont., will make their world championship debut.
The competition is making its second appearance in Nice, an unlikely destination for an ice sport in the sun-soaked city at the heart of the Cote d'Azur. Towering palm trees line the walkway up to the Palais des Expositions, while people in shorts and sundresses stroll the promenade along the Mediterranean seaside enjoying the 20 C heat.
In the pairs, meanwhile, Germany's Aliona Savchenko and Robin Szolkowy will be favoured to win their second straight title and fourth overall.
Meagan Duhamel of Lively, Ont., and Eric Radford of Balmertown, Ont., are looking for a top-five result after finishing seventh last year in a performance made memorable by Radford's gruesome broken nose. Duhamel, from Lively, Ont., smashed Radford in the face on a triple twist lift in the short program, leaving her partner a bloody mess.
Canadian doctor Marni Wesner set Radford's nose and the two returned to skate the free program the next day.
"I was just looking at a picture of it yesterday and remembering that moment," said Radford, who considered skating the long program with a protective mask. "The first signal that something was wrong was Meagan's face on the landing. And I could see out of the corner of my eye my nose was over here, and I normally can't see it. And then it started bleeding and bleeding and bleeding, and my eyes were watering and it hurt a lot."
Jessica Dube of St-Cyrille-de-Wendover, Que., and Sebastien Wolfe of Terrebonne, Que., are Canada's other pairs entry. Dube is an Olympic and world champion veteran with former partner Bryce Davison, whose career was cut short by a knee injury. Wolfe is making his world debut.
Chan hopes to become the first skater to repeat as men's champion since Stephane Lambiel in 2006. The 21-year-old from Toronto, who hasn't lost a competition in over a year, is the overwhelming favourite. Daisuke Takahashi, the 2010 world champion, American Jeremy Abbott and Javier Fernandez of Spain should also be in the mix. Kevin Reynolds of Coquitlam, B.C., who was 11th last year, will make his third world appearance.
Amelie Lacoste of Delson, Que., is Canada's lone entry in a women's field considered the weakest in recent memory.
Neither last year's champion Miki Ando nor Olympic champ Kim Yu-na are here, leaving world bronze medallist Carolina Kostner of Italy and Japan's Mao Asada the favourites.
Lacoste said the goal is a top-10 finish, which would give Canada two women's spots at next year's world championships in London, Ont.
"Obviously I want a top-10, but in my head it's a top-five," Lacoste said. "But I'm not focusing on the result. I need to focus on myself and what I can control, and just enjoy every day in Nice."
The women skate the short program Thursday.