Junior ice dancers Edwards and Pang ready for the challenge in Bulgaria

There was a time when Sofia, Bulgaria tried to bid for the 2014 Olympics. It wasn’t accepted as a candidate. If it had, it would have been decidedly wintry.

But from March 10 to 16, it will stage the world junior figure skating championships instead. And there will be no less drama than in Sochi.

The Canadian team includes eight entries, 12 skaters in all, starting on their paths to future world championships and Olympics. Just because the word “junior” is attached to the front of this world event, doesn’t mean it’s easy to win.

Palm trees aside, the event in Sofia will be an Olympics of sorts for Madeline Edwards and ZhaoKai Pang, a fetching young Canadian dance team that has sent goosebumps up the sleeves of Olympic champions Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir. Virtue and Moir won the 2006 world junior championship, then the next year, finished sixth at the world (senior) championship, an impressive debut. Both Edwards and Pang look up to Virtue and Moir.

And well they might. They have a little something. Like Virtue and Moir, they are expressive. They dance for each other. They have a lightness that comes from their knees. They have miles to go, but it’s there.

Back in 2007, the B.C. section of Skate Canada hired ice dancers Megan Wing and Aaron Lowe to become high performance directors for the dance program. They headed off in search of talent at little regional competitions around the province.  At one of them, Lowe spotted “Maddie,” a bright-faced girl, skating singles. Edwards won a little award for being the most expressive skater. When Lowe talked to her parents, he found out that they were transferring from small-town Rossland, B.C. to Vancouver. “Has she ever done dance?” he asked them. Well, yes, she had taken some tests. So into Wing and Lowe’s dance program she went. And so Wing and Lowe started to build their little dynasty on the west coast.

They found her partner, Pang, a singles skater in Joanne McLeod’s program. Edwards and Pang clicked right away. They were together only a year when they skated in the gala at the 2009 Four Continents championship in Vancouver, a test event for the 2010 Vancouver Olympics.

They were probably only 11 and 12 years old when they got together – not as young as Virtue and Moir had been – but they rose quickly through the ranks, winning juvenile after being together only a few months, pre-novice in 2010, novice in 2011, and in 2012, they won the junior silver medal. Last year they were junior champions. “I think they were better skaters than Virtue and Moir when they started,” Lowe said boldly. “Just because they had been singles so long. They were decent skaters already, but then they had to learn how to become good dancers.”

Pang had been one of the best pre-novice men in B.C, and competed at the B.C. Winter Games as a singles skater. And he had a personality that boded well for being a dancer. “He was a very expressive little kid,” Lowe said. He loves to perform. And the twosome complement each other very well. They have a great relationship as friends. They are on the same page.

Internationally, Edwards and Pang competed as juniors, finishing second and third at their Junior Grand Prix events this season, but nationally, they competed as seniors for the first time. However, disaster struck in October, after the junior events: Edwards developed an overuse injury on her Achilles tendon, caused by stitching on the back of her boot that dug into the soft tissue. Lowe referred to it as “massive.”

There were days when Edwards could skate only 20 minutes. They worried that they would miss the national championships – where they would be under no pressure, but they could learn and watch skaters trying to get the three Olympic spots, amid all the tension. They missed sectionals and Challenge. They fought hard, with doctors and physiotherapists to get to Ottawa and finally defeated the injury.

In Ottawa, they finished seventh, but had the fifth highest technical mark, ahead of a couple of senior-level teams, not bad for a couple of newbies. It was enough to earn them their second trip to the world junior championships, but more than that: they were chosen as alternates for the senior world championships. Some teams ranked ahead of them hadn’t achieved minimum scores in both portions of the event, as required by the ISU. The youngsters, not yet into their twenties, had the scores.

Edwards and Pang still have one more year of junior eligibility left, and they will take advantage of it next season, to build world standing points that would allow them eventually to get some good senior competitions. They are eyeing the 2018 Olympics, which is only four years away. Lowe doesn’t think it’s a pipe dream. It’s a realistic thought that bears proper planning, he says.

And Sofia is a good step.

And others on the team will, too. Nam Nguyen, only 15, will compete in the men’s event in Sofia, but he’s also been named to the world senior team in Japan. He’ll be travelling with his buddy, Roman Sadovsky, only 14, and a precocious whiz kid on blades. They’ll be up against Jin Boyang of China, 16, who won the Junior Grand Prix Final, and 19-year-old Keiji Tanaka of Japan, who swept his Junior Grand Prix events this year.

Alaine Chartrand, 17, of Prescott, Ont., and Larkyn Austman, 15, Coquitlam, B.C., will compete in the women’s event against a host of Russian women who dominated the Junior Grand Prix Final.

In pairs the teams of Tara Hancherow, 18, Tisdale, Sask., and Wesley Killing, 20, Woodstock, Ont., and Mary Orr, 17, Brantford, Ont., and Phelan Simpson, 18, Lunenburg, N.S., will attended their first junior world’s event together. The pairs event is dominated by Russians, but a Chinese team, Xiaoyu Yu and Yang Jin, defeated them all at the Junior Grand Prix Final.

Beverley Smith

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