Meagan Duhamel and Eric Radford are exorcising ghosts this week in London.
The site of this year's world figure skating championships holds memories of crushing moments for both, times when Olympic dreams burned to the ground, times when they wondered if they should continue skating. This trip to London, however, is like a dream for the two Canadian pairs skaters.
Duhamel and Radford skated at London's Budweiser Gardens at national competitions twice before they were a team, both competitions among their lowest skating moments.
In 2005, Radford got stuck in an arena elevator as his name was being called to compete in singles. Duhamel skated disappointing long programs for both her pairs and singles events.
In 2010, Duhamel and former partner Craig Buntin finished a heartbreaking third, just shy of a spot on the Vancouver Olympic team. Radford placed eighth with Anne-Marie Giroux, not even close to an Olympic bid, and he left London pondering whether he should quit.
It's a dramatically different story for Duhamel and Radford this week. After skating a sensational short program on Wednesday, the pair is in second place behind Russians Tatiana Volosozhar and Maxim Trankov. The Canadians are one great free skate away from claiming their first medal at a world championship and going into the Olympic season as a contender.
"I remember sitting by myself at the end of that 2010 competition, wondering, 'Am I going to skate next year? Is it even worth the time and money and sacrifice when I'm nowhere near where I want to be?'" Radford said Thursday. "In that moment, I couldn't have possibly imagined being here right now, but it's an amazing dream come true."
They split with their partners after that and became a team. Both are from small Northern Ontario towns, have similar goals, and it seemed they might be a good fit. Radford, from Balmertown, Ont., grew up watching Kurt Browning win world titles on TV. Duhamel was a skating-obsessed little girl from Lively, Ont., who played VHS tapes of world championships from the 1990s hundreds of times.
They laugh now at memories of their first tryout together three years ago, calling it "pretty terrible." Radford couldn't quite lift Duhamel, their stroking patterns were off, and their twists were awkward. But it was a last attempt at a partnership for both.
"My mom said, 'Are you sure you should do this? Do you really want to risk living through pain like that again?'" recalls Duhamel, 27, whose family members had all come to watch her in London in 2010, expecting to celebrate and send her off to the Vancouver Games. "I said, 'Yeah, I do, because if I find success, it will make up for all of it.' We both decided we would give it one more shot and do it right, have a great working relationship, put the best team around us, capitalize on every opportunity."
Their coaches urged them to give it a week even as the skaters seemed uncertain. The coaches were right. Soon everything was coming together.
"I remember just feeling so happy," Radford, 28, said. "We thought, 'We really have something here, we're going somewhere with this.'"
They were seventh at the world championships in 2011, and improved to fifth in 2012. They have won the last two Canadian championships, and were fourth at the Grand Prix Final in December. Most recently, they took gold at the Four Continents competition, but were not pleased with their free skate there, promising to sharpen the performance to Angel for worlds.
Their short program on Wednesday was crisp, clean and energetic, the two erupting in hugs and fist-pumps afterward. They outscored third-place German veterans Aliona Savchenko and Robin Szolkowy.
Canada has only one world medal in pairs – a bronze from Jessica Dubé and Bryce Davison in 2008 – since Jamie Salé and David Pelletier won gold in Vancouver in 2001. Duhamel and Radford can bolster that number on Friday and make a statement leading up the 2014 Olympics.
"We came into this competition so focused, so on a mission, everything has been about making the podium in London," Duhamel said. "We have packed six years of work into three years, and this is all part of our plan. As we were skating around in the practice, we looked at each other and said, 'We're in the final practice group at worlds, right now at this precise moment, we are the second best pairs group in the world.' So many people have this dream, and we are so lucky to have made it. We never gave up despite the hardships."