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Tran and Purich hope unexpected partnership leads to place in Sochi

On the hunt for partners, Mervin Tran and Natasha Purich were paired up out of necessity

Francois Mori/The Associated Press

Mervin Tran admits he's never felt so excited to be Canadian as this fall, when he was asked to pee in a cup.

It was September, and Canada's top figure skaters were in Mississauga for the annual high-performance camp that kicks off their season. But even though Tran was born in Regina, he was still a bit of an outsider to the Canadian scene.

For the previous six years, Tran skated for Japan – and skated well – winning bronze at the 2012 world championships with his pairs partner Narumi Takahashi.

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But when that partnership dissolved suddenly later that year, his Olympic dreams were left in the lurch.

Fate and necessity soon led him to team up with Edmonton's Natasha Purich, who was also hunting for a pairs partner.

But it wasn't until that day last fall, when Canada's trainers asked Tran for a urine sample to test his hydration levels – one of the many unglamorous, routine things that go on behind the scenes of figure skating's cultivated elegance – that Tran truly felt part of the Canadian team.

"It symbolized the start of Team Canada for me," he says with a laugh. "It's like a hazing thing. Once I pee in a cup, I'm now one of them."

Heading into the Canadian figure skating championships in Ottawa this week, Tran and Purich are one of several compelling storylines involving skaters trying to punch their ticket for the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics.

While the country's top skaters are practically guaranteed a spot in Russia, with gold-medal favourite Patrick Chan and defending ice dance Olympic champions Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir at the top of that list, a number of their teammates will be fighting for the few spots that remain.

The competition runs Friday and Saturday, with the Olympic team being announced Sunday.

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Canada will send three pairs teams to Sochi. The first two spots will be undoubtedly be claimed by medal-contenders Meagan Duhamel and Eric Radford, and Kirsten Moore-Towers and Dylan Moscovitch.

That leaves Tran and Purich, Canada's newest team, in a battle with Paige Lawrence and Rudi Swiegers, and a few others, for the last pairs spot.

Tran, whose Vietnamese father and Cambodian mother came to Canada as refugees, entered figure skating through hockey, and grew up wanting to represent his country.

But he ended up skating for Japan almost by accident.

Because pairs skating is an afterthought in Japan compared to the singles events, partners can be hard to find. Unable to land a compatible skater there, Takahashi began searching Canada's skating ranks in 2007, and a coach recommended Tran.

Though the Olympics require skaters to hold citizenship in the country they represent, the International Skating Union requires only one skater on a pairs team hold citizenship for non-Olympic events.

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Tran weighed the difficult decision of renouncing his Canadian citizenship to skate for Japan, but it never got to that point.

In 2012, Takahashi underwent season-ending surgery, and a few months later, told Tran she was ending their partnership to team with a Japanese skater for Sochi.

Back in Montreal, where he was studying mechanical engineering at McGill University, Tran, 23, decided he had a lot more skating left in him. With coaches across Canada playing matchmaker, Tran and Purich were brought together in March, and almost immediately hit it off.

It is figure skating's version of a shotgun wedding.

"We got our programs within three days of skating together," Purich says.

"We hit the ground running," Tran says. "We got together, we decided, okay, we're going to skate together and then, boom, boom, boom, we just got everything together and got into full training mode. … We were doing maximum level lifts right off the bat. It was cool to see all the things we could do after the first week."

Since then, Tran and Purich have been in hurry-up mode. Heading into this weekend, they are a bit of an unknown commodity. Being such a new team, no one – admittedly not even them – really knows how far along they are, or how good they can be.

If the pair can pull off two flawless programs this weekend, it could mean their unlikely Olympic dream will be a reality. If not, Tran vows this won't be their only shot.

"I told [my coaches], listen, I realize there is an Olympics coming up and if I do get a partner, there is a shot for the Olympics," he says. "But I'm in it for the long run."

In such an international sport, hopscotching between countries is not unusual. Another pair of Olympic hopefuls, ice dance team Piper Gilles and Paul Poirier, only recently gained the citizenship needed for Gilles to represent Canada.

Gilles was born in Illinois, and her mother is a dual citizen. She came to Canada in 2011, after teaming up with Poirier, but only secured her citizenship a week before Christmas.

With that paperwork out of the way, Gilles and Poirier will be looking to grab the third spot for Canada in the ice dance. It's expected the first two spots will be claimed by Virtue and Moir, followed by Kaitlyn Weaver and Andrew Poje, who have surged in recent months.

Weaver, who was born in Houston, moved to Canada in 2006 to skate with Poje, who is from Waterloo, Ont. The pair had their sights set on the 2010 Vancouver Games, but missed qualifying by mere tenths of a point. This weekend, they will be looking to leave no doubt as to their Olympic credentials.

"We've been through a lot of tests as a team," Weaver says. "We've been right on the cusp for a long time, and I think all these moments have changed who we are, and given us the perfect amount of motivation and inspiration."

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