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Figure skaters Jamie Salé and David Pelletier, the world pairs champions who are on a winning streak they hope extends to Salt Lake City, are Canada's team of the year for 2001.

Salé and Pelletier were clear winners in voting conducted by The Canadian Press and Broadcast News. Sports editors and broadcasters across the country gave the skaters 44½ first-place votes for a total of 172.5 points.

"We're both extremely honoured and happy to receive such a special award," Salé said. "It shows that we're getting some recognition for what we're doing and the success that we've had.

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"We're also a bit shy about it because we just love what we do and we just don't see that we could even be compared to those big teams like the Blue Jays or an NHL Stanley Cup team or whatever. But it's pretty neat. We're really excited."

The Saint Mary's Huskies, winners of the Vanier Cup as national university football champions, finished second in the CP-BN poll with 20 first-place votes and 109 points.

Next, in order, were: the Colleen Jones foursome that won the world curling championship (13 first-place votes, 102 points), the Grey Cup champion Calgary Stampeders (10 first-place votes and 73 points) and the Canadian women's hockey team that won a seventh successive world title (9½ first-place votes and 68.5 points).

Last year's winners were tennis players Daniel Nestor and Sébastien Lareau.

A partnership that began in 1998 delivered golden dividends in March when Salé and Pelletier stepped to the top of the pairs podium at the world championships in Vancouver. They will attempt in Salt Lake City in February to become the first Canadians in 42 years to win a Winter Games figure skating title.

"We did have a good year, that's for sure," Pelletier said. "People voted for us, and I'm pretty happy about that.

"Jamie said it perfectly. When we get recognition, even though we're not looking to be validated, it always feels good to be validated. We're not looking for awards but every time one comes around, and I always feel a little uncomfortable, but it's great that you know you're doing something well in your life."

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Salé is from Red Deer, Alta., Pelletier is from Sayabec, Que. They train in Edmonton, where they are spending Christmas week. They have won their past eight judged competitions, including the world championships last March in Vancouver and the ISU Grand Prix final in December in Kitchener, Ont.

The skaters also won the Lou Marsh Trophy in December, awarded annually by the Toronto Star to Canada's outstanding athlete.

How have they managed it?

"Our success has come because we both have a common goal," Salé said. "We both really love skating.

"We believe in ourselves and in one another. We've always had a plan. We've always surrounded ourselves with good people, and good things have happened."

Pelletier said: "As a team, we do have the same vision. We've been lucky though. Skating is like life, as far as a partner is concerned. You always have to have the right timing and be lucky enough to find the right person, and I guess Jamie is kind of my soulmate on the ice. I was just lucky enough to find her at the right time in my life. How can I explain it? I don't know. We've just worked really hard and always try to make the right decision, and we work with great people."

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Two of the most important ones are Jan Ullmark, the coach, and Lori Nichol, the choreographer.

They sought Ullmark's help last June after three years in Montreal. He had coached Salé previously.

Together, Salé and Pelletier have developed their own style.

At the end of the free-skating program, Pelletier lifts Salé over his head and carries her in the palm of one hand with her back to the ice until the music stops.

Symbolically, his outstretched arm is a stem, and she is a blooming orchid.

What trust figure skating's world pairs champions must have in one another to dare to do such a difficult and dangerous lift? Salé puts her life in her partner's hands. This is the epitome of teamwork.

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"Maybe I'm a little bit crazy but I absolutely love it," Salé said in describing the sensation she feels during the orchid lift. "I like the feeling of being in the air.

"David is so secure in his footwork, and in the way he holds me in any kind of a lift. When I'm doing a trick or a throw or a twist or the ending lift of that program, there is no fear going through my head thinking it's going to come down. Basically, the girl in the pair really has to love to fly because it's kind of a rush."

The orchid lift is extremely difficult, and that's exactly why it appealed to them.

"In our team, nobody can be shy to bring an idea, even if it makes no sense at the beginning," Pelletier said. "For us, nothing is impossible.

"For example, the last lift. Everybody was concerned and asking: At the end of the program, are you going to be able to lift her up?

"You have to be stubborn. If it doesn't work the first time then you know it's the right thing because it's hard. If it works the first time, then you know it's probably too easy. So you always want to look for something that you can't accomplish the first time if you want to push yourself."

It's an attitude that is taking them to the pinnacle of athletic endeavour, the Olympics. Salé competed in the 1994 Winter Games with a previous partner.

"I'm really excited about going," she said. "It's my second time so I'm excited to see how different it is or how similar it is.

"I'm in a different boat than the one I was in the last time I went, when I was in the third pair going. Now it's kind of neat that we're going as medal hopefuls. It's such an honour, too, to represent Canada and to be able to go and expect from ourselves that we're going to come home with a medal and, hopefully, it's the gold."

She's the bubbly one. He's often stoic, composed even in the most trying circumstances.

"We're both very excited about going," Pelletier said. "We've done our homework but there's still work to do.

"There's still nationals to go to but it's getting closer and I'm happy about that. It will feel great once we get there because we know we've done our job. Let's do it. Let's make it happen."

Salé is ready to beam her contagious smile.

"The opening ceremonies, marching in, I think it's the best time of the Olympics," she said. "It's such a rush to walk in there and hear them say Canada and the crowd goes crazy.

"You're just so proud that you're there."

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