NICE, France - When the Maple Leaf went up marking their return to the top of the ice dancing world, Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir couldn't help but breathe a sigh of relief.
Canada's Olympic champions reclaimed their world title on Thursday, edging American rivals and defending champions Meryl Davis and Charlie White.
But the performance didn't come easily for the Canadian veterans who on any given night can make ice dancing seem so effortless. And the two couldn't help but rehash what went wrong as they stood on the medal podium at the Palais des Exhibitions.
"I was trying to enjoy the moment, but part of me was just a little disappointed which is silly. It's silly," said Virtue.
Silly because last year at this time, Virtue, from London, Ont., and Moir, from Ilderton, Ont., were coming off another frustrating season that saw them sidelined for months after Virtue underwent surgery on her legs. The world championships, where they won silver, was the only event they completed.
"The real joy from our season has been in the training. Before we even came here we had accomplished our goals that we set out to do at the beginning of the year," said Moir — the goal being: to be able to train uninterrupted.
Their training pulled them through a less-than-perfect performance on Thursday night. Skating their free dance to George Gershwin's "Funny Face," Virtue — as Audrey Hepburn in a glamorous red dress — and Moir, his hair combed into a sleek side part as Fred Astaire, won the gold with a score of 182.65 points.
"For me the biggest thing is to see them back, able to train, not injured," said Skate Canada's CEO William Thompson. "Tessa's a different person. Not being in chronic pain, she's so much happier. No matter what, this was going to be a good event for them, and to be able to come back and skate so well, is brilliant."
Davis and White finished with 178.62 points for silver, while Nathalie Pechalat and Fabian Bourzat of France won bronze with 173.18 points.
Kaitlyn Weaver and Andrew Poje of Waterloo, Ont., finished fourth with 166.65, marking the first time Canada has had two ice dance teams finish in the top four.
In women's singles earlier in the day, Alena Leonova of Russia set the pace by winning the short program while Canada's Amelie Lacoste was 13th.
Virtue and Moir, who won the world title in 2010, but were runners-up last year, weren't thrilled with a couple of tiny bobbles in their program. The first came about a minute in when Moir caught a toe pick in the ice.
"I had a little stumble. Luckily at that point, my character is kind of shocked and surprised, so I just kind of played it off as good choreography and was even thinking I could argue that to the media if I had to," Moir said laughing. "But it's a split-second thing, and you can't let the program go."
Moir said their experience helped them pull out a victory despite their flat performance.
"I think a younger Tessa and Scott might have melted down from something like that," Moir said. "It's kind of even more rice in our jar, something more we learned tonight."
Davis and White — Virtue and Moir's training partners who were second after the short dance — brought the crowd to its feet with their skate to Johann Strauss' "Die Fledermaus."
"We don't know where the discrepancy was in the judges' eyes," White said. "We're aiming for first, so we're disappointed we didn't get that, but we're so proud of the way we skated, despite the discrepancy in the scores, we're going to go home really pleased, and also find out what the judges are looking for."
The 22-year-old Weaver and Poje, 25, were fan favourites with their sensual skate to "Je Suis Malade," a French love song that they chose after fan sent them an Internet link and a suggestion to skate to the song, this past off-season.
The fan, a man from Latvia, travelled to Nice to watch the two skate Thursday.
"I'm so happy I read that email and clicked that link because who knows what would have happened if I'd just skipped over it. I heard the first minute (of the song) and I was thinking, wow, this is something special," Weaver said. "We both thank him so much for just thinking of us and sending that email, because I think it's made all the difference this year."
Skating in a burgundy negligee, a strap purposefully fallen off one shoulder, Weaver explained the story is of a woman who wakes up to find out her lover is about to leave her, and then goes mad. Her coach Anjelika Krylova, a two-time world ice dance champion from Russia, wiped away tears after the music stopped.
"We're happy that people are able to read that, no matter where they come from," Weaver said. "Lara Fabian, who sang the song, once said in an interview that emotions don't need a language, they're felt by everyone."
The 21-year-old Leonova was easily the fan favourite in the women's singles earlier in the day. Dressed in a pirate's ruffled blouse and black pants and boots, she scored 64.61 points for her whimsical skate to the soundtrack to "Pirates of the Caribbean" to take the lead heading into Saturday's free program.
Kanako Murakami of Japan was second with 62.67 points, while Italy's Carolina Kostner scored 61.00 to sit third.
Lacoste, Canada's lone entry in the women's event, scored 49.37 points, and was keeping fingers crossed it was enough to keep her within striking distance of the top 10.
A top-10 finish is key for Lacoste, because it would give Canada two women's entries in next year's world championships in London, Ont.
"I really tried to put that aside but of course it's still a little bit in my head," said Lacoste, who was 4.8 points out of a top-10 result. "It's a game, so I need to deal with it. My goal is top-10 but I need to focus first on my performance to achieve that goal."
The 2013 world championships, in turn, determines how many entries a country will have in each discipline at the 2014 Sochi Olympics.
The 23-year-old from Delson, Que., skating to Duke Ellington's "Satin Doll," lost several points for stepping out of the first triple loop of a planned triple loop-triple loop combination, and so didn't receive marks for a combination.
Two-time world champion Mao Asada of Japan fell on her triple Axel — she was the only woman in the field to attempt the jump — and wound up fourth.
American champion Ashley Wagner was eighth.
Leonova was a big hit with the crowd at the Palais des Expositions in a women's field that's considered among the weakest in recent memory. Neither Olympic champion Kim Yu-na of South Korea nor last year's champion Miki Ando of Japan are skating this season.
Canada's Olympic bronze medallist Joannie Rochette is taking a break from the competitive ice, and hasn't announced whether she'll return to skate in Sochi.
This year marks the second time the world championships have been held in Nice, an unlikely spot for a winter sporting event in the city situated in the heart of the French Riviera. Several skating officials sported tans from soaking up the Mediterranean sunshine as temperatures climbed above 20 C Thursday.
The arena, with the Pyrenees mountains as its backdrop, is just a few blocks walk along cobblestone streets lined with palm trees and orange trees from the beautiful Bay of Angels.