GOTEBORG, Sweden - Olympic bronze medalist Jeffrey Buttle and American Johnny Weir took the lead in the men's competition with strong short programs, while the last two title winners fumbled or fell yesterday at the World Figure Skating Championships.
Weir's finish was some rare good news this week for the Americans, who have been shut out of the medals so far.
In other developments, Isabelle Delobel and Olivier Schoenfelder won the ice dance gold while Tanith Belbin and Ben Agosto are leaving empty-handed.
Delobel and Schoenfelder won their first world ice dance title, 18 years after the French pair began skating together, while Belbin and Agosto failed to win a medal for the first time since 2004. The Olympic silver medalists and five-time US champions had a rare fall in the compulsories, and finished a mere 0.26 points short of the medals podium.
Canada's Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir, who train with Belbin and Agosto in Detroit, won the silver and Russia's Jana Khokhlova and Sergei Novitski took the bronze.
"This competition was a big mind game for us," Belbin said.
Added Agosto, "I'm not going to lie, it was pretty difficult to come back after the fall. It was shocking."
Belbin and Agosto were considered the favorites in dance after Grand Prix final and European champions Oksana Domnina and Maxim Shabalin had to withdraw because of his injury. When the Americans fell in compulsories - something that almost never happens - it left the door wide open for the French, and they took advantage of it.
They failed to win the free dance yet again, but they'd built up a big enough lead in the compulsories and original dance that it didn't matter. They finished with an overall score of 212.94 points.
Delobel and Schoenfelder aren't the only couple that has staying power. Virtue and Moir are just 18 and 20, respectively, but they've already been together for 11 years. They met when they were skating at the same rink, and his aunt, their skating teacher, paired them up.
"[Virtue] had a little bit of a crush on me and didn't want to give it up for 11 years," Moir joked.
Turning serious, Moir said their familiarity is critical to their success. They won the free dance with a beautifully choreographed ode to summer love.
"Our connection together definitely helps us every day," he said.
In the men's competition, Buttle skated impeccably, landing a gorgeous triple flip-triple toe loop combination and scoring top levels for all of his spins. With a total score of 82.10, the Canadian is 1.31 points ahead of Weir, the three-time US champion. Japan's Daisuke Takahashi, the defending silver medalist and the most consistent of the top men this year, is a close third at 80.49.
Two-time world champion Stephane Lambiel was fifth and defending champ Brian Joubert was sixth, though the French federation is appealing a 1-point deduction for having vocals in his music.
"I felt so comfortable out there. I felt like I couldn't make a mistake," said Buttle, who was slowed by a back injury last season and is trying to regain the form that won him the bronze at the Turin Olympics.
Weir's triple lutz-triple toe combination was sky-high, and his footwork and spins got the crowd behind him. Ever the showman, Weir knew he'd done well, giving his fists a little shake at his sides when he finished.
"I feel very good. I think I've done everything I can this season," said Weir, who actually tied Evan Lysacek at the US championships in January but was bumped down to second on the tiebreaker.
Stephen Carriere, last year's junior world champion, is in 11th and Jeremy Abbott is 14th. Results at the 2009 worlds determine how many entries countries get at the Vancouver Olympics, and the Americans have already lost one of their spots in the women's competition next year. The US ice dancers will have three 2009 worlds spots, with up-and-coming Meryl Davis and Charlie White finishing sixth.