By Pritha Sarkar
LONDON (Reuters) - Javier Fernandez, Yuzuru Hanyu and Patrick Chan have won the last six men's titles at the figure skating world championships but the 'old guard' will be under pressure in Helsinki to quell the growing threat posed by a gang of high-flying upstarts.
In the final global meet before next February's Winter Olympics in South Korea's Pyeongchang, the trio will be eager to show that they are still capable of pulling off more soaring quadruple jumps than their younger rivals.
"It's mind blowing what these guys are doing technically," the 26-year-old Chan, who won a hat-trick of world titles before settling for Olympic silver behind Hanyu at the 2014 Sochi Games, told reporters in a conference call.
"We are at a point now where it’s crazy."
Just seven years ago, American Evan Lysacek captured the 2010 Olympic gold without attempting a single quadruple jump.
That prompted 2006 Olympic gold medallist Yevgeny Plushenko to claim Lysacek was "not a true champion" and that he had won gold by "dancing rather than skating like a man".
Now it is no longer a question of 'if' the top contenders will attempt a skill that requires them to lift off into the air and complete four revolutions before touching down on the ice, but 'how many' quads they will pull off.
The battle for the gold medal is likely to be between double world champion Fernandez and Japan's Hanyu, who won the Olympic and world titles during a magical few weeks in 2014.
The two Brian Orser graduates have been untouchable at the world championships for the last two years, leaving the rest of the field to chase bronze.
However, with 17-year-old American Nathan Chen capturing the top prize at last month's Four Continents competition, the chasing pack is closing in fast.
Fernandez, 25, still expects to be fighting it out with Hanyu for gold in Helsinki but said emerging talents such as China's Jin Boyang and Japanese teenager Shoma Uno could not be discounted.
"Definitely Yuzu will be my biggest rival in Helsinki because he’s always my biggest rival," Fernandez told Reuters about the training partner he calls his "skating wife".
"I know Patrick is going to be fighting for that medal.
"Nathan Chen is a great technique guy, he does a lot of quads and is pretty strong. Boyang Jin is also very technical and strong. Even Shoma Uno can skate really well."
When Chan decided to take a break after his Olympic dreams were dashed, his quad repertoire was limited to quad-toeloops.
A year into his comeback, he has added a quad Salchow to his arsenal in an attempt to keep pace with the young tyros.
Fernandez said the younger skaters were developing quickly.
"Figure skating is changing, the guys who were in the juniors only one or two years ago are now pushing us really hard," he added.
"There are maybe five skaters who will be fighting so hard for that gold medal at the worlds."
Recent form suggests that the other titles will be more clear cut as defending women's champion Evgenia Medvedeva has not been beaten this season, while 2010 Olympic ice dance champions Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir have enjoyed a comeback to savour.
Following a two-year hiatus, the Canadians have won every meet they have entered and look set to end the two-year reign of their French training partners Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron.
"This is the most prepared we’ve been for a world championships arguably in our whole career," Moir said during a conference call. "We can’t wait to get to Finland, we can’t wait to get on that ice and we can’t wait to compete two programs that we love."
Fellow Canadians Meagan Duhamel and Eric Radford will arrive in Helsinki for the March 29 to April 2 championships chasing a hat-trick of pairs titles.
(Editing by Peter Rutherford)