Sochi 2014: Australian ice dance duo waltz into free round

At the end of their ice dancing routine, Aussies Greg Merriman and Danielle O'Brien shared an impromptu hug before turning to the audience.

Four years earlier they'd failed to qualify for Vancouver in heartbreaking circumstances.

But on Sunday night, not only did they at last make their Olympic debut, but they nailed it.

Despite being one of the lowest-ranked couples on the ice, they had danced their way to their season best score and a place in Monday night's free dance (just, coming 20th out of the 20 qualifiers).

“It felt great out there, every time we did an element it just stuck, it hit,” O'Brien said afterwards. “I knew doing it that it was one of our stronger performances so to have that confirmed by the marks and then to qualify … it's going to be so much fun tomorrow.”

They had told themselves to enjoy the night just in case there was no tomorrow.

Before the dance, Merriman was soaking up the atmosphere of the big crowd and the bright lights.

O'Brien was more nervous, she said.

“Greg in the five-minute warm-up was so excited, I could feel the energy coming off him. I was tense, I was nervous … I said to Greg when we came off the ice, 'I'm scared.' ”

She felt 'up in her knees', but forced her nerves to settle down, and as soon as the music kicked in all the training made it happen.

Both their mums were in the audience – Merriman's had never seen him compete internationally, and O'Brien's hadn't seen her dance in international competition since juniors.

“Someone sent me a text saying I hope your mum doesn't spontaneously combust with nerves, so we'll see if she's still around,” O'Brien joked.

Merriman said he spotted a few people in the audience and used their energy to lift him during the performance.

“It was good to finally make a connection to the crowd,” he said.

The pair missed Vancouver in 2010 because Merriman had a major health scare the night before the qualifiers: a pain in his chest was diagnosed as peri-carditis, a viral infection in the sac surrounding his heart.

“2010's been in the back of our mind for a long time now,” he said. “We're official Olympians now!”

But he believes the last four years have made them better dancers.

Ice dancing is like ballroom dancing on ice, without the big leaps and throws of figure skating, and with a bigger emphasis on presentation as well as technical skill.

Instead of the toeloops and lutzes there are 'twizzles' and step sequences. It also differs in that the music is allowed to feature singing.

The competition was framed as a face-off between 2010's gold and silver medallists, Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir of Canada, and Meryl Davis and Charlie White of the USA.

Between them, the two pairs have won 18 of the last 20 major ice dance competitions.

Davis and White have won every competition they entered since the 2012 world championships, and would be the first ice dance team from the USA to take gold.

On Sunday night the script unfolded as expected. In the last dance of the night Davis and White leapt into the lead with a masterclass of precision and synchronicity, several points clear of Virtue and Moir in second place, followed by Russians Elena Ilinykh and Nikita Katsalapov.

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