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Pair defying age in return to skating : Shen Xue and Hongbo Zhao, two-time Olympic medalists and in their 30s, lead the Skate America event.

November 14, 2009|Philip Hersh

LAKE PLACID, N.Y. — When two-time U.S. pairs skating champion Rockne Brubaker finds himself with time to kill, he often watches one of the three videos of Chinese pairs skaters Shen Xue and Hongbo Zhao on his iPod.

"I do it for inspiration," Brubaker said. "Plus it is pure enjoyment and pleasure to watch them skate."

Shen and Zhao decided to give the competitive skating world that pleasure again, making what seemed an improbable comeback for two skaters in their 30s.

The two-time Olympic bronze medalists already have given a burst of energy to a discipline lacking in star quality since the collapse of the Russian pairs skating empire after the 2006 Olympics.

Shen and Zhao had been the most athletically dynamic team of the last decade. And that dynamism was still apparent Friday night, as they celebrated Shen's 31st birthday by taking an enormous lead in the pairs short program at Skate America.

Reigning world men's singles champion Evan Lysacek took a big step toward a first Skate America title in five tries with an eight-point win in Friday's short program, even though he lost more than four points for under-rotation on his triple axel jump.

The Chinese duo is nearly 13 points ahead of the second-place team, Tatiana Volosozhar and Stanislav Morozov of Ukraine, with Brubaker and Keauna McLaughlin almost 16 points behind in fourth.

"It is an honor to be on the ice with them," Brubaker said of the Chinese pair.

This is only their second competition since winning a third world title in 2007, which Zhao celebrated by proposing to his partner. They were married later in 2007 but have yet to have a big celebration of the event.

"No time," Zhao said.

After two years of skating with the Stars on Ice tour, they began training again in May, citing the Olympics as their motivation.

Asked whether that meant just a return to the Olympics or the gold medal that has eluded them, Shen said, "The gold medal, for sure."

They returned with an easy victory at the Cup of China Grand Prix event two weeks ago, racking up the leading total score in the world this season.

At 36, Zhao is one the oldest competitive skaters since World War II. He battles frequent pain in his knees, back and shoulders. The injury that nearly forced him out of the 2006 Olympics, a torn Achilles' tendon in his left foot, has left only a lengthy surgical scar.

That Olympic comeback was even more remarkable than this would be. Zhao tore his Achilles' in August 2005, and could not jump in training until a week before the Olympics, yet wound up with the bronze.

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phersh@tribune.com

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