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WINTER OLYMPICS

Fourth time is their charm

Two-time bronze medalists Shen Xue and Zhao Hongbo navigate through injury, disappointment and retirement to become the first Chinese champions in any Olympic figure-skating discipline.

February 16, 2010|By Philip Hersh

Reporting from Vancouver, Canada — Finally.

In their fourth try, one of the most dazzling pairs teams in history won an Olympic title.

And a gold medal didn't go to a Russian pair for the first time since 1960.

The Chinese proverb about a journey of a thousand miles beginning with a single step applies perfectly to what happened in the 2010 pairs figure skating final Monday night at the Pacific Coliseum.

Shen Xue, 31, and Zhao Hongbo, 36, completed an odyssey that they began as skating partners in 1992. The two-time Olympic bronze medalists navigated through severe injury, disappointment and retirement to become the first Chinese champions in any Olympic figure skating discipline.

"Shen and Zhao are my inspiration," said Amanda Evora, whose 10th-place finish with Mark Ladwig made them the leading U.S. pair.

"Here they are after all these years. Now I really know what it means to be an Olympian."

The winners' free skate was flawed and clearly inferior to that of countrymen Pang Qing and Tong Jian, who were so extraordinary that Shen and Zhao applauded as they followed Pang and Tong onto the ice.

"We saw the finish of their program and it was excellent, so of course we were happy and applauded," Shen said. "Then [I thought], now it's my turn. I was very focused to execute every element the best way possible."

The winning margin came from the 5.16-point lead Shen and Zhao built in the short program. They wound up with a world record 216.57 total to 213.31 for Pang and Tong.

Not only did the Russian win streak end after 12 Olympics, but they missed the podium entirely after Yuko Kavaguti and Alexander Smirnov dropped from a close third after the short program to a distant fourth behind Germans Aliona Savchenko and Robin Szolkowy with a free skate messy from start to finish.

After a short program in which the top five teams -- three Chinese, one Russian and one German -- had skated exceptionally well, the extra 1 minute 45 seconds of the long program took a physical toll that led to notable mistakes by all but Pang and Tong.

They won the free skate with a world record 141.81 points and a breathtaking, speed-of-light interpretation of "The Impossible Dream" from the musical "Man of La Mancha."

One crucial decision by the technical panel may have decided the outcome.

Shen and Zhao, skating to Albinoni's "Adagio," risked getting a zero for a lift that ended with her clunking onto him. It was ruled she had made the necessary two revolutions in the air, and they wound up with a negative grade of execution but four big points.

Married after winning their third world title in 2007, they retired to show skating for two seasons before returning to competitive training last May.

"We have had this dream for many, many, many years," Zhao said. "We have won many competitions, and every time they raised the national flag and played the national anthem, we always wished it was the Olympic Games."

Shen and Zhao are the oldest Olympic champions since the Protopopovs in 1968. This was their final competition.

Meanwhile, the U.S. pairs were so far from contention for their first medal since 1988 that the podium might as well have been in Montreal.

And they keep getting farther away: Evora and Ladwig's 10th with 171.92 points was the worst highest finish by a U.S. team in Olympic history. The previous worst: a seventh by Rena Inoue and John Baldwin in 2006.

Adding the 13th place by reigning champions Caydee Denney and Jeremy Barrett, who scored 158.33, it was the worst aggregate finish in the 11 Olympics the United States had two pairs entries.

"I don't think the U.S. is in decline," Barrett insisted after he and Denney did an acceptable if unremarkable free skate with two botched jumping passes.

Evora and Ladwig, partners for eight years, also made mistakes on both their side-by-side jumping passes but had an attractive unison lacking in Denney and Barrett, who have skated together for only 19 months.

phersh@tribune.com

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