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Borscht belts: The return of the Pink Panther

Castelli, Shnapir having time of their lives; Zhang in it for the long term
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Aliona Savchenko and Robin Szolkowy are preparing for one of the most aniticipated showdowns of these Games: a meeting with Russians Tatiana Volosozhar and Maxim Trankov. -Getty Images

The Pink Panther will strike again.

German four-time world champions Aliona Savchenko and Robin Szolkowy confirmed at a press conference Sunday that they have converted the popular Pink Panther free skate they used in the 2010-11 season - when they went undefeated -- into their new short program.

The familiar music from the comedy starring Inspector Clouseau - the 2006 remake, with Steve Martin in the lead role - replaces the more dramatic "When Winter Comes" and serves in stark contrast to that used by their main rivals, Tatiana Volosozhar and Maxim Trankov, the waltz from Aram Khachaturian's Masquerade.

"We had it at the back of our minds the whole season. The music had already been decided on after the first Grand Prix. We tried it several times; after the European championships, it was the right time," the team's longtime coach Ingo Steuer said. "Aliona took the time to rest (the pair withdrew from Europeans after the short program because Savchenko was suffering from what was termed "an acute viral infection of the upper respiratory tract"), I edited the music fresh, tested it, and now it fits, and off we went."

The team should have known this was the way to go when Savchenko received a prescient gift while in China for its first Grand Prix event.

"Some people gave me a present, and it was a Pink Panther. It didn't feel right. I didn't know whether it was a sign or whether people just wanted to give me a Pink Panther as a present," Savchenko said. "When we decided to do this program, I thought, Well, let's take it as a sign. For me, the Pink Panther -- the one I received in China -- has become a symbol of good luck."

The Germans will need more than luck to slow the tidal wave of momentum Volosozhar and Trankov are riding. The Russians performed an exquisite rendition of their short program in the team event, in which their country is primed to win the gold.

That is of little concern to Savchenko and Szolkowy, and their federation.

"The short of Volosozhar and Trankov was very good in Sochi. It was also their best performance. We have to take them seriously, but at the end of day, it's [about] the performance that's given," said Eike Treitz, vice president of the German Skating Union. "It was in the team event and, in fact, the cards will be dealt differently [in the pairs event]."

To overcome the favorites, the Germans may have to bring into play their throw triple Axel, an element they have yet to land consistently in competition.

"The [throw] triple Axel will be something that Aliona will decide upon," Steuer said. "She has to decide, with Robin, whether she wants to do it or not."

The team does not lack for confidence, nor should it. After all, it did defeat the Russians at the Grand Prix Final in December, a victory that served as a reminder that there is another pairs team out there that has what it takes to win the gold in Sochi.

Steuer said, "Everything we've planned is spot on. Our [mindset] is very strong, especially at the Olympics. This is our third time around. We've learned a lot. We've got a lot of experience. Now we can use that."

Castelli, Shnapir lovin' every minute of it

Marissa Castelli and Simon Shnapir could not be having a better experience at these Olympic Games.

The pair has skated two career-best programs in the team event and, along with some of their U.S. teammates, is in line to win a medal in that inaugural competition.

Not long ago, however, the probability of this scenario playing out would have been placed somewhere between "highly unlikely" and "not a chance in you-know-where."

Their rocky relationship is well documented. Two years ago, their partnership was on the outs. But they had a change of heart and decided to give it one last go.

They're glad they did.

"Everyone knows the path is never easy on the way to the top. We've had many ups and downs," Castelli said at a press conference Sunday. "This is a great lesson for every skater: You don't have to be perfect to make it to the Olympics. You don't have to the best. You just have to work hard."

That's just what they've done. In the last two years, they've won back-to-back U.S. titles, took the bronze at the 2013 Four Continents Championships and now find themselves on the brink of making an Olympic podium.

"It's really rewarding, with all the work we've put in. We've had to sacrifice a lot to make this work. We've had to change a lot about ourselves since a couple of years ago, when we were in a lower place than we are in now," Shnapir said. "We couldn't be any prouder for each other. I wouldn't want to be here with any else other than Marissa."

For Shnapir, this has been a homecoming of sorts, as he was born in Russia (Moscow, specifically). The last time he visited the country was 15 years ago, so he didn't know quite to expect when he got here, but he's been pleasantly surprised.

"So far it's been nothing but positive. Everyone here has been so welcoming. The competition itself has been fantastic. The volunteer work has been incredible. I couldn't be happier with the positive attitudes," he said. "It's really an honor to be here, to be back in my country of birth."

(He was quick to point out: "I'm 100 percent proud to represent the United States.")

They both are hopeful the team event sticks around. (It's being held only provisionally at these Games.)

"To be able to compete as a team, help each other out, cheer each other on, hold up flags in the kiss and cry, it's something were not used to," Shnapir said. "It shows more of the team aspect, like you see in other sports. It's good for the development of the sport."

The team will take a day (Sunday) to let their bodies recover and then get right back to practice Monday. The idea of being physically fatigued doesn't even enter their minds.

Castelli said, "We're ready to go. We couldn't have asked for a better opportunity -- to compete four times at the Olympics."

Zhang keeps things loose

China's Hao Zhang, 29, and his 16-year-old partner Peng Cheng skated a clean, inspired short program to take third place in the team pairs short program.

The tall, muscular Zhang, who always seems to be laughing, keeps Chinese reporters in stitches in the mixed zone. After the team's short Thursday night, one reporter asked whether his relationship with Peng was like that of a big brother/little sister.

"No, it's more like an uncle and niece," he replied.

Zhang skated for 14 years with Dan Zhang, who is no relation. The two won silver at the 2006 Torino Games as well as three world silver medals (2006, '08, '09). Their partnership ended in 2012 when published reports from China said Dan, at about 5' 6", had grown too tall for pairs lifts. The far shorter Peng is listed on her ISU bio as about 5'1".

Peng and Hao Zhang were paired by renowned Chinese coach Yao Bin in May 2012 and train in Harbin under Bin and 2010 Olympic pairs champion Hongbo Zhao. Peng began skating pairs in 2011 with a previous partner.

"Our coach (Zhao) tells us: Focus on every single element, step by step," Hao Zhang said. "He always says, 'Don't think of the next element, just the element you are doing now.'"

Hao Zhang seems delighted with his partner, with whom he placed fourth at the Grand Prix Final in December. He even lets her cut his hair.

"She has gained quite a lot of pair experience, very quickly," he said. "We have good communication with each other and can discuss all of the elements. She has improved a lot over the last year."

Zhao and his partner (and now wife) Xue Shen competed until they were 31 and 36, respectively. China's top-ranked pairs skaters in Sochi, reigning Olympic silver medalists Qing Pang and Jian Tong, are each 34 years old.

Hao Zhang competed in three Olympics with Dan Zhang and hopes to surpass his teammate's competitive longevity. He seems to have recovered well from the hand and shoulder injuries that plagued him in his final seasons with Dan Zhang.

"Definitely, we will continue to compete next season," he said, and then laughed and added, "Maybe I will do five Olympics. I will try to skate forever and take part in every possible Olympics."

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