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Zhang and Zhang tops in pairs short program

Chinese team holds edge entering free skate

Dan Zhang and Hao Zhang lead the field going into the free skate competition.
Dan Zhang and Hao Zhang lead the field going into the free skate competition. (Getty Images)

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By Alexandra Stevenson, special to icenetwork.com
(03/18/2008) - Former U.S. champions (2004 & 2006), Rena Inoue and John Baldwin and (2007) Brooke Castile and Ben Okolski gave spirited, but flawed showings to lie 10th and 12th going into Wednesday's final of the pairs world championships.

The evening belonged to Dan Zhang and Hao Zhang. Television audiences all over the world remember this duo because of her accident in the Olympic Games in Torino. In that event, she fell heavily on to her knees after under-rotating a throw quad jump. The competition was held up while she received medical attention, but she came back and finished their free skate routine and they were rewarded with silver.

They outshined the pre-event favorites Aliona Savchenko and Robin Szolkowy of Germany, who had earned that position by beating the Zhangs in the Grand Prix Final in December.

The Zhangs skated to a poundingly powerful but pleasant piece of music named Piano Fantasy played by the famed pianist, Mrvica Maksim. Their showing was clearly superior performance technically.

The Chinese lead by 2.36 marks. They were 2.75 ahead on the total element score but the Germans gained 0.31 more for their program components.

"We are very pleased with the result," said Dan Zhang. "This is the second time winning the small gold medal for the Short Program. We are very glad for that. Also we beat our personal best (74.34). But the most important part, the free skate, is still to come."

Her partner revealed he was skating with pain, "I had a small surgery on my left leg two weeks ago. The incision was about an inch long. The wound has not healed. It does hurt a lot." The operation was to remove a carbuncle.

The audience, as they inevitably do, gasped as Hao threw Dan way above his head in a lateral twist and caught her after she had accomplished three rotations with his hands above his head.

That spectacular move received only Level 1, which has a base value of only 5.00. But it was done so well, six of the twelve judges gave +3, the maximum Grade of Execution (GOE), so +1.74 was added to that score.

To get a higher level, skaters must add extra features, such as a more complicated entry or, in the case of the twist, get the woman to put her hands over her head during the revolutions. A Level 2 twist receives 0.50 more than a Level 1, but if it is done badly then a minus GOE results and marks are taken off the base value. The sport has become a numbers game with coaches trying to figure out what difficulty they should gamble with.

All the Zhangs' eight elements received positives GOEs.

Savchenko and Szolkowy drew first to skate. He said that was "No problem. Nowadays skating at the beginning doesn't equal getting low scores anymore."

Skating to "Asoka," a Bollywood movie, they began with a high throw triple flip which moved three judges to reward them with +3 GOEs. The following triple twist was Level 2 and gained three +2s. The other nine judges awarded +1s.

However, then came the move that cost them the lead. She stepped out of their side by side triple toes. Savchenko, who is 25-years-old, said, "I don't know what happened there."

There were no errors on their remaining five moves, four of which received the maximum Level 4. Their concluding element, the straight line steps was Level 3.

Szolkowy, 28, was nothing if not honest. "We were not that good, but it is difficult to estimate how we've done, as the other couples have still to skate."

In third, only 0.58 behind the Germans, are the Russian champions, Yuko Kawaguchi and Alexander Smirnov of Russia, who performed to Saint-Saens' Rondo Capriccioso. They plan to present a throw quad Salchow in the free skate. Kawaguchi, who skated with Devin Patrick in the U.S. Nationals 2006, said, "It was the best short of the season. I'm pleased with the score but the performance could have been a little better. The throw was shaky but I fought not to touch down with my second foot or with my hands.

"The throw wasn't the most difficult element for me. The death spiral was. If we get Level 3 for it, I'll be happy." They did and she was.

They began with triple toes which were were synchronized with split second timing and was rewarded with nine +2 GOEs and three +1s. However, the highlight of the routine was their +1.86 GOE Axel Lasso lift.

Both were in outside spreadeagle positions when he lifted her off the ice, and he was in the same position when he brought her back down.

In fourth are Jessica Dube and Bryce Davison, who were the Canadian champions in 2007 but were runners-up this year. Davison said, "This is the best short program we did this year."

The 2006 world champions and last year's silver medalists, Qing Pang and Jian Tong of China, drew to skate last. They were predicted to be higher than fifth.

But they just "weren't on". Tong said, "Maybe it affected us that we skated last. It's been a while since we skated last. It feels a little different. We try to forget about the mistakes and do our best."

Right away, their routine, beautifully choreographed to O Doux Printemps d'Autrefois by Nikolai Morosov, hit a problem when he stepped out of his triple toe and the jump was classed as under-rotated.

Nevertheless, they had the third highest component marks and are only 0.79 behind the Canadians.

"Maybe it affected us that we skated last," said Tong.

Rena Inoue and John Baldwin, who drew to skate immediately after Savchenko and Szolkowy, did not follow the usual path in preparing for this season. Their coach, Phillipp Mills, was in semi-retirement when they approached him on Nov. 1 to put together a show program.

Mills explained, "That turned out successfully and they asked me to put together two competitive programs. I said I thought they should consult their coach and they said they didn't have one.

"Our relationship was all very informal, and it's amazing what they have done in the short time they had."

The couple, who got engaged when he proposed after they finished skating a routine at the 2008 U.S. Championships, began their to Beethoven's Last Night with a triple twist that was rated only Level 1 and received -1.40 because she crashed into him on the landing.

Their next move was the element only they do, a throw triple Axel. Baldwin said, "It's not a big risk for us. We did a good one tonight. It was so big she just was not able to hold on to that edge."

Inoue's fall on that move, which is valued at 7.50, meant that they earned only 5.50 and were given a deduction of 1.0.

She said, "We changed a lot of elements but the levels are not getting better. (Officials) suggested we make a lot of changes. The pair spin we've totally changed."

Baldwin, caught waiting for the draw for the free skate, said he thought they might get married "in the summer and have lots of babies who won't be skaters."

Brooke Castile was extremely hard on herself. It was obviously from her face that she was very displeased. Even her outfit, which she designed in sunny colors, couldn't brighten the mood.

"It was definitely the worst short we've done all year. I don't feel we're the most prepared for this competition so, for me, it's a huge let down. I'm not very happy.

"My whole left side basically from my back down is injured. It shouldn't affect me but the experience of competition is lacking. It's not really here this season. My jumps aren't as good as they should be right now."

The landing of their Level 1 triple twist was not good. She put a hand down on their throw triple Salchow and she singled her planned double Axel.