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Shen, Zhao end Russian Olympic pairs dominance

Pang, Tong win free skate and silver medal; Germans third

Xue Shen and Hongbo Zhao are finally taking time to celebrate their nuptials.
Xue Shen and Hongbo Zhao are finally taking time to celebrate their nuptials. (Getty Images)

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By Lynn Rutherford, special to icenetwork.com
(02/16/2010) - Russia's 46-year Olympic dynasty has ended.

Xue Shen and Hongbo Zhao capped a historic career, including three world titles and two Olympic bronzes, with a mesmerizing, if slightly flawed, performance that helped them capture gold by a 3.26-point margin.

The Chinese team's long competitive journey, born in the gritty industrial city of Harbin in 1992, has come to a triumphant close.

"We're very happy today, of course," Zhao said. "This is a dream come true. We have had this dream for many, many years.

"We have won many competitions, but every time we saw our flag rise and heard our national anthem, we wished it was the Olympic Games."

Their program, to Albinoni's "Adagio in G Minor," wasn't perfect; Zhao had to fight for the landing of the second double Axel in a sequence, and after the pair awkwardly aborted an Axel Lasso lift, you could feel the audience willing them to skate the rest of their program clean.

Their long-sought gold hung on Shen's uncanny ability to land back-to-back throws. She did not disappoint, gliding out of a throw triple loop and hanging on to the landing of a throw triple Salchow.

"Before we set foot on to the ice, we saw our teammates [Qing] Pang and [Jian] Tong finish their program, and it was excellent," Shen said.

"Of course we felt happy for them and applauded them. I thought, 'It is my turn to finish my program in the best way I can.' I thought I needed to be very concentrated and execute every element in the best way possible."

The victory was just as sweet for Bin Yao, who coached the team from the start, pairing the little-known Shen with the five-years-older Zhao -- already a national champion.

Yao and partner Bo Luan were the first pair to represent China at the World Championships -- in Dortmund in 1980 -- placing last. Legend has it members of the crowd, and perhaps fellow skaters, laughed at the Chinese' inept moves, but some who were there do not remember anything so unsportsmanlike.

No one ever laughed at Shen and Zhao, who were known for their huge twist and soaring throws almost from the start. Over the years, the two added elegance and musicality to their programs, and few skaters were ever as tender with each other on the ice. Eventually, their feelings grew into love. They were married in 2007.

"At this point, it would be a bit difficult to continue our career," Zhao said. "Maybe it is time to retire and have a baby."

The gold belongs to Shen and Zhao, but their often overlooked teammates, Pang and Tong, won the night with a clean, commanding program to the majestic strains of "Impossible Dream."

The 2006 world champions' free skate earned 141.81 points, and they took the silver medal with 213.31.

"I think our performance tonight was very great and I still feel like it is a dream," Pang said.

"I kissed the ice [at the] end of the program; I don't know what got into me," Tong added. "I felt this power that made me do that. I just want to thank the spectators for the support they gave us. They gave us the power and courage, and that is why we were able to put out a perfect performance tonight."

It was heartbreak for two-time reigning world champions Aliona Savchenko and Robin Szolkowy, whose disappointing season continued with jumping mistakes in their free skate to music from Out of Africa.

Savchenko doubled the second triple toe in their opening sequence, and Szolkowy fell on a double Axel.

"I think everybody knows we are a little disappointed in our performance tonight; it was not the one we wanted to show," Szolkowy said.

"The pressure that's built up -- maybe in our minds -- to this one long program in four years. Of course you have to skate clean for the gold medal. We had this one chance to do a double Axel and maybe it was too much for me. I tried to do my best, but, the result -- everybody knows what happened."

Russians Yuko Kavaguti and Alexander Smirnov, third after the short, placed a distant fourth after a seventh-place free skate that saw Smirnov fall out of a double Axel and Kavaguti crash on a throw triple loop.

"We didn't skate our best performance, that's it," Kavaguti said. "It just happened."

World silver medalists Dan Zhang and Hao Zhang of China placed fifth after Hao Zhang took an uncharacteristic fall on the team's opening double Axel. Canadian champions Jessica Dubé and Bryce Davison were sixth.

U.S. silver medalists Amanda Evora and Mark Ladwig placed tenth overall with a strong program to Rachmaninov's Piano Concerto No. 2, highlighted by the team's spectacular reverse Lasso lift.

When Evora was held aloft by her partner, she smiled and nodded to the audience, drawing extra cheers from the crowd.

"That is one of my favorite parts of the program," the skater said. "It's a signature lift for us, the reverse overhead. I love that I don't use my hands, and I can see the entire audience right at the crescendo of the music."

Ladwig, too, savored their Olympic experience.

"I really loved more moments than I even thought I would," he said. "I think we really reached out to the audience tonight. I had that mistake [doubling] my triple toe, but otherwise the elements were clean."

Caydee Denney and Jeremy Barrett had a few glitches in their free, including downgraded triple toes and Barrett's singling of an intended double Axel, but they climbed up one spot to 13th place.

"Two years ago, before Caydee came back to train in Florida, I was considering retiring from the sport," Barrett said. "This whole experience, it's just been awesome."

"Two years ago, I wasn't even thinking about skating pairs," added Denney. "I've only been at this for 18 months."