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Overlooked pairs toughest, most dangerous discipline

Posted: Monday February 13, 2006 7:56PM; Updated: Monday February 13, 2006 7:56PM
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Dan Zhang, Hao Zhang
Dan Zhang (left) survived an early fall to combine with Hao Zhang to win the bronze medal in pairs skating.
Heinz Kluetmeier

It's too bad that Americans aren't better at pairs skating, because it's the most interesting, and difficult, of the four skating disciplines. The last time a U.S. pair medaled at the Olympics was in 1988, when Jill Watson and Peter Oppegard took bronze. It's also by far the most dangerous discipline, the figure skating equivalent of bull riding, as Monday night's Olympic free program proved once again.

Less than 30 seconds into their final program, China's sensational young pair of Dan Zhang (the woman) and Hao Zhang (the man) attempted a quadruple throw salchow, which had never before been landed in competition. It nearly knocked the 20-year-old Dan Zhang out of the Games. After traveling 15 feet in the air and completing 2½ revolutions, she seemed to decide she wasn't going to make it, gave a panicked look back at her partner, then froze in mid-air, plummeting to the ice from a height of six feet. Her legs, on hitting the ice, splayed like those of a newborn fawn. She did a split, her left knee cracking into the ice and her butt slamming into the boards. The audience gasped in alarm. When she couldn't immediately continue, it looked like team Zhang (who are neither married nor related) would have to abandon the performance. But after a short break the Chinese woman assured her partner she could continue, and they picked up their program where they'd left off: completing every high-flying element, including a quadruple twist, a trick they were the first ever to perform. The audience ate it up, and the Zhangs ended up second to the Russian gold medalists, Tatiana Totmianina and Maxim Marinim.

Pairs skating fans will remember that Totmaianina also survived what could have been a life-threatening fall a couple of years ago. She suffered a severe concussion when she was dropped on her head by Marinin at the Skate America competition in September 2004. Ice doesn't give. Fortunately, she didn't suffer a skull fracture, one of the frightening risks that goes with the territory in pairs skating, where half the time the girl is either being hoisted, flung, or twirled at a height of nine or 10 feet over the ice. No padding. No helmet. Armed only with trust and a dazzling smile. Like the rider on a bull, it's the tiny girl who takes the punishment in pairs. Yes, it was American John Baldwin who pumped his fist in the air theatrically after his partner, Rene Inoue, landed the first ever throw triple axel in Olympic competition during Saturday's short program -- they eventually finished a creditable seventh -- but it was the 95-pound Inoue who was being splattered all over the ice earlier in the week as the pair tried to get the timing of the trick down. Why these pixies don't wear helmets during practice is a mystery. One fears that as the tricks continue to get harder and harder, the injuries to these brave ladies are going to get more frequent and worse.

Which, of course, is much of the sport's appeal. Pairs skating is beauty and the beast, a breathtaking package of danger and loveliness. It's magic ... until it's a train wreck. But when it's right, it's as good as skating gets.

One final thought: China's Xue Shen, 27, and Hongbo Zhao, 32, in what was surely their last Olympic competition, closed their careers with style. Two-time world champions and bronze medalists at the Games in 2002, they'd missed most of the season as Zhao slowly recovered from the Achilles injury he suffered last August. Speculation was that even if they were to compete in Turin, they couldn't possibly be up to form with so little time to practice. But they showed some of their old magic in Monday night, if not quite the athleticism of their youth. In a performance filled with passion, speed and grace, Shen and Zhao brought the 6,000-plus fans out of their seats with a long program that pulled them up from fifth place to third, enabling them to go home with another bronze. They deserved it. They were the pioneers for what has become a Chinese juggernaut in pairs skating, a country that has come from nowhere to challenge the Russians for pairs supremacy. The two countries have left the rest of the world behind.

Don't hold it against them. Watch.