China's Shen and Zhao win pairs gold
VANCOUVER, British Columbia (AP) -This is why Shen Xue and Zhao Hongbo came back.
The Chinese pair finally won the Olympic gold medal that eluded them for so many years Monday night, a prize so compelling it lured them out of the cozy life of a happily retired married couple. It wasn't the best skate of their career - she tumbled onto his back during a lift - but it was good enough for gold.
That's all that mattered.
Their score of 216.57 points was more than three points ahead of teammates Pang Qing and Tong Jian. When Shen and Zhao finished their routine, Zhao knelt to the ice, burying his face in his hands while his wife patted his back. He pumped his fist several times while she beamed, her grin wide and bright.
Aliona Savchenko and Robin Szolkowy of Germany dropped to the bronze medal after a flawed free skate.
The gold is the first in figure skating for China. The more shocking stat is that it's the first time since 1960 that a Russian or Soviet couple isn't atop the Olympic podium, ending one of the longest winning streaks in sports. Equally stunning, the Russians are leaving empty-handed, with no medals of any color.
Shen and Zhao, bronze medalists at the last two Olympics, retired after winning their third world title in 2007. They got married, and lived the easy life of retirees, doing shows and appearances. But something was missing.
They returned this season and despite being 31 (her) and 36 (him), ancient in pairs skating, dominated everywhere they competed. This was no different.
Skating last, and knowing the couples who could steal their gold made errors, they performed with the passion that has become their new trademark. The interpretation to "Adagio in G Minor'' was mesmerizing, with their choreography perfectly in tune to their music. She was so expressive, the audience could practically feel her every emotion.
Their throw jumps were huge and flawless, the kind of tricks that would dazzle even the X-Games generation. Their throw triple salchow was so massive, she ought to get frequent flier points.
Shen and Zhao did make one mistake, and it was a shocker. She slipped down his back during one of their lifts, a move that's normally so automatic for them, it's like a crossover. The crowd gasped, a look of exasperation crossed her face.
But they recovered immediately, and finished the program with a beautiful carry lift that circled half the ice. The audience was on its feet before their music even finished, knowing it had witnessed history. When the marks flashed, they shared a long embrace: husband and wife, now Olympic champions.
For the Americans, it was their worst showing in pairs. Amanda Evora and Mark Ladwig were 10th and U.S. champions Caydee Denney and Jeremy Barrett were 13th.
Shen and Zhao have long been pushed by their Chinese teammates, and Monday was no different. While Savchenko and Szolkowy and Russia's Yuko Kavaguti and Alexander Smirnov stumbled, Pang and Tong soared.
Pang and Tong won the world title in 2006, but have struggled ever since to recapture that brilliance. Oh, did they pick the right place to do it, winning the free skate to jump from fourth after the short program to the silver medal.
Their athleticism is simply stunning, tricks that defy gravity and comprehension. He tossed her as easily as a pillow on their throw triple twist and she soared so high she probably could have changed a lightbulb or two in the arena. Their throw jumps were, by far, the best of the night, her blade carving the ice on the landings with the precision of a surgeon's knife.
But like Shen and Zhao, what's most impressive is how Pang and Tong's performance quality has grown. Their interpretation of "Impossible Dream'' could play on any Broadway stage, and the flamenco portion of their program was pure sizzle.
They were beaming for the last 30 seconds, even while doing one of those scary lifts. When they finished, he bowed and kissed the ice as she skated around him, looking joyous.
Savchenko and Szolkowy, winners of the last two world titles, were just .70 points behind Shen and Zhao after the short program, a margin so small the Germans could change the standings with just one element.
Oh, they changed all right.
Szolkowy, with a long history of botching jumps, had to fight to save the opening triple toe loop-double toe sequence. But he had no chance on their side-by-side double axels, drawing a gasp from the crowd as he fell to the ice. And with that went their gold medal.
They were also noticeably out-of-sync on their combination spin, with him coming to an upright position while she was still turning, crouched low to the ice.