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Pang, Tong defend Four Continents title

Virtue, Moir fend off friendly challengers -- Davis, White -- in OD

Qing Pang and Jian Tong wave to the crowd from the top of the podium in Vancouver, where they hope to stand again at the Olympics in 2010.
Qing Pang and Jian Tong wave to the crowd from the top of the podium in Vancouver, where they hope to stand again at the Olympics in 2010. (Getty Images)

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By Laurie Nealin, special to icenetwork.com
(02/05/2009) - No one could come close to overtaking China's Qing Pang and Jian Tong for the pairs title on Thursday at the 2009 ISU Four Continents Championships.

With their soaring throws and twist in their Tango-themed free skate program, the 2006 world champions scored over eight points more for their finale than their nearest challengers, Canada's 2008 world bronze medalists Jessica Dubé and Bryce Davison. Despite an impressive performance of their own, Dubé and Davison could not keep pace with the first-round leaders.

The Chinese earned 129.34 points for their free skate and 194.94 overall, eclipsing the Canadians' scores of 121.26 and 185.62.

Pang and Tong, who won Four Continents last year in Korea but then finished only fifth at the 2008 World Championships, made no major errors but lost unison in their side-by-side spins. Dubé and Davison's only significant miscue came on her exit of the throw triple Lutz -- she had to quickly step from an off-balance landing edge to keep from going down.

Dan Zhang and Hao Zhang, the reigning world silver medalists, held their spot in the bronze-medal position despite an error-strewn routine that slowed to a near crawl in the final minute of their four-and-a-half minute skate. They explained afterwards that she had been nursing a knee injury, which had significantly hampered their training time coming into this event. They finished with 174.98 total points.

Canada's Meagan Duhamel and Craig Buntin, in their second season together, were fourth with 168.43 points. They, too, struggled through their routine on what will be Olympic ice in 2010.

Pang and Tong said that after the disappointing finish to their 2007-08 season, they recognized that Pang had to work at strengthening her leg muscles so she could better execute her triple jumps. As well, the ultra-slim woman put on weight to give her more strength for the lifts. That strategy paid off here with the couple executing both a triple Salchow and toe loop in their long program.

"We were very excited coming here, especially knowing it would be the venue for the 2010 Olympics," Tong said through an interpreter. "So we tried to live up to those [Olympic] expectations, and we were able to do that. We're very happy with our performance."

Dubé and Davison were equally pleased, having shown great improvement on their triple twist and nailing two solid throws and strong individual jumps in their final performance.

"We're very happy -- happy with the way it is going into worlds, happy with how our training is producing good results," Davison said.

David Wilson, who choreographed both programs for Dubé and Davison, said he would like to see them continue to bring out the character of their Carmen long program.

"Now they have the confidence to do the whole program and get the tricks out there. This is the biggest challenge they've had so far, as far as a character piece, but they really want it and that's where my focus will be," he said, looking ahead to preparations for the world championships in Los Angeles at the end of March.

The Four Continents rookies on Team USA -- Keauna McLaughlin and Rockne Brubaker and Caydee Denney and Jeremy Barrett -- did not have their best start to the competition here, but both teams came back like gangbusters in the finale.

First, Denney and Barrett made their move, climbing from eighth after the opener to sixth overall with 161.69 points. Next up were the two-time U.S. champions, McLaughlin and Brubaker, who also advanced two spots, moving into fifth place. They finished with 164.01 points.

The third U.S. couple, Rena Inoue and John Baldwin, finished seventh overall (157.38) in their sixth appearance at Four C's.

Ice Dancing

Earlier Thursday, with her body's adrenaline helping to dull the post-operative pain that Tessa Virtue still feels in her shins, she and partner Scott Moir scored top marks for their Charleston to remain atop the ice dance leaderboard.

Still, when the compulsory scores were added to those for today's original dance, Canada's world silver medalists are less than two points ahead of their training mates and good friends, Meryl Davis and Charlie White of the U.S. -- 97.30 to 95.65.

Third place belongs to Emily Samuelson, 18, and Evan Bates, 19, of Team USA, whose delightful and crisp "Follow the Fleet" swing dance collected 59.48 points, giving them a total score of 90.89.

Virtue and Moir, the defending Four Continents champions, earned 60.90 points for their dance set to "Won't You Charleston with Me" from The Boyfriend motion picture soundtrack, while Davis and White tallied 60.42 for their Happy Feet Charleston. Both couples opened with impressive twizzle sequences featuring mirror-like synchronization.

Asked about the pain she is now experiencing, Virtue, who sat on a chair to answer questions from the media in the mixed zone, said, "It's definitely not the same pain I felt after the surgery. It's the after-affects. I'm putting a lot of pressure on [my legs] now.

"It's exciting that I'll soon be skating without that pain and, really, it's not all that bad," insisted Virtue, who was sidelined for the first half of the season due to her injury, called exertional compartment syndrome.

Before Friday's free dance final, Virtue said she would be applying ice, having acupuncture and trying to rest and elevate her legs as much as possible.

Coach Marina Zoueva described her top couple's performance as "much better" than two weeks earlier in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, where Virtue and Moir won their second Canadian title. Still, their pair spin, which features unique opposing "illusion" moves, appeared slow and somewhat unsteady.

Davis and White, the newly-crowned U.S. champions who were second at Four Continents in 2008, said "nailing" their twizzles in the opening sequence set a good tone for the rest of their performance.

"Our spin was Level 3, so that's the only thing we were a little disappointed in, but really we're happy with the performance," Davis said.

Samuelson and Bates' solid effort moved them ahead of fellow teens Vanessa Crone, 18, and Paul Poirier, 17, of Canada, who were silver medalists behind the Americans at junior worlds a year ago. Crone and Poirier have 88.79 points, 2.10 behind their rivals.

"It was definitely one of our best of the year. We have nothing to complain about. We're definitely excited," said Bates of their original dance.

Crone and Poirier's slip from podium position was not for lack of effort. They pulled out all the stops to gain style points by painting a twirling, black, handlebar moustache on Poirier's face to depict the character of their 1920s ragtime dance. Competition referee Bob Horen of the U.S. said he applauded the Canadian's theatrical touch.

The third-ranked Canadian and American couples rank fifth and sixth, respectively, after the original dance. Kaitlyn Weaver and Andrew Poje have 83.95 points, while Kimberly Navarro and Brent Bommentre are at 78.18. The Americans would be closer if they had not tripped up on the twizzles.

The free dance is set for 4:45 p.m. ET on Friday.