Shen, Zhao rout field for sixth Grand Prix title

Chinese continue to impress; Germans third

Xue Shen and Hongbo Zhao are the favorites to take pairs gold at the Olympic Winter Games.
Xue Shen and Hongbo Zhao are the favorites to take pairs gold at the Olympic Winter Games. (Getty Images)


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By Alexandra Stevenson, special to
(12/05/2009) - Xue Shen and Hongbo Zhao cemented their standing as Olympic favorites, sweeping aside the competition and winning their sixth Grand Prix Final by 12.39 points.

The two-time Olympic bronze medalists, who launched a competitive comeback this spring in hopes of winning gold in Vancouver, had a few glitches in their elegant program to Albinoni's "Adagio in G Minor."

Zhao popped an intended double Axel to a single, and their Achilles' heel element -- side-by-side combination spins -- lacked unison.

But measured against the couple's intricate lifts, soaring triple twist and smooth throws, almost all in the second half of the program, these faults seem like minor quibbles.

"Our program was really good today, it felt awesome," Zhao said. "Each lift, the twist, the throws felt perfect and we felt more power. We have to continue to train hard and to polish our programs with [choreographer] Lori Nichol. We still need to skate with more power and we need to skate with our hearts."

"We love skating, so we came back and we hope to win gold in Vancouver," added his wife and partner.

Certainly, in the judges' eyes the Chinese can do no wrong. Shen and Zhao were awarded 138.89 points, a new personal best, and earned 214.25 overall, shattering their previous record.

Shen and Zhao's longtime training mates in Harbin, Qing Pang and Jian Tong, climbed from fourth after the short to take second in the free and win the silver medal with 201.86 points overall.

Performing to "Impossible Dream" from Don Quixote, the 2006 world champions' only notable error came when Tong put a hand down on a triple toe. The rest of the program was smoothly skated, with many elements including a huge throw triple Salchow well-timed to highlights in the music.

"There is just one thing that I'm not too happy with, and that is the small mistake with the second solo jump," Tong said. "But in spite of that we're really pleased with today's performance. I got the feeling that we lost some power in the second part, but as it went really well we're very happy."

It's been a tough fall for two-time reigning world champions Aliona Savchenko and Robin Szolkowy, and in Tokyo, it got tougher still.

The Germans began the season skating their free to Rodgers and Hammerstein's inspirational "You'll Never Walk Alone," but coach Ingo Steuer ditched the program after a disastrous outing at Trophee Eric Bompard in October. While their effort here, to music from the Out of Africa soundtrack, was better, it was still far from their best. Savchenko under rotated and turned out of an opening triple toe and had an awkward landing on their usually solid throw triple flip, while Szolkowy had trouble with a double Axel.

The errors put them fourth in the free with 127.24 points and third overall with 200.38.

"It was quite bad, but I almost expected it to turn out like that," Szolkowy said. "We were not completely concentrated. I don't know exactly why. Maybe it was the quick turn-around between [Skate] Canada, going home to Germany and going to Japan, that might have influenced the last missing two percent [of performance]."

Russians Maria Mukhortova and Maxim Trankov finished off the podium despite capturing third place in both the short and long.

Their lyrical, uncluttered program to Love Story -- the cleanest of the event -- earned 128.57 points and they ended with 198.35 overall.

"Every competition is different," Trankov said. "At least here I didn't have a problem with my pants [as he did at Skate Canada]."

Lynn Rutherford contributed to this story