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Shen, Zhao celebrate Valentine's Day with SP win

Germans just .70 off lead; Russians third

Xue Shen and Hongbo Zhao, partners on and off the ice, turned in a stellar performance in the short program on Valentine's Day.
Xue Shen and Hongbo Zhao, partners on and off the ice, turned in a stellar performance in the short program on Valentine's Day. (Getty Images)

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By Lynn Rutherford, special to icenetwork.com
(02/15/2010) - At ages 31 and 36, on their fourth try, Xue Shen and Hongbo Zhao may just now be coming into their own at an Olympic Games.

The three-time world champions (2002, 2003 and 2007), back after two years away from competition for another try at Olympic gold after bronze medals in 2002 and 2006, broke their own world-record short program score, earning 76.66 points to take a slim .70-point lead over reigning world champions Aliona Savchenko and Robin Szolkowy of Germany.

European champions Yuko Kavaguti and Alexander Smirnov are third with 74.16.

"I feel pretty good, even though we were the first to skate tonight," a relaxed and smiling Zhao said. "I could barely feel my legs. I want to sit down.

"We were very happy today that we were able to stand up. It was a very good performance, a perfect Valentine's Day gift."

The Chinese, who began skating together in 1992 and were married in 2007, did a lot more than just stand up.

Skating a smooth, controlled program to "Who Wants to Live Forever," they opened with solid triple toes, followed by their trademark huge triple twist and throw triple loop. It all added up to 76.66 points.

"The past year was very difficult, but we are very happy to be back at the Olympics and give that kind of performance," Zhao said.

"Everything feels pretty good; yesterday, we were on the ice at six in the morning. Maybe we were a little bit nervous, but today was a pretty good performance."

At their first Olympics in 1998, the Chinese had awe-inspiring triple throws and twists but had yet to polish their artistry. In 2002, they were supporting players to the drama of Canadians Jamie Salé and David Pelletier, and Russians Elena Berezhnaya and Anton Sikharulidze. Four years later, they had to fight through injury after Zhao snapped an Achilles' tendon practicing a triple toe in the summer of 2005.

Now, with the judges in the thrall and their elements as strong as ever, the decks seem cleared for gold, if they can hold off the Germans and Russians.

"Yes, there was a lot of pressure, to them and also to the coaches and the entire Chinese team," Bin Yao, who trains China's three top teams in Harbin, said.

"I am very happy with the program. It's true they [left competition] two years ago, but they always kept in contact, so I was not so surprised about their return. I didn't coach them much [before the short]; I just told them to mind the details of the program."

Savchenko and Szolkowy, who placed third to Shen and Zhao at the Grand Prix Final in December, stayed close here with a superb outing to "Send in the Clowns." The two-time world champions earned 75.96 points, well over their previous personal best of 72.14 set at the 2008 Grand Prix Final.

"I think it was good, maybe very good, but I don't watch myself," Szolkowy, 30, said. "We skated with fun tonight. The elements were clean. The audience supported all the skaters, which really helped."

About the judging, which has seen the returning Shen and Zhao earn increasingly high scores all season, he said, "We do have rules; we do have a judging system, and it decides numbers one, two and three. There's no question for us; that's our law."

Kavaguti and Smirnov, who defeated the Germans at Europeans in Tallinn last month, also scored a new personal best with their program to St. Saens' "The Swan."

"I wanted to skate to "The Swan" at the Olympics, and it was perfect, so my dream came true already," Kavaguti, 28, said.

She added that the team was still considering whether to include their throw quadruple Salchow in their free skate tomorrow.

"We're going to have dinner, and then decide," she said.

Two other Chinese pairs, 2006 world champions Qing Pang and Jian Tong and world silver medalists Dan Zhang and Hao Zhang, are fifth and sixth respectively. Both teams are less than three points out of third place.

Pang and Tong had a clean skate, but ran a few seconds past their music, earning a one-point deduction.

"We saw the other pairs skate, and they were so good. We felt we had to skate well, too," Pang said. "That was our Valentine's Day gift."

The two Canadian teams, Jessica Dubé and Bryce Davison, and Anabelle Langlois and Cody Hay, are seventh and eighth.

It was a big night for Amanda Evora and Mark Ladwig, who shattered their previous personal best by seven points with a clean, inspired short to the theme from Love Actually. They earned 57.86 and sit tenth.

The U.S. silver medalists hit side-by-side triple toes and a throw triple loop, and showed one of the better lifts of the evening.

"I would definitely say we've had many Olympic moments so far, and to go out and show what we could do was the icing on the cake," Evora, 25, said.

"This place is rocking and rolling with positive vibes," Ladwig, 29, added. "We were really feeding off of it."

Jim Peterson, who coaches both Evora and Ladwig and U.S. champions Caydee Denney and Jeremy Barrett in Ellenton, Fla., said he was proud of his teams.

"Amanda and Mark exemplify what the Olympics are all about, to always believe and push through the hard times," he said.

"They have had money issues their entire career, and family issues, some good, some bad. At one point, only they themselves and their coaches believed in them. Even their families thought they should quit and do shows, when the money ran out and the placements were not what we wanted. But they kept going, with the hearts of true champions."

Denney and Barrett are 14th after Denney's uncharacteristic doubling of an intended triple toe loop.

"It think it was the timing, more so than anything else," Denney, 16, said. "Tomorrow is another day."

"We'll get the toes tomorrow," Barrett added. "For some reason, don't ask me why, the long is always easier for us than the short."

Peterson said it was the first time he could remember Denney missing the triple this season, even in practice.

"It was a hiccup; she was a little fast on the three-turn [entrance]," he said. "Her upper body was a little forward.

"Of course it was unfortunate, but for me, the true competition was at nationals in January. Now that both teams are at the Olympics, these are moments of elation, nothing but joy. Obviously, we want the execution to be at a high level."