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China's pairs gold richly deserved

VANCOUVER, British Columbia -- It wasn't perfect. It wasn't the best performance of the night. It wasn't even the best performance by a Chinese team in the free skating portion of the pairs. But it was enough for ShenXue, 31, and Zhao Hongbo, 36, to win China's first figure skating gold medal on their fourth trip to the Olympics, in the process breaking the record for most points in a pairs competition with a total of 216.57.

In second place, after delivering a stunning performance that brought the packed Pacific Coliseum crowd bounding to its feet, were their Chinese teammates, PangQing and TongJian, who scored a record 141.81 points in their free skate, the best of the night. That enabled them to leapfrog both the Russian team of Yuko Kavaguti and Alexander Smirnov, and the bronze-winning Germans, Aliona Savchenko and Robin Szolkowy, to win the silver. The one-two China finish marked the first time since 1960 that a Russian team did not win the pairs at the Olympics.

The win by Shen and Zhao is the crowning achievement of what was already a great career, with three world championships and two Olympic bronze medals to their credit. These two put Chinese skating on the map, breaking ground at every level-the first Chinese skaters to medal in an Olympics; the first to win a World Championship, and now the first to win Olympic gold. They retired after winning the Worlds in 2007, and married soon thereafter.

But they decided to give the Olympics one more try, coming out of retirement this season and winning all four events they entered. In the free program, Zhao slid coming out of a double axel, Shen nearly fell on top of him descending from a lift, and at least one of their spins was badly out of synch. But the five-point cushion they had over their countrymen, and the goodwill they had engendered from the judges for their years of perseverance and excellence, proved to be cushion enough. The Gold they had come out of retirement for is richly deserved.

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