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Chinese skaters defy odds, then make short-program history

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VANCOUVER, British Columbia -- The Chinese pair of ShenXue and ZhaoHongbo, who came out of retirement last year for one last shot at Olympic glory, shattered the record for most points in a short program Sunday night, scoring 76.66 points despite being the first team to skate.

In the old days, going first would have been a huge disadvantage, since judges reserved their highest marks for pairs who might shine later. But it was no problem for Shen, 31, and Zhao, 36, bronze medalists in both the 2002 and 2006 Olympics, who bested their previous record by 1.30 points.

Skating to a program choreographed by the peerless Lori Nichol, the Chinese husband and wife team showcased perfectly synchronized spins and their trademark "big air" jumps and lifts, in which Zhao tossed the athletic Shen high and far, as if she were a cherry bomb lit to explode. It was an assured, polished performance, in which every trick appeared easy, and the audience was transported to a place where moving in unison looked as natural as breathing and no one ever stumbled or fell. We never worried.

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Which is what separates great pairs skating from the ordinary. Shen and Zhao's bravura performance gave them a slender .70-point lead over two-time world champions Aliona Savchenko and Robin Szolkowy of Germany, who during Shen and Zhao's retirement have been the best pairs team in the world. In third, 2.50 points behind the leaders, stand Yuko Kavaguti and Alexander Smirnov of Russia, the country that has won every Olympic pairs title since 1964, a string that stretches back 12 gold medals. The closest American team, Amanda Evora and Mark Ladwig, are a distant 10th, with 57.86.

If Shen and Zhao are able to maintain their slim lead over Savchenko and Szolkowy in tomorrow's free skate, they will not only break the Russian stranglehold on the Olympic pairs competition, but they will become the first Chinese skaters to win an Olympic gold medal in any discipline.

It won't have come easily. Shen and Zhao began skating together in 1992, when Shen was just 13, and their rise to the top was slow and painstaking. They finished 15th in the World Championships in 1996, 11th in 1997, then moved up to fifth in their first Olympic appearance in 1998. Always athletic, their signature move was the throw quadruple salchow, an acrobatic display that made them a crowd favorite. But their artistry held them back, until they finally broke through to win their first World title in 2002, a championship they defended in 2003. A series of untimely falls and injuries to Zhao's Achilles tendon derailed their Olympic dreams in 2006, where they again took the bronze. After a win in the 2007 World Championships-their third-the pair retired. Shortly afterwards, they married.

The lure of one last chance at Gold proved irresistible, however, and when they returned last fall after a two-year absence, it was as if Zhao and Shen had never been away. The pair was undefeated in all three competitions they entered leading up to Vancouver, including the prestigious Grand Prix final, and on Sunday night they came one step closer to achieving a lifelong dream. "This is our fourth Olympics, and we only have two bronze medals to show for it so far," said Zhao, asked what had led him and his wife to come out of retirement. "I really want a Gold medal, and I saw these Games as an excellent opportunity. This season has been the luckiest one ever for us, and tonight the short program was like a gift for Valentine's Day."

E.M. Swift's Prediction: • Gold: Shen and Zhao, China• Silver: Savchenko and Szolkowy, Germany• Bronze: Kavaguti and Smirnov, Russia