VANCOUVER, British Columbia -- The Chinese pair of
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
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
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."