clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

2010 Winter Olympics: Despite age and layoff, Shen-Zhao are team to beat

VANCOUVER, British Columbia — Two-time Olympic bronze medalists Shen Xue and Zhao Hongbo are up first in the pairs short program.

Probably where they'll finish the night, too.

Returning from a two-year layoff for one last run at an elusive Olympic gold medal, the Chinese have been simply brilliant this year. They've won each of their competitions by huge margins. The Grand Prix final had the most stacked field outside of the Olympics, and Shen and Zhao blew away the field by a dozen points.

Their practices here have been masterful — seeing them is better than watching some others actually compete. Their athleticism, always their strength, hasn't dropped off at all even though they're in their 30s, ancient for pairs skaters. But they're also wonderfully expressive and emotional, a big change from a couple whose faces used to look like blank slates.

"The Chinese couples leave the same impression as in the past weeks. They are very solid," said Ingo Steuer, who coaches two-time world champions Aliona Savchenko and Robin Szolkowy of Germany.

They will have to be if they hope to finally claim the gold medal — not to mention end the streak that has seen Russian or Soviet pairs win every Olympic pairs title since 1964.

The pairs short program is Sunday, and the free skate Monday.

Five teams have legitimate shots at gold, and two more could be in the medals mix. The top couples have combined to win 19 world medals, and three have claimed the ultimate prize: the world championship. In addition to Shen and Zhao and Savchenko and Szolkowy, China's Pang Qing and Tong Jian won in 2006.

"We know that we can win, and we want to win," Szolkowy said.

Savchenko and Szolkowy figure to give Shen and Zhao the toughest test. The Germans won the last two world championships with such ease, they could have skipped the second half of their free skate and still been on top. They, too, have impressive athleticism, but they're also the most inventive team that pairs skating has seen in years.

Their costumes for last year's "Lost in Space" short program were unquestionably hideous — Hot pink hot pants? A skintight, sparkly lilac jumpsuit? — but their high-octane routine at worlds was the real sight to behold. They raced around the rink at a frenetic pace that made the audience tired just watching them, yet every single one of their elements was done with perfection.

This year, their short program is a sweet, graceful piano version of "Send in the Clowns."

"It's hard once you're at the top to stay up there. You've got to find new ways to challenge yourself," said Jeremy Barrett, U.S. champion with partner Caydee Denney. "The Germans won worlds the last two years and they've come back this year and come out with some new crazy programs. They're always trying to do something different, and not just try to stay the same."

Savchenko and Szolkowy have had a few setbacks this season. They were third at the Grand Prix final, behind Shen-Zhao and Pang-Tong, and then were upset by Russia's Yuko Kavaguti and Alexander Smirnov at last month's European championships.

But those results have long been forgotten.

"Overall, we didn't perceive anything as a major setback or defeat. It is true, we've won few competitions, unlike in other years, but we are looking into the future," Szolkowy said. "Maybe it is because everything is focused on the Olympic Games. We didn't hole up after the European championships. It was done after the free skating, and we've moved on."

The Americans, meanwhile, are just getting started.

Denney and Barrett are at their first Olympic Games a mere 20 months after reuniting. They skated together briefly in 2006. While they would seem to have no shot at a medal, these two can never be counted out.

They can hold their own technically with the Chinese, Germans and Russians, and their artistry improves every time they take the ice.

"We just try to do the best that we can," Denney said. "The more and more you go out and compete, you're always going to learn something just from being out there, in that atmosphere and that environment."

And there's no worry these two will be intimidated. Reminded that Shen and Zhao have been skating together as long as she's been alive, the 16-year-old Denney just shrugs.

"When I step onto that ice," she said, "we're all on the same level."