VANCOUVER, British Columbia - Shen Xue beamed as she clutched the big shiny medal and husband Zhao Hongbo planted a kiss on her forehead.
The Chinese pair has stood on the podium many times in many different places.
Never on a stage like this.
Shen and Zhao won the Olympic gold medal that has driven them for nearly two decades Monday night, a prize tantalizing enough to lure them out of the cozy life of a happily retired married couple. It wasn’t the best skate of their career — she tumbled onto his back during a lift — but it was good enough to win.
That’s all that mattered.
“We’ve been in competitions for many years, and won other medals,” Zhao said. “But every time we heard the national anthem and saw our flag being raised, we wished it was the Olympic Games. Today we’ve achieved our goal.”
When they finished their program, Zhao knelt to the ice and buried his face in his hands while his wife patted his back. Their score of 216.57 points was more than three points better than teammates Pang Qing and Tong Jian.
It’s the first gold in figure skating for China, and the second straight games the nation has won two of the pairs medals. The more shocking stat is that a Russian or Soviet couple didn’t finish atop the Olympic podium for the first time since 1960, ending one of the longest winning streaks in sports.
Equally stunning, the Russians are leaving empty-handed, with no medals of any color.
“My belief is records are made to be broken,” Zhao said.
Aliona Savchenko and Robin Szolkowy of Germany, winners of the last two world titles, managed only a bronze medal after a flawed free skate.
“I think everyone knows we’re a little disappointed,” Szolkowy said. “Our performance tonight was not the one we wanted to show.”
For Shen and Zhao, it was the performance they had long imagined.
Bronze medalists at the last two Olympics, they retired after winning their third world title in 2007. They married, and lived the easy life of retirees, doing shows and appearances. But something was missing, and time was running out.
“So many years have been devoted to this dream,” Zhao said.
They skated with the passion that has become their new trademark, the choreography of their “Adagio in G Minor” perfectly in tune to their music. She was so expressive, the audience could practically feel her every emotion.
And despite being veritable senior citizens at 31 (her) and 36 (him), they can still show the kids a thing or two. Their throw jumps were huge and flawless, the kind of tricks that would dazzle even the X-Games generation. Their throw triple salchow was so massive, she ought to get frequent flier points.
Shen and Zhao did make one mistake, and it was a shocker. She slipped down his back during one of their lifts, a move that’s normally as easy as a crossover for them. The crowd gasped, and a look of exasperation crossed her face.
But they recovered quickly, and finished the program with a beautiful carry lift that circled half the ice. As they made their way off the ice, they detoured to the sideboards and Zhao practically leaped over them to hug longtime coach Yao Bin.
“It’s been so many years,” Zhao said, “to finally get this gold today is so exciting.”
For the Americans, it was their worst showing in pairs. Amanda Evora and Mark Ladwig were 10th and U.S. champions Caydee Denney and Jeremy Barrett were 13th.
Pang and Tong were fourth after the short program. But while Savchenko-Szolkowy and Russia’s Yuko Kavaguti and Alexander Smirnov stumbled, they soared.
Pang and Tong won the world title in 2006, but have struggled ever since to recapture that brilliance. Oh, did they pick the right place to do it, winning the free skate to claim the silver medal.
“Everyone’s standards are very close,” Tong said. “It’s just that we performed a little better today.”
That’s putting it mildly.
Their athleticism is simply stunning, tricks that defy gravity and comprehension. He tossed her as easily as a pillow on their throw triple twist and she soared so high she probably could have changed a lightbulb or two in the arena. Their throw jumps were, by far, the best of the night, her blade carving the ice on the landings with the precision of a surgeon’s knife.
But like Shen and Zhao, what’s most impressive is how Pang and Tong’s performance quality has grown. Their interpretation of “Impossible Dream” could play on any Broadway stage, and the flamenco portion of their program was pure sizzle.
“Every moment is perfection,” Tong said.
They were beaming for the last 30 seconds, even while doing one of those scary lifts. When they finished, he bowed and kissed the ice.
“I don’t know what got into me,” Tong said.
Savchenko and Szolkowy were just .70 points behind Shen and Zhao after the short program, a margin so small the Germans could change the standings with just one element.
They changed all right.
Szolkowy, with a long history of botching jumps, had to fight to save the opening triple toe loop-double toe sequence. But he had no chance on their side-by-side double axels, drawing a gasp from the crowd as he fell to the ice — taking their gold medal hopes with him.
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They were also noticeably out-of-sync on their combination spin; he came to an upright position while she was still turning, crouched low to the ice.
“It’s the Winter Olympic Games, one long program in four years — of course you want to skate clean. And you have to skate clean if you want the gold medal,” Szolkowy said. “This one chance we had, and maybe it’s too much.”
Any chance Kavaguti and Smirnov had of keeping that Russian winning streak going ended when she bailed out on their throw quadruple salchow and turned it into a triple. Not a good one, either, since she skidded and twisted across the ice on the landing.
Despite their low finishes — the best U.S. couple has always finished seventh or better — the inexperienced Americans showed promise. If they can improve their singles elements, they have a real shot at climbing the international ranks, maybe even as high as the medals podium in 2014.
Evora and Ladwig’s signature carry lift alone is worth the price of admission. With her hands outstretched, he supports her one-handed for most of the lift. When he does finally use his second hand, it’s only because he’s picked up one foot and is skating backward. Try doing that on flat ground, let alone on a sheet of unforgiving ice.
But they need to clean up those side-by-side jumps and spins. Evora two-footed the first jump in their triple toe-double toe combo and he doubled it. She also turned out of the landing on their double axels. Denney and Barrett’s side-by-side triple toes were downgraded to doubles, and each erred on their double axel sequence,
“It’s an inspiration for me to see these Olympic champions, and what it takes is a lifetime of work and sacrifices,” Evora said. “So we know there is still hope for us in the future.”