Thursday, February 11, 2010

Shen, Zhao look strong for pairs gold in Vancouver

With three international wins this season, including a 12.39-point victory at the Grand Prix Final in December, Xue Shen and Hongbo Zhao haven't missed a beat after a two-year break from competition.

But it only looks easy.

"We started training [for competition] again in May [2009], and it was very hard," said Zhao, who at 36 has suffered several foot, ankle and shoulder injuries, including a torn Achilles' tendon that took the pair out of competition for much of the 2005-2006 season.

"Everything hurts. My knees, back, shoulder. Only the competitions feel good."

This will be the fourth Olympics for the Chinese duo, married since 2007 and on-ice partners since 1992. They've won three world titles (in 2002, 2003 and 2007) and two Olympic bronze medals (2002, 2006) during their illustrious career, but yearn for the biggest prize.

"We're back for gold," Shen, 31, said. "That's our dream."

The couple posted easy victories at Cup of China and Skate America, defeating their nearest competition by more than 14 and 29 points, respectively. Along the way, they set new personal bests, and hold the highest total score ever earned by a pair, 214.25 points, set at the Grand Prix Final.

"We really love skating, and we work really hard, but we didn't expect to get such high scores," Zhao admitted.

"When we didn't compete, we [performed] with Stars on Ice and that [experience] really helped our presentation mark," Shen added.

The only glitch in Shen and Zhao's programs, which were both choreographed by Lori Nichol, has been occasional trouble landing side-by-side triple toes and double Axels. At Skate America, Zhao attributed a few misses to jet lag and fatigue, since the team arrived shortly before they competed. That shouldn't be as big an issue in Vancouver.

Shen and Zhao aren't the only ones surprised by their record-breaking scores. Ingo Steuer, coach of 2008 and 2009 German world champions Aliona Savchenko and Robin Szolkowy, said at the Grand Prix Final that he thought the Chinese were over-marked.

Maybe, but that doesn't change the reality for his pair, who have had a rough season. The Germans were roundly defeated at Trophee Eric Bompard, causing Steuer to hastily choreograph a new free skate, which has been far better received. They also lost to Russians Yuko Kavaguti and Alexander Smirnov for the first time, at the European Championships last month, when Savchenko faltered on the landing of their usually rock-solid throw triple flip and doubled an intended triple Salchow.

Full article.

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