By Amy Shipley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 16, 2010; D05
VANCOUVER, B.C. -- China's Shen Xue and Zhao Hongbo retired two years ago, got married, and settled into a comfortable life. Their newlywed bliss was disturbed only by the nagging idea that they had left figure skating as three-time world champions, but never Olympic gold medalists.
So they returned to the ice last May, ignoring the creaks in their older joints and bones. Shen, 31, and Zhao, 36, won every competition they entered, setting world records along the way, and they took the lead in Sunday's Olympic short program.
Skating last among 20 skaters in the deciding free skate Monday, they had the chance to grab the long-sought gold medal.
And they did it.
They topped fellow Chinese Pang Qing and Tong Jian, who finished better in the night's long program but lost in the overall score. Shen and Zhao shook their heads with concern when they heard their score in the free skate -- they earned 139.91 to the 141.81 by Pang and Tong -- but they prevailed with a total score of 216.57.
Pang and Tong got 213.31.
When they realized the gold was theirs, both screamed and shook their fists.
"We are very happy today," Zhao said through an interpreter. "Of course, this is a dream come true. We have had this dream for many, many, many years."
In either case, China was assured of getting its first Olympic gold in pairs skating.
Germany's Aliona Savchenko and Robin Szolkowy finished third with 210.60 and Russia's Yuko Kavaguti and Alexander Smirnov claimed fourth place with 194.77.
Monday's competition marked the official end to Russia's dominance of pairs, which has been under attack in recent years. Russian teams had won 12 straight Olympic gold medals dating from 1964 (sharing the 2002 gold with Canada because of a judging controversy).
When Shen and Zhao finished skating, they appeared overwhelmed with emotion; he put his hand over his face and she stood with her mouth open. They nailed side-by-side triple toe loops and double Axels and hit both throws, a triple loop and triple Salchow.
Asked after what advice Shen and Zhao would provide to their younger countrymen, Zhao said, "My advice is, 'Don't wait until you are 37 to get your goal.'."
Skating second-to-last, Pang, 30, and Tong, 30, brought the Pacific Coliseum crowd to its feet with a fast, dynamic and, it seemed at the time, a gold medal performance. They hit side-by-side double axels, and triple toe loops, and they nailed a throw triple Salchow and throw triple loop. Their total score of 141.81 in the free skate and 213.31 overall sent them into a delighted embrace and represented their season's bests.
"Our performance tonight was great," Pang said. "I still feel like it's a dream."
Kavaguti and Smirnov, reigning world bronze medal winners, could not rise from fourth place; they performed an error-laden free skate. She put her hand down on a throw triple Salchow attempt and fell on a throw triple loop. They were off on side-by-side spins and he fell out of side-by-side double Axels.
Savchenko and Szolkowy, in second at the start of the night, both stood with their hands on their hips after their free skate, seemingly sensing they had blown their chance for an Olympic gold. Szolkowy stepped out on one jump and fell attempting side-by-side double Axels. The pair ended with a gorgeous throw triple Salchow that got the crowd on its feet, but it wasn't enough.
"We are a little bit disappointed in our performance tonight," Szolkowy said. "It was not the one we wanted to show tonight. What else can I say? ... You have to skate clean if you want to do a gold medal."
Shen and Zhao had compiled 76.66 points in the short program, less than a point ahead of Savchenko and Szolkowy, who were sixth at the 2006 Olympics and had 75.96. Kavaguti and Smirnov were third with 74.16.
Americans Amanda Evora and Mark Ladwig finished 10th with 171.92, and Caydee Denney and Jeremy Barrett claimed 13th with 158.33. The two pairs are training partners in Florida and were both competing in their first Olympic Games.
Shen and Zhao, who began skating together 18 years ago, showed no weakness all season. The won their opening grand prix event in Beijing, followed that up with a dominant victory in Lake Placid, N.Y., then topped Pang Qing and Tong Jian and Savchenko and Szolkowy at the International Skating Union Grand Prix Final in Tokyo.
In the Winter Games, they earned a fifth place at the 1998 Games in Nagano, and earned bronze in 2002 in Salt Lake City and 2006 in Turin. Zhang Dan and Zhang Hao, who finished fifth here Monday with a score of 194.34, claimed the silver at the '06 Games.
"I think it's kind of hard to continue skating," Zhao said. "So maybe it's time to have a baby."