Chinese champions steal on-ice spotlight

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China’s two-times world champions Xue Shen and Hongbo Zhao stole the show in the second-to-last skate to lead after the pairs’ short program on the opening day of the World Figure Skating Championships.

News photo
Canadian skater Marie-France Dubreuil, right, and her partner, Patrice Lauzon, compete in the compulsory
ice dance at the 2007 World Figure Skating Championships on Tuesday at Tokyo Metropolitan Gymnasium.
YOSHIAKI MIURA PHOTO

The Olympic bronze medalists, who have missed the last two championships because of Zhao’s injuries, executed a near flawless routine to “Romanza” by Bacarisse on Tuesday evening and scored 71.07 points to beat their previous personal best of 70.52.

It needed something special after Germany’s European champions Aliona Savchenko and Robin Szolkowy had bumped Chinese world champions Qing Pang and Jian Tong into third after scoring 67.65 with a stylish performance to Brian Setzer’s take on “Once Upon a Time in Mexico” at Tokyo’s Metropolitan Gymnasium.

A stirring performance by Pang and Tong to the uplifting “Doux Printemps d’Autrefois” by Jules Massenet was awarded with 66.75 points by the judges, but proved only good enough for third place behind Savchenko and Szolkowy.

Yuko Kawaguchi and Alexander Smirnov, representing Russia, scored 62.07 to place fourth. The pairs’ free skating portion is on Wednesday.

Shen and Zhao, world champions in 2002 and ’03, had hit peak form in the runup to the worlds, finishing first in the Cup of China, NHK Trophy, Four Continents and Grand Prix Final, and their performance on Tuesday brought a standing ovation from the crowd.

“I am very happy and didn’t imagine we would get such high points,” said Zhao. “But today is just the short program, the most important thing is tomorrow.

“I never think I am going to win every competition and just try to keep my mind and body in good condition. I am happy to be just competing. It makes me feel like I am young,” the 33-year-old said.

Szolkowy said: “I think we are very happy. It was our second-best performance of the season after the national championships. We did a little mistake on our triple twist but the rest was good.

News photoFifty student skaters participate in the opening ceremony of the 2007 World Figure Skating Championships
on Tuesday at Tokyo Metropolitan Gymnasium.
YOSHIAKI MIURA PHOTO

“I don’t think we are thinking today about winning the world championships, but, of course, it is possible and we knew before it was possible to beat the Chinese couples.”

Canadians Valerie Marcoux and Craig Buntin, fifth-place finishers at last year’s worlds, were smiling during and after their performance, which earned them 60.73 points for fifth place.

“We are looking at each other and smiling at each other while we skate,” said Buntin. “We just wanted to come out and skate a really good short program. We are really happy and comfortable and focused on our own program.”

American veterans Rena Inoue and John Baldwin scored 59.50 to sit in sixth place. Japan-born Inoue was pleased to be skating in Tokyo.

“The Japanese fans were cheering for me in Japanese and that made me very happy and comfortable,” said Inoue, who battled lung cancer in 1998 and has been clear of the cancer since.

Olympic and world silver medalists Dan Zhang and Hao Zhang of China skated in the first group and failed to shake off colds they were carrying, as they placed 10th (57.00 points).

“We were a bit sick, had a cold and therefore our performance wasn’t so good,” said Dan Zhang. “We couldn’t prepare so well for this competition.

“(Skating first) it did not affect our performance, but I could not practice as usual since I was sick with a fever and sore throat.”

Surprise U.S. national champions Brooke Castile and Ben Okolski also suffered because of sickness and placed 13th after skating to Pink Floyd’s “Shine On You Crazy Diamond.”

“I have been very sick and I had a fever out there but I just went on auto-pilot and went out and did it,” said Castile, who had the flu.

In the ice dance competition earlier Tuesday, world silver medalists Marie-France Dubreuil and Patrice Lauzon took the lead after the compulsory dance section.

The Canadian pair, winners of the Four Continents title, scored a total with 38.96 points after a stylish Rhumba routine.

Defending champions Albena Denkova and Maxim Staviski of Bulgaria, who skated first out of the top contenders, were in second place with 37.42 points. Russia’s Oksana Domnina and Maxim Shabalin, this year’s European silver medalists, sat in third (37.29 points).

“Everything went well. This dance is one of our strongest so it is good to perform it here,” said Lauzon.

“It’s always great to win a segment of the event but at the end, or one year from now, we won’t remember who won the compulsory dance. The most important thing is to gain as many points as we can through the competition.”

Dubreuil said: “Even though we are first we know the competition is very tight so we are excited about this but we know we still have to put on a good show and make it feel as pleasant as we did today.”

Meanwhile, Japan’s national champions, Nozomi Watanabe and Akiyuki Kido, were in 15th place with 28.46 points.

“I am so happy to see the audience give us such big applause,” said Watanabe. “Our score was not the best but it is compulsory dance and we will do better in the original and free dances.”

Veterans Denkova and Staviski, third-place finishers at January’s Europeans, were feeling confident after the first stage.

“We don’t think about third place in Europe and we don’t think about the last world championships. It’s a new competition and a new fight and of course we want to win,” said Staviski.

France’s 2007 European winners Isabelle Delobel and Olivier Schoenfelder were in fourth with 37.20 points and America’s Tanith Belbin and Ben Agosto, silver medalists at the Turin Olympics, sat in fifth (37.17 points).

“We felt great out there,” said Belbin. “The first time we did the Rhumba this season was at the Cup of China and we did our worst compulsory dance performance there.

“So we trained very hard for it and are very pleased.”