Shen, Zhao set world record

Kawaguchi, Russian partner third after pairs short program

The Associated Press

China’s Shen Xue and Zhao Hongbo are a step closer to their elusive Olympic gold medal after they set a world record Sunday as they won the pairs short program.

With a score of 76.66, the Chinese lead two-time world champions Aliona Savchenko and Robin Szolkowy of Germany by just .70 points. That’s a slim margin going into Monday night’s free skate, a difference that can be made up with one flourish of a hand.

“I am very happy today that we stood up on the ice and made a very good performance,” Zhao said. “Today was just the short program. Tomorrow will be more important. Hopefully tomorrow will be as good as today.”

Russia’s Yuko Kawaguchi and Alexander Smirnov finished in third place, giving them a chance to continue what has to be one of the longest winning streaks in sports. A Russian or Soviet pair has won the gold medal at every Olympics dating back to 1964.

Shen and Zhao retired after winning their third world title in 2007. But the married couple couldn’t resist one last run at the Olympic championship.

“We participated in a total of four Olympics including this one and we have only two bronze,” Zhao said. “We really want the gold. I feel this is a good opportunity.”

At 31 and 36, Shen and Zhao are senior citizens when it comes to pairs skaters. But they still show the kids how it ought to be done. They haven’t lost any of their athleticism — their triple twist was so huge he had time to put his hands down and probably could have ducked out for tea if he’d really wanted.

What makes their comeback so impressive, though, is their joy and passion. They had the big tricks a few years ago, but not the artistry and emotion that makes pairs skating so moving.

On Sunday, however, from her gorgeous black and pink lace dress to the love fans way up in the rafters could feel, every second of their performance oozed elegance.

Perhaps it’s because of their experience, perhaps it’s because they’re married or perhaps it’s because they’re simply that good, but they appear to be one person when they skate. Everything is done in unison and with perfect timing.

When they did their side-by-side triple toe loop jumps, they landed them right on a note of music, as if putting an exclamation point on it.

Savchenko and Szolkowy skated into the void when Shen and Zhao retired, winning the last two world titles.

The German pair were the very last couple to skate. While it can be a huge advantage because skaters know what everyone else has done, it can be draining to wait that long — and Savchenko and Szolkowy knew they’d need a world record to beat the Chinese.

“We have to give thanks to the audience and everyone in the venue who made it easy and fun to skate even though we skated after all the other pairs teams,” Szolkowy said.

Despite getting slightly out of unison on their side-by-side spins, it didn’t take away from the overall elegance of their “Send in the Clowns” performance.