Ageless Chinese pair still going strong

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VANCOUVER — What did you buy your special someone for Valentine’s Day?

Box of chocolates?

Fancy underwear?

Ancient Chinese pair Hongbo Zhao and Xue Shen are more unique.

Zhao gave his wife another shot at a long elusive Olympic gold medal. Shen gave her 36-year-old husband figure skating’s fountain of youth.

Skating first, they set the 76.66-point target for the rest of Cupid’s arrows to aim for in their Olympic comeback skate Sunday night at the Pacific Coliseum. Not one other couple hit that bulls-eye.

Germans Aliona Savchenko and Robin Szolkowy were closest in their clown costumes with 75.96 points. Russians Tatiana Volosozhar and Alexander Smirnov (74.16) will try to extend their country’s streak of winning every pairs gold since 1964 (12 straight).

But they’re chasing that old, remarkable Chinese team.

“It was a pretty good gift for Valentine’s Day,” Zhao said.

Not a bad way to usher in Chinese New Year, too. All three of the nation’s teams are in medal contention.

Qing Pang and Jian Tong (71.50) are fourth and were docked for going over time on their music, but still ahead Dan and Hao Zhang (71.28).

It’s the Year of the Tiger in 2010.

It’ll finally be Zhao and Shen’s time if they follow up their Canadian Lori Nichol-choreographed jaunt to Queen’s Who Wants to Live Forever? in Monday night’s free skate.

They look like they can skater forever.

David Pelletier, long retired, is 35-years-old.

Zhao and Shen, 31, were long gone, too.

Zhao proposed marriage to his partner of 18 years on the ice in Tokyo three years ago.

They hung up the competitive blades after that season with three world titles, two Olympic bronze medals and three trips to the Winter Games.

This isn’t any old comeback.

This is 60-year-old Tom Watson in his baffling turn-the-clock pursuit of golf’s British Open last year in Turnberry. Just on ice.

Did their coach Yao Bin dream a return?

“They kept in contact,” he said.

Zhao was the catalyst.

“Hongbo persuaded me,” Shen said. “We were already married. So even if I said no, it’s not like he is going to divorce me.”

They saw an opportunity in a fourth Olympics.

In 2002, they were the third couple on the podium with the world’s cameras trained on the double-gold traffic jam — Canada’s Jamie Sale and Pelletier and Russia’s Yelena Berezhnaya and Anton Skiharulidze — after the judging scandal embarrassed skating in Salt Lake City.

Last time out in Turin, they picked up the second bronze.

But that’s ancient history now.

They had the pressure of opening the Olympic figure skating competition. That went much better than a lot of the “firsts” so far here in Vancouver.

“It wasn’t too bad,” Zhao said. “It felt pretty good.”

Canadian Anabelle Langlois doesn’t usually watch the pairs skate before her and Cody Hay.

She made an Olympic exception for Zhao and Shen.

“I thought, ‘Why not’,” she said. “The first part of (their program), it’s so good.”

Langlois and Hay caught the vibe. They’re on a comeback of their own after missing the 2009 season while Langlois recovered from injury.

She demanded her surgeon take the plate out of her broken ankle so she and Hay could try to qualify for the Olympics — her second, his first.

That feeling of renewal and possibility, the Canadian crowd, spurred them to seventh spot with 60.24 points.

“My legs turned to jello (at the start),” Hay said. “Nothing prepares you for that.”

Canadian champs Bryce Davison and Jessica Dube are sixth (65.36) after she fell on her end of their side-by-side triple Salchows.

“The error for the triple, it’s costly, but we have to move on, ” Davison said.

Dube another word for it.

“Dammit,” she said, in English. “It was just too straight a line. I thought I was going to land it.”

ryan.pyette@sunmedia.ca


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