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By NANCY ARMOUR
Associated Press

Posted on: Monday, February 15, 2010

Chinese pair notch skating world record

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China's Shen Xue and Zhao Hongbo are .70 points ahead of a German pair after last night's figure skating pairs short program.

J. DAVID AKE | Associated Press

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VANCOUVER, British Columbia Beat this.

Shen Xue and Zhao Hongbo threw down a challenge to the world's top couples last night with a world record. Nobody could match it. For most of the night, nobody came close.

After winning bronze at the last two Olympics, the Chinese pair is making it nearly impossible to keep the all-elusive gold out of their hands this time.

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

Shen and Zhao's score of 76.66 is just .70 points ahead of two-time world champions Aliona Savchenko and Robin Szolkowy of Germany. The margin that can be made up with a mere flick of the wrist in tonight's free skate. But the Chinese have dominated everywhere they've skated since coming out of retirement, and they aren't about to back down now.

Russia's Yuko Kavaguti and Alexander Smirnov are in third, giving them a chance to continue what is 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.

"We don't feel anything about the dominance of any one country," Zhao said. "We just have to give our best performances."

Chinese teammates Pang Qing and Tong Jian are fourth and Zhang Dan and Zhang Hao are fifth.

Amanda Evora and Mark Ladwig, surprise silver medalists at last month's U.S. championships, are 10th after the performance of their career at their first major international event. U.S. champions Caydee Denney and Jeremy Barrett were 14th.

"I can definitely say we've already had many Olympic moments," Evora said. "So whatever we can do the rest of the Olympics is icing on the cake."

Shen and Zhao retired after winning their third world title in 2007. But an Olympic gold medal is powerful motivation and it proved to be irresistible.

Despite being 31 and 36, veritable senior citizens in the skating world, Shen and Zhao are no aging champions. The big tricks? They mastered those years ago. Now, though, they skate with their hearts as well as their feet, displaying the artistry and emotion that makes pairs skating so moving.

"It was a gift for Valentine's Day, and today was just the short program," Zhao said. "Hopefully, tomorrow will be as good as today."

From her gorgeous black and pink lace dress to the way they touched fans way up in the rafters, every second of their performance oozed elegance. Perhaps because of their experience, perhaps because they're married or perhaps because they're simply that good, they appear to be one person when they skate. Everything is done in unison and with perfect timing. Their side-by-side triple toe loop jumps were landed right on a note of music, as if they put an exclamation point on it.

And that athleticism? They can still show the kids a thing or two.

Their triple twist was so huge he had time to put his hands down and probably could have ducked out for tea, too. Their elements were matter of fact, not forced, and never once did the audience have that heart-in-your-throat feeling of "Will they? Won't they?" As in, fall.

Asked if it was their best performance, coach Yao Bin said, "Just about."