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Russian streak ends as China wins pairs figure skating

VANCOUVER, British Columbia — The streak is over. For the first time since 1960, the Olympic pairs gold medal did not go to a team from the Soviet Union or Russia.

It went to four-time Olympians and sentimental favorites Shen Xue and Zhao Hongbo of China, a married couple that had retired after winning bronzes in 2002 and 2006, and decided to return for one last shot.

The silver also went to a Chinese couple — Pang Qing and Tong Jian. Shen and Zhao scored 216.57, and Pang and Tong were just behind at 213.31. In third place was innovative German pair Aliona Savchenko and Robin Szolkowy.

The podium looked awful strange without any Russian couples. The highest Russian finishers were fourth place Alexander Smirnov and Yuko Kavaguti.

The crowd at the Pacific Coliseum celebrated the top Chinese pairs with standing ovations after their breathtaking, elegant, and technically near-perfect programs. Their precision on side-by-side jumps and spins was unparalleled. They skated as if they were one.

It takes a lot to impress 16-year-old American pairs skater Caydee Denney. The seemingly unflappable teen from Bradenton, Fla., is equally comfortable doing geometry proofs as she is portraying Persian queen "Sheherazade" on the Olympic ice in front of 14,000 fans and a worldwide T.V. audience.

But her mouth was left agape on Monday when her partner Jeremy Barrett remarked: "I bet Shen (Xue) and Zhao (Hongbo) have been skating together longer than Caydee's been alive."

His hunch was correct. The Chinese couple, on a remarkable comeback run after a two-year hiatus, paired up in 1992, seven months before Denney was born in Ocala, Fla. When Denney was 3-years-old, Shen and Zhao finished 15th at the World Championships, and by the time she was 12, they had won two Olympic bronze medals.

And that is why after Denney and Barrett completed their long program Monday night, receiving a season-best score of 105.07 (13th place overall) they grabbed a pair of seats in the Pacific Coliseum stands to watch the medal contenders from China, Germany and Russia.

"They're great teams, but that comes with experience," said Barrett, who considered retiring two years ago and drives a Zamboni at the rink to help make ends meet. "Caydee and I are looking forward to watching them and learning as much as we can. You learn to connect a little more being together such a long time. We've improved a lot in the past 18 months, but we still have a ways to go."

Barrett's longtime girlfriend, Amanda Evora, and her partner Mark Ladwig, were the other U.S. pair competing. They also put in a career-best showing. Dressed in classy teal and black costumes, they delighted the audience with their balletic program to Rachmaninov's Piano Concerto No. 2. The judges were impressed, as well, awarding them 114.06 points for the program. Their previous season best was 98.19. Their total score of 171.92 was good enough for 10th place.

The two pairs train together at the Ellenton Ice and Sports Complex in Bradenton, and though they will go back to Florida without medals, they leave the Olympics with their dreams fulfilled. Ladwig was deejaying the midnight to 6 a.m. shift at a country station in Fargo, N.D. a decade ago. Evora was waiting tables at Denny's. Few thought either couple would reach their sport's biggest stage.

"Two years ago, I wasn't really thinking about skating pairs or being here, so it's been quite an incredible journey, and to be able to go out there and experience what I just experienced at 16 is a lot of fun and amazing," Denney said. "When we have another four years under our belt, then we'll start thinking about medals."

Added Barrett: "Two years ago, I was thinking about retiring, so to come here and put in a great performance is a great feeling. I think the U.S. has a lot to offer in the future."

The last non-Soviets/Russians to win Olympic gold were Canadians Barbara Wagner and Robert Paul in 1960. In 2002, dual gold medals were awarded to the Russians and Canadians after a judging controversy. The Russians — Elena Berezhnaya and Anton Sikharulidze — were initially declared winners, but the Canadian pair — Jamie Sale and David Pelletier — was later elevated to co-winner.

Shen and Zhao returned to competition in 2009 and have won every event they entered.The one knock on the couple in years past was their lack of emotion, their tendency to be precise in a robotic kind of way. No more. They are skating with a joy and passion this week that they had not displayed in earlier Olympics.

NBC analyst Dick Button has been heaping praise on the Chinese couple all week, and continued after their short program. "They were wonderful," he said. "Their precision, their preciseness, their technique. All the elements that go into skating were simply breathtaking. Everybody says that they're old. They're 31 and 36. The Protopopov folks were, too, when they won an Olympic title. So that has nothing to do with it. They are in the best shape that I've seen any couple ever be in. They're simply exquisite."

Kaufman reports for the Miami Herald

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