What an invigorating way to start the new Year of the Tiger! I thoroughly enjoyed watching Shen and Zhao (after 18 Years of challenges and setbacks) finally win Olympic Gold! Of all the performers in the night, it was probably Pang and Tong who shined the brightest. But the crowd’s sentimental favorites Shen and Zhao did enough to make the the night theirs.
Below is a rough translation of a piece published in Xinhua after the performances of Shen/Zhao and Pang/Tong that magical night.
Vancouver, February 15, 2010 – On the ice, off the ice, the night belonged to China. Chinese people everywhere celebrated with emotions. Having just broken the record with a score of 216.57, Zhen and Zhao could not hold their tears back. Teammates Pang and Tong, even National Athletic Bureau Chief Liu, also shed tears – according to Coach Yao Bin.
This is the first Gold in Figure Skating for China. It is the first time in 21 Olympics that a non-European won Gold in the event. It was the first time in 46 years that a team from the Soviet Union (or the former Soviet Republics) did not medal. Since 1964, athletes from the Soviet Union (or the former Soviet Republics) have dominated the event, having won 12 consecutive gold.
Tears still in his eyes, Zhao shouted out: “Is this Gold worth 37 years of wait? YES!”
Skating to Albinoni’s “Adagio in G Mino,” Shen and Zhao (who has skated for close to 20 years together) skated and danced in unison, executing their lifts, throws and synchronized jumps, spins and spirals. Except for one small mistake by Zhao when he seemed to have gotten distracted by flaws on a patch of ice, Shen and Zhao skated flawlessly, wowing the crowd.
Compared to the last time the couple skated in front of a world audience in the World Championship Games in Tokyo, Shen and Zhao seem to have matured even more. Their every expression, every move seemed to be an extension of the music.
It’s been twelve years since Shen and Zhao have been competing for the Olympic Gold. But the couple would not admit defeat. It is somewhat fitting that Shen and Zhao finally won skating to Albinoni’s music. Albinoni’s claim to fame grew out of just this one piece of music. Shen and Zhao can probably lay their claim to fame based on just this one Gold in Vancouver.
Twelve years ago in Nagano, Shen and Zhao wowed and surprised the audience with their skating, finishing fifth overall. Before them, China had been not been able to field a team team in pair skating for the previous two Olympics.
Four years later in Salt Lake City, Shen and Zhao joined two other couples to bring China’s skating team to three pairs. Though Shen and Zhao only managed to win a bronze, they had nevertheless made history, taking for China her first Olympic medal in the event.
2006 at the Torino Winter Olympics was supposed to be the year Shen and Zhao’s shine. Unfortunately, Zhao suffered a major injury prior to the competition, with the couple almost missing the entire event altogether. Miraculously, Zhao was able to recover just enough for the couple to be able to compete. They skated to roaring approvals from the crowds but managed to win only another Bronze.
Skating some eighteen years together, Shen and Zhao have collected many awards, including three World Championships and wins from six other major competitions. The only thing lacking in their collection was an Olympics Gold.
In 2007, Shen and Zhao formally announced their retirement after the 2007 World Championships in Tokyo, but not before the couple mesmerized the world with Zhao publicly proposing to Shen on the ice immediately after their final performance.
As for why the couple returned from retirement, Zhao said the answer is simple. “We returned because we wanted one more shot at Olympic Gold. It’s as simple as that.” Since returning from retirement last May, the couple have racked up wins and wins – including wins at 2009 Cup of China, 2009 Skate America, and the 2009-2010 Grand Prix Final in Tokyo.
But things did not progress as smoothly as it may seem in retrospect. “At first we were at first full of confidence, even though a lot of people doubted us. We brought back variations of two of our old programs and thought things would go smoothly from there. But about one month after returning, I got injured again. We began to be really worried. We felt pressure all around us.”
“Some people ask how difficult it is to come back from retirement. I think that it’s not that bad. At least compared to 2006, this time is much easier. In 2006, we had the strength, the skills and the will to win, but could still not realize our potentials at the Olympics,” Zhao explained.
Chatting at the Athletic Lounge, Zhao admitted, “Getting back at our age has not been that easy. But the most difficult part is dealing with the injuries. What I would do to be able to train with dealing with nagging injuries.”
Regarding the question of who of the two was the first to discuss returning from retirement to go for Gold one more time in Vancouver, Zhao said he truly does not remember. “This was a joint decision. We had so many discussions back and forth, I honestly cannot remember who brought it up first.”
Although retired for some two years, Shen and Zhao never really left the sport. They continued to pay close attention to events in all the major competitions and to exchange thoughts with friends in the sport the latest trends and ideas in the sport. As 2010 rolled around, Vancouver seemed like a natural opportunity.
It is not difficult to describe what transpired during the two years Shen and Zhao were retired. Their attitude had always been “be prepared, just in case.” As Zhao explained, “we kept up with regular routines in our lives. We never went out eating, partying or clubbing late into the night. Shen, especially, made sure she was moderate with the way she approached her life and was able to maintain her figures. It was not that difficult for us to make the decision to come back for 2010.”
When the “March of the Volunteer Army” played, Shen and Zhao’s finally brought their long and productive career to an improbable but very satisfactory end. Despite a decade of challenges and agony, despite all the pain and injuries, their struggles seem to have only made this moment that much more poignant, that much more special, that much more complete.
What are the upcoming plans for the couple? Zhao said that for now they don’t have anything specific planned, although he does not expect them to leave the world of figure skating. One thing they want to do is to leverage the status they have gained in the international figure skating network to help popularize figure skating in China more. Whatever they do, Zhao does not expect them to become involved in purely commercial activities. “That would not be meaningful,” Zhao said.