VANCOUVER, British Columbia (AP)—Shen Xue beamed as she clutched the big shiny medal and husband Zhao Hongbo planted a kiss on her forehead.
The Chinese pair has stood on the podium many times in many different places.
Never on a stage like this.
Shen and Zhao won the Olympic gold medal that has driven them for nearly two decades Monday night, a prize tantalizing enough to lure them out of the cozy life of a happily retired married couple. It wasn’t the best skate of their career—she tumbled onto his back during a lift—but it was good enough to win.
That’s all that mattered.
“We’ve been in competitions for many years, and won other medals,” Zhao said. “But every time we heard the national anthem and saw our flag being raised, we wished it was the Olympic Games. Today we’ve achieved our goal.”
When they finished their program, Zhao knelt to the ice and buried his face in his hands while his wife patted his back. Their score of 216.57 points was more than three points better than teammates Pang Qing and Tong Jian.
It’s the first gold in figure skating for China, and the second straight games the nation has won two of the pairs medals. The more shocking stat is that a Russian or Soviet couple didn’t finish atop the Olympic podium for the first time since 1960, ending one of the longest winning streaks in sports.
Equally stunning, the Russians are leaving empty-handed, with no medals of any color.
“My belief is records are made to be broken,” Zhao said.
Aliona Savchenko and Robin Szolkowy of Germany, winners of the last two world titles, managed only a bronze medal after a flawed free skate.
“I think everyone knows we’re a little disappointed,” Szolkowy said. “Our performance tonight was not the one we wanted to show.”
For Shen and Zhao, it was the performance they had long imagined.
Bronze medalists at the last two Olympics, they retired after winning their third world title in 2007. They married, and lived the easy life of retirees, doing shows and appearances. But something was missing, and time was running out.
“So many years have been devoted to this dream,” Zhao said.
They skated with the passion that has become their new trademark, the choreography of their “Adagio in G Minor” perfectly in tune to their music. She was so expressive, the audience could practically feel her every emotion.
And despite being veritable senior citizens at 31 (her) and 36 (him), they can still show the kids a thing or two. Their throw jumps were huge and flawless, the kind of tricks that would dazzle even the X-Games generation. Their throw triple salchow was so massive, she ought to get frequent flier points.
Shen and Zhao did make one mistake, and it was a shocker. She slipped down his back during one of their lifts, a move that’s normally as easy as a crossover for them. The crowd gasped, and a look of exasperation crossed her face.
But they recovered quickly, and finished the program with a beautiful carry lift that circled half the ice. As they made their way off the ice, they detoured to the sideboards and Zhao practically leaped over them to hug longtime coach Yao Bin.
“It’s been so many years,” Zhao said, “to finally get this gold today is so exciting.”
For the Americans, it was their worst showing in pairs. Amanda Evora and Mark Ladwig were 10th and U.S. champions Caydee Denney and Jeremy Barrett were 13th.
Pang and Tong were fourth after the short program. But while Savchenko-Szolkowy and Russia’s Yuko Kavaguti and Alexander Smirnov stumbled, they soared.
Pang and Tong won the world title in 2006, but have struggled ever since to recapture that brilliance. Oh, did they pick the right place to do it, winning the free skate to claim the silver medal.
“Everyone’s standards are very close,” Tong said. “It’s just that we performed a little better today.”