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Big start for pairs event: Chinese stars first on ice

February 13, 2010 |  1:49 pm

Shen Zhao

Shen Xue and Zhao Hongbo at practice this week.  Credit: Getty Images / David Hecker

By Philip Hersh

Catching up on figure skating news after spending the last week looking at the Winter Olympic big picture:

OLYMPIC PAIRS COMPETITION begins with a bang Sunday.  Two-time Olympic bronze medalists Shen Xue and Zhao Hongbo are the first team on the ice in the short program.

The Chinese, ancient mariners (he is 36, she is 31), have not competed in a major international event since winning the 2007 world title.

"To win an Olympic gold medal is a lifelong dream for both of us,'' Zhao said.

They retired for two seasons, got married, then returned at the brilliant level that had made them one of the world's most dynamic pairs since they debuted at the Olympics with a fifth place in 1998.

"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.''

PAIRS FAVORITES Aliona Savchenko and Robin Szolkowy of Germany, world champs the last two years, haven't been excited with the ice conditions at the Pacific Coliseum during practices.

Savchenko called the ice "weird'' and "sticky'' and figured that was due to sharing the venue with short track speed skaters, who want softer ice.

RACHAEL FLATT, the new U.S. champion, gave the rest of the field a bulletin board quote when asked Saturday about the competition she will face in the women's event next week. ``I know Mirai (U.S. teammate Nagasu) and I are both incredibly excited to go out here and kick some butt,'' Flatt said.

EVAN LYSACEK reiterated Saturday morning that he almost certainly will not try a quadruple jump because of renewed problems with a stress fracture in his left foot that occurred before he won the world title last March.

Naperville's Lysacek had told reporters after his first practice here Thursday that the quad was out.

"The last couple weeks, working on quads again, and before nationals [in mid-January], I started to have problems with my foot again, so I have tried to alleviate stress on my left foot by really limiting what I am doing,'' he said.

The takeoff for the quad requires Lysacek to drive his left toe pick into the ice.

Lysacek attempted -- and fell -- on a quad at nationals.  He insisted that attempt had nothing to do with trying to have a better shot at beating reigning Olympic champion Evgeny Plushenko of Russia, who does quads in both the short and long program.

"I was trying to figure out whether it was a risk I wanted to take at the Olympics, and it didn't prove to be a worthwhile risk for me,'' Lysacek said.

"If I really feel it in the heat of the moment, I have been doing them every once in awhile in practice, and I know that I can do it, so if I feel that it is something I want to throw in, that is definitely an option.  But my plan right now is to do what I can do well and what doesn't cause me any pain.''

The men's event begins with the short program Tuesday.

SINCE TWO-TIME U.S. OLYMPIAN JOHNNY WEIR is so passionate about all things Russian, it was natural to ask whether he thinks he or Plushenko is the more Russian skater.

Weir figured actually being Russian gave Plushenko the edge, even if the Russian is more of a jumper and less of an artist than the traditional, balletic skater from the Motherland.

"That's what he does well; he jumps well,'' Weir said.  "He brings a lot of theatrics and firepower to the ice, and that is something that is also very Russian.  We tend to think of ballet as the Russian art form of choice, but also Russians are very fiery strong people, and I think Plushenko brings that to the table.  I have the balletic side.''

Weir is not surprised by how Plushenko has regained his jumps after three years out of competition, during which he gained 20 pounds that he shed last summer.

"He is a very driven person,'' Weir said.  "I never had any doubt that if he decided to come back, he would be able to do it.  He has solid Mishin technique (from coach Alexei Mishin, who also gave 2002 Olympic champion Alexei Yagudin his technical grounding).  His body is very strong.  And mentally he is able to say, 'This is what I am doing right now.'''

WEIR IS SHARING a two-bedroom, two-bathroom Olympic Village suite with U.S. ice dancer Tanith Belbin, an arrangement that was a "marriage'' to avoid inconvenience.  Each wanted a single room, so U.S. Figure Skating officials asked both if there would be any problem with having a suite mate of the opposite gender.

Belbin2 "I didn't think it was allowable to stay with a girl,'' Weir said. "Tanith and I just seemed we would be a perfect match.  We're old friends.

"I don't really get along with that many people on the team.  I don't know that many people on the team well enough to live with, anyway.  Tanith is definitely No. 1 for me.''

Belbin, whom voters on ESPN.com voted the hottest female athlete of 2006, once was a romantic item with Lysacek.  He is the team member with whom Weir long has been at odds because of their competitive rivalry and the dramatic differences between their personalities.

Sharing accommodations with Weir actually is a good deal for Belbin, given his penchant for neatness.  He arranged all Belbin's gear in a closet before she moved in and has been doing his usual fine job of housecleaning.

"I'm a good nest builder,'' Weir said.

He feathered the nest with a large variety of cleaning products.

"I brought Windex, and I brought Pledge and Pledge wipes, just in case,'' Weir said.  "I love their multi-purpose wipes because you can clean your computer and your bathroom with the same thing.''

Singles skater Mirai Nagasu is envious of Belbin. "I wish I could room with Johnny and get tips on makeup and styling,'' she said.

Johnny Weir's Olympic suite mate, Tanith Belbin, as a cover girl last fall.  The magazine called her "America's Hottest Olympic athlete.'' Photo courtesy Men's Health.

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