Shen and Zhao Look Toward a Third World Title

by Laura Fawcett
Xue Shen and Hongbo Zhao of China
Photo by Toshifumi Kitamura/AFP

2007 World Championships Photos, News, Blogs, Starting Orders

(3/20/07) - Brooke Castile was sick.

It was the eve of her and partner Ben Okolski's first appearance at the World Championships, and things weren't going right. She managed to make it through the opening reception Monday night, but she chose not to participate in Tuesday morning's pairs warm-up. Instead Castile slept.

It turned out to be the right decision for the flu-stricken skater, as Castile felt well enough to compete, and she and Okolski opened the pairs competition at the 2007 World Championships with a brave and solid performance.

China's Xue Shen and Hongbo Zhao won the short program with a magnificent performance to “Romanza,” scoring a personal best 71.07 points. European champions Aliona Savchenko and Robin Szolkowy are about four points behind Shen and Zhao in second, and reigning World champions Qing Pang and Jian Tong are third. Last year's fourth-place finishers, Rena Inoue & John Baldwin, missed their triple Axel but scored all level fours to finish sixth.

Castile, however, was one of the inspiring stories of the night. After the short program, Castile made only a brief statement to reporters before heading back for more rest.

“I have the stomach flu pretty bad, and I have a fever, too, but it was my goal to get through that program and compete,” she said. “Since this is our first Worlds it's important that we get seen. Hopefully I'll feel better tomorrow and get through the long program. I'm happy with the way I skated. I went on autopilot and did the best I could.”

Her best was impressive considering the circumstances. They had small glitches throughout, including a rough landing on the triple twist, and scored 54.51 points to finish 14th overall. Okolski said that he and coaches Johnny Johns and Marina Zoueva left the decision to compete entirely to Castile.

“It was 100 percent her decision – the way she felt,” he said. “She knew that we both wanted to come in and make an appearance at our first Worlds so we could make an impression. It was completely 100 percent up to her. None of us were going to push her to do something she wasn't able to do.”

Okolski said their performance was about 90 percent, and with a healthy Okolski they would have been a little faster and smoother. For his part, he just wanted to make sure he stayed on top of things.

“I definitely was trying to make sure that I was as strong as I could be at every point of the program for her, but it was pretty much business as usual,” he said. “I was just trying to make sure that I kept everything the same so she didn't have to change anything.”

Castile and Okolski's pairs teammates, Inoue and Baldwin, are in sixth after being the only team to score all level fours on their technical elements. The triple Axel would have been an added bonus, but Inoue and Baldwin were overall pleased with the marks.

“We were really happy with the scores tonight,” Baldwin said. “Yes, if we would have landed the triple Axel it would have been about three points higher, but I think we skated really smart after that, and we ended up getting all level fours on all of our elements, and that's a real testament to our program. We're pretty happy with it. Rena was excited to be in front of her home crowd, and I felt how comfortable she was out there, so we're looking forward to the long program.”

The audience was with Inoue and Baldwin all the way, and the team has been able to enjoy themselves skating in front of Inoue's family and the Japanese fans.

“It's been just all fun,” Inoue said of skating in Tokyo. “I don't feel any extra pressure. My pressure it just to do the best I can do. I have my mother and two aunts and one uncle and also my grandmom on my dad's side [here]. They all live in Japan, I'm the only one living in the United States.”

In the overall scheme of things, however, the night belonged to Shen and Zhao, who, barring a disaster, will mostly like win their third World title, and first since 2003, on Wednesday. Each element was smooth and precise, and the audience gave the beloved pairs team a standing ovation.

“The audience was cheering us up, and I felt so good,” Zhao said. “I hope we will earn another personal best score tomorrow to win these Worlds before we retire.”

Shen and Zhao received just two negative grades of execution, and their throw triple loop collected five plus 3 GOEs.

Savchenko and Szolkowy have made a quick rise through the international pairs ranks, and they showed they deserved the success with a fast-paced, interesting performance to “Once Upon A Time in Mexico.” In their four years together, they have twice finished sixth at the World Championships.

They opened with a throw triple flip, side-by-side triple toes and triple Lutz twist, all without error.

“The twist was not so good, but we did a good job and got close to our performance at German Nationals,” Szolkowy said. “For an athlete there is never a perfect performance, but at German Nationals we had a good feeling, and it was fun, whereas today things were a bit harder.”

Savchenko competed previously for Ukraine with Stanislav Morosov, with whom she won the 2000 World Junior pairs title.

Pang and Tong are in third with 66.75 points. Their program contained side-by-side triple toes, a triple Lutz twist and throw triple loop, but it lacked fire.

Finishing in a surprising fourth place was first-year team Yuko Kawaguchi and Alexander Smirnov. Coached by the legendary Tamara Moskvina, they teamed up in the spring of 2006 and finished third at Cup of Russia. They missed Russian nationals and the 2007 European Championships after she broke her ankle in a fall in practice in December.

Kawaguchi has had a few different partners, including Devin Patrick, with whom she finished 15th at the 2006 State Farm U.S. Championships in senior pairs.

Olympic silver medalists Dan Zhang and Hao Zhang are in 10th after they rotated their lift too many times and received no credit. Former World champions Maria Petrova and Alexei Tikhonov of Russia are 11th after a few botched elements.