Shen and Zhao Win Third World Title; Inoue and Baldwin Finish EighthBy Laura Fawcett
|Xue Shen and Hongbo Zhao|
Photo by Koichi Kamoshida/Getty Images
(3/21/07) China's Xue Shen and Hongbo Zhao saved an otherwise forgettable pairs free skate by winning the gold medal Wednesday night at the 2007 World Championships in Tokyo, Japan. It was their third World title, and they performed effortlessly to “Meditation” in what is likely their last competitive performance.
Shen and Zhao scored 132.43 points in the free skate and 203.50 overall to finish ahead of countrymates Qing Pang and Jian Tong (121.71/188.46). Germany's Aliona Savchenko and Robin Szolkowy won the bronze and collected the first medal for a German pairs team since Peggy Schwarz and Mirko Muller won bronze in 1998. Americans Rena Inoue and John Baldwin, and Brooke Castile and Ben Okolski, finished eighth and 12th, respectively.
Up until Shen and Zhao's free skate, there hadn't been a lot to get excited about. Savchenko and Szolkowy skated a lyrical, if technically flawed, performance, while the Ukraine's Tatiana Volosozhar and Stanislav Morozov staked their claim for the future with a technically sound free skate.
But nobody had really grabbed the audience.
If this was Shen and Zhao's swan song, it was a moving moment on which to end. Upon the completion of their program, which was only marred by out of synch side-by-side spins, they stood facing each other for a short while, until falling to their knees in happiness, and probably relief.
“I am satisfied that we skated well,” said Zhao, who touched the ice while heading to the kiss and cry. “I just wanted to thank the ice in Tokyo. I like Japan, and I am happy I was able to do our last performance here.”
In contrast to Zhao's statement, Shen told reporters that “maybe it was the last competition.” At the Four Continents Championships in February, the team insinuated that it would definitely take the 2007-08 season off, but beyond that its future was undecided.
Pang and Tong, third after the short program, skated an error-free routine to “Phantom of the Opera” to claim the silver medal. They completed a double Axel-double Axel sequence, side-by-side triple toes, two throw jumps (Salchow and loop) and, of course, a spectacular triple twist.
“We are very, very pleased with this performance,” Tong said. “I want to thank my partner Qing Pang; she did a great job tonight. It was the best free program of the season. Next year we want to come back strong and give the very best performances.”
Savchenko and Szolkowy's program to “The Mission” had the artistry, but he stumbled out of the front end of the triple toe-triple toe sequence, and the back end never happened. Later she singled their double Axels, and the side-by-side spin never quite got in synch.
“It would be an exaggeration to say we are depressed,” Szolkowy said, “but after the free skate at the European Championships, we did expect more.”
Russia's Yuko Kawaguchi and Alexander Smirnov, fourth after the short, struggled throughout their program to finish ninth overall. Volosozhar and Morozov were the surprise fourth-place finishers, as they moved up from eighth after the free skate. The team's best finish in a major competition was fifth at January's European Championships.
It was a rough night for the U.S. teams. Inoue and Baldwin struggled with their bread and butter, the technical elements, and dropped from sixth to eighth overall.
Inoue fell out of the opening triple toes, and then later on the throw triple Axel and throw triple loop. The side-by-side double Axels were good, but Baldwin didn't do the ensuing double loop.
“I think Johnny should be very proud of himself because he did a great job,” Inoue said. “But I think for sure I disappointed Johnny and my coach.”
Baldwin jumped in to disagree.
“You didn't disappoint me,” he said. “It's a team effort. We are disappointed because I think we knew we were going to have one of our best performances tonight. We were really confident going into it, so yeah, it's definitely a disappointment. Our specialty is the technical, and that fell by the wayside tonight. It was actually the least amount of technical that we did all season. It was our lowest score, so that's tough, for us to walk away that way. The best skaters have some off nights, and I really think – I'm not the best skater – but I do know that Rena is the best skater. Not just the best pair girl in the world but the best female in the world.”
The couple is still uncertain what the future will hold.
“We haven't made a decision yet (about retiring),” Inoue said. “Our bodies are kind of exhausted right now and also, from the Olympic season and coming into this season, that we never had any rest. At this point, I don't know how Johnny feels, but I really feel exhausted mentally and physically. I think we just finished the Worlds and we can just go home and relax, and I want to get the full recovery on the body. After that maybe we can talk about what we're going to do.”
Castile and Okolski, meanwhile, finished a respectable 12th in their Worlds debut, especially considering Castile's illness. She was clearly still suffering from the stomach flu following the night's performance. Although this was not the Worlds outing for which they hoped, they aren't leaving without knowledge to help them next year.
“You learn a lot just from being here and seeing all the other teams and how they deal with the pressure and how they get through a World competition,” Okolski said. “And we obviously gained some experience in skating a good short program. Unfortunately, we didn't really repeat it in the long.”
Popular Polish team Dorota Siudek and Mariusz Siudek withdrew after he injured his back during the warm-up in what was to be their final competitive performance.