Late Additions Shen and Zhao Comfortably in Pairs Lead at Four Continents

by Mickey Brown
Xue Shen and Hongbo Zhao of China
Photo by Matt Stockman/Getty Images

2007 Four Continents Results, Photos, Video and News

(2/7/2007) - Rena Inoue & John Baldwin may have given up their U.S. championship last month in Spokane, but they're not going to give up their Four Continents Championships title without a fight.

Unfortunately for them, they may be fighting a losing battle.

With the presence of two of China's – not to mention the world's – top pairs teams in Colorado Springs this week, Inoue and Baldwin have their work cut out for them if they want to repeat as Four Continents champions.

They threw everything they had at the Chinese in their short program Wednesday afternoon, but it was not enough as the teams of Xue Shen & Hongbo Zhao and Qing Pang & Jian Tong occupy the top two stops in the standings, with Inoue and Baldwin third.

Shen and Zhao, the 2006 Olympic bronze medalists and 2006 Grand Prix Final champions, nailed their triple toe loops and landed their typically huge throw triple loop. Their lone miscue was on their triple twist; he caught her a little close to his body and put her down hard on the ice. They ended up with a score of 69.29, almost 3.5 points more than Pang and Tong.

“It was not a big deal, but we were conservative about it,” Shen said of the twist. “I regret that because our score would have been higher, probably over 70, if we had gone for it.”

Shen and Zhao were added to the Four Continents lineup less than a week before the start of the event, saying that despite their busy competition schedule, they wanted to test their programs on American soil. They also were a bit wary of competing in a place so high above sea level, since Zhao suffered his Achilles tendon injury in 2005 while at an altitude training camp in China.

Shen and Zhao made more news off the ice as they also revealed they are taking a break from competitive skating after this year's World Championships in Tokyo. They will evaluate how they feel in 2009, with the 2010 Olympic Winter Games in Vancouver being their possible swan song.

Skating first, Pang and Tong landed their triple toe loop (although she underrotated a bit), triple twist and throw triple loop en route to a score of 65.80. They managed to do all that despite her ongoing struggle with nephritis (inflammation of the kidney) and his having the flu and getting into a car crash on New Year's Day. He wears a headband to hide the scar from the accident.

“It is better than it was, but I'm still not fully recovered,” Pang said of her condition. “We need to take breaks in practice. My stamina is still not so good.”

Inoue and Baldwin skated a clean program, one that included their throw triple Axel, in which she held on to the landing despite her free leg swinging way back behind her. They also nailed their double Axels. Baldwin, however, was not pleased that they only received a level three on their spiral sequence.

“That's one of our best things. It's something we can always get a plus one on,” Baldwin said. “That could bring us up and make us comparable to the Chinese. We got held down on that tonight.”

The pair is planning on beefing up its repertoire, including the addition of a split triple twist, if it wants to become the first U.S. pairs team to medal at the World Championships since Kyoko Ina and John Zimmerman in 2002.

“We have a few things we're going to add into our program for Worlds. That should make the difference to get us up on that podium,” Baldwin said.

Recently crowned U.S. champions Brooke Castile & Ben Okolski could not repeat their performance in Spokane, as they both made big errors on their planned double Axels. She singled hers and he two-footed the landing on his.

“It isn't any different (competing as U.S. champions),” Castile said. “It is about the skate and not about the title. We have dealt with the turnaround from nationals really well. We look at this as another experience and something to build on.”

In fourth place are Canadians Valerie Marcoux and Craig Buntin, the three-time national champions who saw their reign come to an end three weeks ago, when they finished second to Jessica Dubé and Bryce Davison. Marcoux and Buntin were sailing through their “Cherry Pink and Apple Blossom White” program until the end, when they exhibited a shaky lift, after which she put her hand down on a throw triple loop and he failed to rotate enough times on their backward outside death spiral.

“The short's been tough for us to get out clean in competition this year, so for us to do it technically clean, we're happy,” Buntin said.

U.S. bronze medalists Naomi Nari Nam & Themistocles Leftheris are in sixth with 56.08 points. Her landing on their throw triple loop was unsteady, and their spins and death spiral at the end of their program were out of sync.

“We could certainly feel the altitude and feel that our breaths were deep,” Leftheris said.