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Veteran pair poised for Olympic dream

BEIJING, Feb.11 — China’s Shen Xue and Zhao Hongbo, the hot favorites to win the figure skating pairs event at the Winter Olympics in Vancouver, claim they are in peak form and ready for fierce competition on the ice.

"We did very well in recent training sessions and worked on some high-quality, technical elements of the program," said Shen, before leaving for what will be the pair’s last Winter Olympics at the weekend.

"We are very excited about going to the Olympics for a fourth time. We are very relaxed and will strive for as good a result as possible. We are feeling no pressure."

After spending more than two years in retirement, the three-time world champion pair burst back on to the skating scene last year in a bid to claim that elusive Olympic gold at the Vancouver Games.

China’s figure skating world champions Shen Xue and Zhao Hongbo practise during a training session in Beijing last November. Inset: Shen/Zhao hold toy tigers (2010 is the year of Tiger in China) to say Happy New Year to their fans during their preparation for the Vancouver Winter Olympics in Beijing last December

The veteran duo has won all three competitions it has participated in this season and upped its personal best score each time.

China’s national figure skating coach, Yao Bin, believes Olympic gold is well within reach of the husband-and-wife duo.

"This time, we are closest to the Olympic gold medal," said Yao, who will be taking part in his sixth Olympics.

As a pairs skater himself, Yao used to finish last at the Winter Olympics but his athletes have helped him realize his Olympic dreams. Shen and Zhao won bronze medals in 2002 and 2006 while their young teammates, Zhang Dan and Zhang Hao, claimed silver at the 2006 Turin Games

Together with the 2006 world champion duo of Pang Qing and Tong Jian, China looks finally set to break its gold medal drought in Vancouver.

"All three pairs are in good form right now," Yao said. "Their biggest rivals are themselves. I just hope they skate at their highest level."

In contrast to the smooth return of Shen and Zhao, the team’s youngest pair, the Zhangs, has struggled in its two Grand Prix stops and had to settle for last spot in the six-pair Grand Prix finals after adopting new routines for both the short program and free skating in the early part of the season.

However, the duo refuses to give up on its Olympic dream and has since resurrected its old short program and recorded the highest score of the season to win the Four Continents championships in Jeonju, South Korea, last month.

"Returning from the Four Continents championships, we have regained our confidence," said Zhang Hao, who has just recovered from a fever. "We will pay much attention to detail in the last week before the competitions and try to skate our best there."

For Pang and Tong, who will also be competing at their last Olympics, a medal would be the ultimate farewell gift.

"Of course we want a medal in Vancouver," said Tong. "We hope everything goes well before the competitions and then adjust ourselves to be at our best at the right time."



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