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Olympics

Last chance for Chinese figure skating pair

By Liu Zhen and Nick Mulvenney

BEIJING (Reuters) - China's Shen Xue and Zhao Hongbo know from bitter experience that their record-breaking form this season is no guarantee of an Olympic figure skating gold medal in Vancouver next month.

"The Olympic gold medal is the ultimate dream of our career; we came back for it," Zhao, 36, told Chinese web portal sina.com in a recent interview.

Difficult routines performed near-flawlessly have secured them three victories in three grand prix outings, most recently at December's finals in Tokyo where they set world-record scores in the free skate, short program and overall.

They were similarly dominant in the 2004-2005 season, however, building up expectations that they could turn a bronze at Salt Lake City in 2002 into China's first figure skating Olympic gold in Turin.

"The 2006 Olympics was the time we were closest to the gold; we were far better than our competitors," Shen, now 31, recalled.

Disaster struck, though, when Zhao ruptured his Achilles tendon six months before Turin and he faced the toughest fight of his career just to compete in Italy, falling out with his now wife Shen in the process.

"I was thinking about nothing else but that I must stand on the rink of the Olympics," said Zhao.

SECOND BRONZE

"I was under such terrible stress. I wanted to save my strength for the Olympics. I wouldn't care if the tendon broke again then.

"But Shen said if I was unable to make a simple jump in training it would be meaningless for us to go to the Olympics -- why not just give up?

"During training she was like crazy forcing me to jump. I finally lost my temper and said if my tendon broke again, I would kill her."

The pair did eventually get on to the ice in Turin without bloodshed but the lack of practice told and they could manage only a second bronze.

"After that I thought I would never compete again," Zhao said. "I felt so tired that I wanted to quit figure skating."

The couple had paired up 15 years earlier in their home city of Harbin in China's chilly northern province of Heilongjiang, which harbors ambitions to host the Winter Olympics one day.

Shen and Zhao soon proved they had the quality to match top international standards and within six years they had finished fifth at their first Olympics in Nagano.

SKATING SCHOOL

"We were under big pressure because we were competitive enough for a gold medal and we prepared so much for it," said Zhao.

It was not to be, though, and they were the almost forgotten bronze medalists as a judging scandal that engulfed the sport resulted in both the Russian and Canadian pairs getting gold.

Then came the disappointment of 2005-6, and even the third world crown was not enough for them to rest on their laurels at their skating school in Shenzhen.

"Later, we both felt that the Turin Olympics did not show our real strength; we could have done better," Zhao said.

So they shut down the school and returned to training in the middle of last year, preparing for one last push for gold and reveling in the lack of pressure.

"We feel relaxed...we are starting from a very low point," Zhao said, with Shen adding: "This is not our best chance. It is just our last chance, a last chance at the Olympics."

(Editing by Clare Fallon)