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Shen-Zhao set record in short program

VANCOUVER, British Columbia (AP) — Beat this.

Shen Xue and Zhao Hongbo threw down a challenge to the world's top couples Sunday night with a world record. Nobody could match it. For most of the night, nobody came close.

After winning bronze at the last two Olympics, the Chinese pair is making it nearly impossible to keep the all-elusive gold out of their hands this time.

"We participated in a total of four Olympics, including this one, and we have only two bronze" medals, Zhao said. "We really want the gold. I feel this is a good opportunity."

Shen and Zhao's score of 76.66 is just .70 points ahead of two-time world champions Aliona Savchenko and Robin Szolkowy, a margin that can be made up with a mere flick of the wrist in Monday night's free skate. But the Chinese have dominated everywhere they've skated since coming out of retirement, and they aren't about to back down now.

Russia's Yuko Kavaguti and Alexander Smirnov are in third, giving them a chance to continue what is one of the longest winning streaks in sports. A Russian or Soviet pair has won the gold medal at every Olympics dating back to 1964.

"We don't feel anything about the dominance of any one country," Zhao said. "We just have to give our best performances."

Chinese teammates Pang Qing and Tong Jian are fourth and Zhang Dan and Zhang Hao are fifth.

Amanda Evora and Mark Ladwig, surprise silver medalists at last month's U.S. championships, are 10th after the performance of their career at their first major international event. U.S. champions Caydee Denney and Jeremy Barrett were 14th.

"I can definitely say we've already had many Olympic moments," Evora said. "So whatever we can do the rest of the Olympics is icing on the cake."

Shen and Zhao retired after winning their third world title in 2007. But an Olympic gold medal is powerful motivation and it proved to be irresistible.

Despite being 31 and 36, veritable senior citizens in the skating world, Shen and Zhao are no aging champions. The big tricks? They mastered those years ago. Now, though, they skate with their hearts as well as their feet, displaying the artistry and emotion that makes pairs skating so moving.

"It was a gift for Valentine's Day, and today was just the short program," Zhao said. "Hopefully, tomorrow will be as good as today."

From her gorgeous black and pink lace dress to the way they touched fans way up in the rafters, every second of their performance oozed elegance. Perhaps because of their experience, perhaps because they're married or perhaps because they're simply that good, they appear to be one person when they skate. Everything is done in unison and with perfect timing. Their side-by-side triple toe loop jumps were landed right on a note of music, as if they put an exclamation point on it.

And that athleticism? They can still show the kids a thing or two.

Their triple twist was so huge he had time to put his hands down — and probably could have ducked out for tea, too. Their elements were matter of fact, not forced, and never once did the audience have that heart-in-your-throat feeling of "Will they? Won't they?" As in, fall.

Asked if it was their best performance, coach Yao Bin said, "Just about."

Savchenko and Szolkowy skated into the void when Shen and Zhao retired, winning the last two world titles. But when they lost their European title to Kavaguti and Smirnov last month, it looked as if they might not be such as big threat.

Wrong. If not for having trouble being in unison on their side-by-side spins, they, not the Chinese, might be sitting in first place.

"We're looking forward to a good fight," Szolkowy said.

Savchenko and Szolkowy were the very last couple to skate. While it can be a huge advantage because skaters know what everyone else has done, it can be draining to wait that long.

Not to mention that Savchenko and Szolkowy knew they'd need a world record to beat the Chinese.

"We have to give thanks to the audience and everyone in the venue who made it easy and fun to skate even though we skated after all the other pairs teams," Szolkowy said.

Even though they were off on their side-by-side spins, it didn't take away from the overall elegance of Savchenko and Szolkowy's "Send in the Clowns" performance. Their portrayal was spot-on, from the black teardrops on their faces to the sadness that seemed to be etched onto Savchenko's face.

And unlike their skating at Europeans, where Savchenko was getting over an illness, they are clearly back to full strength. Their throw triple flip was huge, and they did nice side-by-side triple toe loops in unison — not always their forte.

Their only problem was on the side-by-side flying combination spin, and they fell out of unison twice, once with the first foot and again with the second.

Kavaguti and Smirnov have made great strides in the last year, winning the world bronze medal and upsetting Savchenko and Szolkowy at Europeans. And they're definitely in the running here, with a balletic "The Swan" program that put them 2.5 points behind Shen and Zhao.

That's easy to make up in the free skate, especially if they have another performance like this. Their pairs spin was spectacular, filled with unusual positions and done with great speed. Their footwork was expressive, and nicely complemented by fluttery, swanlike hand movements.

Evora and Ladwig have never even been close to a world championship, but they left little doubt that they belonged on the big stage. Their lyrical program to music from the movie "Love Actually" was so smooth and beautiful, the audience could be forgiven for barely noticing the tough tricks they were doing.

The couple savored every second of the program, with grins spreading across their faces after they landed their throw triple loop, their last high-risk element. Their smiles widened as the program went on, and Ladwig screamed "Yeah!" and pumped his fist when they finished.

Denney and Barrett's performance wasn't quite so sharp. The U.S. champions have been on an accelerated track since reuniting in June 2008 (they skated together briefly in 2006) and were ninth in their debut at the world championships last season. But she doubled their side-by-side triple toes, and not even their energy and power could make up for that major error.