VANCOUVER, British Columbia (AP) — Gold is the only goal.
China's Shen Xue and Zhao Hongbo can almost touch the Olympic title that has eluded them in three other games. They used a world best in the short program Sunday night to get as close as the width of a skate blade. If it takes another record to grab the all-elusive gold at the Vancouver Olympics, well, they have the goods to do it.
"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."
A good opportunity? Shen and Zhao have been unbeatable this season after two years on the sidelines thanks to a short-lived retirement. They didn't flinch at drawing the unenviable first position in the short program, then mesmerized the audience — and the judges — with their precision, athleticism and total mastery on the ice.
"We feel pretty good even though we were the first to go today," Zhao said of their record 76.66 points. Then he added with a laugh: "I can barely feel my legs and I want to sit down."
He wasn't laughing at the competition, which is quite strong. Two-time world champions Aliona Savchenko and Robin Szolkowy were just .70 points behind, even though their routine to "Send in the Clowns" didn't have the same electricity as Shen and Zhao's program to "Who Wants to Live Forever?"
Savchenko and Szolkowy seemingly had to wait forever to get on the ice. They skated last among the 20 competitors — a spot Shen and Zhao will have in Monday night's free skate — and knew several others had performed well.
So they skated like champions, too, ending thoughts of any runaway by the Chinese.
"The points are so close," Szolkowy said. "There are some people who will say, 'In my mind, the Germans were best, or the Chinese were best or they say the Russians were best.
"We're looking forward to a good fight," Szolkowy said.
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 to 1964.
"I think I speak for all the Chinese competitors, we're here to give it our all and go for the gold," Zhao said. "We don't feel anything about the dominance of any one country. We just have to give our best performances."
This sure was their best short program.
Shen and Zhao retired after winning their third world title in 2007. But an Olympic gold medal is powerful motivation and it proved irresistible.
Veritable senior citizens in the skating world, the 31-year-old Shen and 36-year-old Zhao are no aging champions. Once lauded for their athleticism but criticized for a lack of artistry, they now skate with their hearts as well as their feet.
And, as only the greatest pairs do, they seem to skate as one, with perfect timing on every element, from the most simple turn to the roof-dusting throws.
Their triple twist was so huge he looked as if he was shooting a 3-pointer — and hitting nothing but net as she floated to the ice.
Asked if it was their best performance, coach Yao Bin said, "Just about."
Savchenko and Szolkowy, successors to Shen and Zhao at the top of the pairs world, lost their European title to Kavaguti and Smirnov last month. But they were the only skaters truly in the Chinese team's class Sunday night.
If not for unison trouble on their side-by-side spins, Savchenko and Szolkowy might be sitting in first place — ironic considering both wore the tears of a clown painted on their faces.
Unlike 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.
Kavaguti and Smirnov were 2.5 points behind the leaders after a balletic "The Swan" program. That's easy to make up in some free skates, but maybe not against this field.
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."