By Pritha Sarkar

VANCOUVER (Reuters) - Husband-and-wife team Zhao Hongbo and Shen Xue broke Russia's 46-year stranglehold on the Olympics figure skating pairs event on Monday with a mesmerizing performance worthy of 18 years' hard work together.

Compatriots Pang Qing and Tong Jian trailed the three-times former world champions by 3.26 points, while Germany's Aliona Savchenko and Robin Szolkowy finished third.

"Today's medal is a completion of a dream after so many years," Shen, who had kissed the medal in unison with her husband while on the podium, told reporters. They had finished third in the previous two Olympics.

Job done, a grinning Shen immediately set her sights on their next goal: "It's hard to continue skating -- maybe it's time to have a baby," she told a news conference.

Russian or Soviet skaters had dominated the pairs event by winning gold at 12 successive Olympics stretching back to the 1964 Innsbruck Games but on Monday they were completely knocked off the podium after Yuko Kavaguti and Alexander Smirnov both crashed to the ice in their free program. They were fourth.

On Monday, the 36-year-old Zhao again flopped down on his knees but this time it was to celebrate that, after three missed opportunities, they had finally won the ultimate prize at their fourth Olympics. The pair had first teamed up 18 years ago.


The last among 20 couples to compete, Shen and Zhao calmly stepped on the ice even though the Pacific Coliseum was still buzzing following the stupendous display by Pang and Tong -- who had brought the crowd to their feet with their breathtaking performance to "Impossible Dream."

Tong certainly thought he had produced a winning performance as he bent down to kiss the ice after producing a near flawless display to earn the day's top mark of 141.81 for their free skate and a combined total of 213.31.

His feeling of jubilation lasted less than 10 minutes as Shen and Zhao blew away their rivals.

After opening their account with high-flying triple toeloops, those lucky souls in the arena witnessed Zhao sending his wife into orbit as they performed a back-to-back throw triple loop and throw triple salchow.

Shen landed each of the jumps with such precision it seemed as if she was performing on a metal surface with magnets attached to her blades dragging her down to the surface.

The duo's only blip was when Zhao over rotated on a double axel and were slightly out of sync in their side-by-side spins.

As it was, their score of 139.91 could not match Pang and Tong's free program but having held a healthy advantage over their Chinese rivals going into Monday, it would have taken a fall to deny them gold.

Savchenko skated on to the ice wearing brown boots with a sequined red heart emblazoned on the heel.

There was certainly plenty of love for the couple in the arena for their emotive performance to "Out of Africa" but a crash landing by Szolkowy on the double axel sealed their fate.

Szolkowy struggled to hide his disappointment but Zhao, who had won bronze at the last two Olympics, offered him some words of wisdom.

"My advice is don't wait till you're 37 to get gold," he told the crestfallen German.

(Additional reporting by Jeff Jones, editing by Jon Bramley)