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Ground-breaking figure-skating gold medalist to coach national team
Chinese pair Shen Xue and Zhao Hongbo claimed the country's first Olympic gold medal in figure skating at the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics, bringing the perfect end to their 20-year career on the ice as well as taking the country's figure skating to new heights.
The pair married in 2007 (but the wedding ceremony was not held until 2010) and the dynamic duo, which concluded its on-ice escapades with a series of shows in 2012, will welcome the birth of a child in September.
However, all of that does not mean the country's most successful figure skaters will glide too far away from the nation's rinks.
Zhao, a figure skating promoter, husband and soon-to-be father, has added another role to his impressive resume as he was appointed coach of the national team's pairs skaters on Tuesday as they prepare for the 2014 Sochi Games.
Chinese figure skating has endured somewhat of a slump since the retirement of Shen and Zhao. Veterans Pang Qing and Tong Jian have been plagued by injuries and the younger generation of skaters has yet to rise up and fill the massive void.
At the 2012 World Figure Skating Championships in Nice, France, Chinese pairs missed out on medaling for the first time in 14 years. Vancouver silver medalists Pang and Tong finished fourth.
At the 2013 Worlds, held in March in Canada (which also served as a Sochi Games qualifier), China's best-performing pair of Pang and Tong finished fifth, while two younger duos were 11th and 12th. The result means China will only have two Olympic entries in the pairs after boasting three at the past three Games.
"Chinese figure skating had a glorious time in Vancouver, but in the current situation, the Sochi Games will be a huge challenge for all the skaters and coaches," said Ren Hongguo, deputy chief of the winter sport administrative center.
"Shen and Zhao dedicated themselves to promoting figure skating nationwide after their retirement and have helped provide the younger generation with opportunities to take part in international competitions," Ren said. "We hope with his rich experience and knowledge of the sport, Zhao will lead the squad out of its current trough and also discover more youth for the team."
With the Sochi Games only nine months away, Zhao is already feeling the heat.
"We have got less than a year to prepare for the Olympics (in February) and the appointment puts me under a huge amount of pressure," said the 39-year-old. "The young skaters are battling injuries, have a lack of experience and Peng Cheng made several big mistakes at the Worlds. I will do my best to pass on my experience to them."
Peng, 17, paired with Zhang Hao last May after the retirement of Zhang Dan.
Despite the problems within the team and likely strong challenges from the Russian, German and Canadian skaters, the Chinese still have their sights set on Sochi gold.
According to Zhao, veterans Pang and Tong will be in the heat of the battle for gold, while two young pairs, Peng and Zhang Hao and Sui Wenjing and Han Cong will compete for the other ticket.
"Pang and Tong are still the leaders of the squad. They have their own artistic ways if they can finish their performances - as they did at the Vancouver Games - they may have a good chance to win the gold medal," Zhao said.
"Peng and Zhang Hao have great potential. They just need time to skate together, and that should allow Peng to become more mature and stable."
Having acted as artistic director for the Artistry On Ice show following his retirement, Zhao said he will work with the young skaters on improving their artistic moves.
"Figure skating requires complicated skills, but it is also an artistic performance," he said. "For many years, Chinese figure skating has been regarded as first class in jumping, second class in gliding and third class in artistic performance. Shen and I learned from many performances against foreign skaters how to overcome that (artistic) weakness.
"We hope, with our experience, we can help China's young skaters to further improve in expressing themselves in dancing."
Shen will also be on hand to help coach the female skaters.
"She understands the movement and dancing of girls better than me. Her attendance will be very helpful," he said.
(China Daily 05/22/2013 page22)