TURIN, Italy: Miracles continued to happen to Zhao Hongbo, China's top figure skating pairs skater, here in Turin, Italy, where the 2006 Winter Olympic Games will start tomorrow morning. In just his second training session after arriving, Zhao, who severely injured his Achilles tendon last August, landed a tricky triple-double jump combination .
"It is the second time Zhao managed this move," said Yao Bin, Zhao's coach, after the training session at Palavela, the venue for the figure staking competition. "He also attempted the triple toe-loop and double axel, the two most difficult movements in his programme, several times today. It shows that he has overcome the fear of doing such dangerous movements."
Zhao and his partner Shen Xue used to be the biggest gold medal hopefuls for China before Zhao's injury. After breaking his tendon while doing a triple toe-loop last August during altitude training in South China's Yunnan province, their Olympic appearance was in doubt.
However, after surgery Zhao recovered with unexpected speed.
On November 24, just three and half months after the injury, Zhao returned to the ice. From January 5, he began to try easy jumps. Just before leaving for Turin, Zhao jumped the triple toe-loop successfully.
"Due to his injury, we have to lower Zhao's difficult level in the competition by changing the triple-triple jump combination to triple-double," said Yao. "His success today will strengthen his confidence a lot, which will help him to strive for the best result at his last Olympics."
In 1998, Shen/Zhao became only the third Chinese pair in history to compete at the Olympics, finishing fifth. Up to now, they have won two Grand Prix Final events, and have stood on the podium at six successive World Championships, winning in 2002 and 2003.
However, their best Olympic outing was a bronze at the Salt Lake City Games in 2002, where a judging scandal overshadowed the event.
"I never gave up my dream to come to the Olympics," said Zhao. "We want to do our best. We are looking for a perfect performance. It doesn't matter which medal we get."
Besides Shen/Zhao, young pair Zhang Dan and Zhang Hao could capture the public's attention with their striking quadruple throw salchows. Successfully landing the quadruple throw in the training session, the two Zhangs, silver medallists at this season's Grand Prix Finals, may add this highlight into their free skating programme.
"The quadruple throw is not a necessity for Zhang/Zhang to hit the podium in the competition since they are already at the highest level of difficulty," Yao said. "We will decide whether or not to include it after the short programme competition."
In the 2002 Winter Games, Shen/Zhao tried the quadruple throw salchows in the free skating programme but Shen failed in landing.
While the Chinese team rushes to get fully prepared for the Games, their biggest opponent Russia has set its eyes on a gold medal sweep.
But Yao showed no fear, and promised to let the final results do the talking.
"What they say won't affect us and we believe that the real strength has to be shown in the final competitions."
Like the figure skating team, China's star-studded short track speed skating team has attracted widespread attention and are considered strong challengers.
"China is strong. They have good skaters such as Li Jiajun and Li Ye on the men's side, while Wang Meng may be a tough rival for the girls," said Mathieu Turcotte of Canada's short track speed skating team, which is also a strong contender for a medal. "There will be strong competition between China and Canada."
The Chinese short track skaters are ready to face the challenges.
"I'm very lucky to participate in my fourth Olympic Games," said 31-year-old Li Jiajun, the multiple world champion. "Of course the best thing would be to win my first Olympic gold medal."