Xue Shen and Hongbo Zhao

One Final Bow

Susan D. Russell
Susan D. Russell

It was an emotional moment for China’s iconic pairs team Xue Shen and Hongbo Zhao.

After 20 years of skating together on the competitive and show stages, the duo took what is likely their final bow at “Artistry on Ice 2012: Red Temptation” in Beijing in mid-June.

When Shen and Zhao teamed up in 1992, Shen did not speak a word to her partner during the first month they skated together. Zhao was already a national singles champion, and Shen was in awe of him.

The duo placed 21st at their Worlds debut in 1994. Two years later they ranked 15th, but by then there was no doubt this team was a diamond in the rough.

The Harbin natives made short work of the climb up the international ranks, claiming silver at the 1999 World Championships, making history as the first Chinese pairs team ever to claim a global medal. In 2000 they captured another silver medal but the following year fell to third.

But behind the scenes the world was falling in love with them, and by the time they hit the 2002 Olympic Winter Games they were a household name in the skating world.

In Salt Lake City they took a gamble by attempting a throw quadruple Salchow in their free program. Though the throw was unsuccessful they claimed the bronze medal, another first for China.

A month later they again wrote themselves into the history books by capturing the first of three World titles. The following year they celebrated their second global victory in Washington, D.C.
In the 2005-06 season the only competition they contested was the Olympic Winter Games, where they captured bronze.

Fast-forward to the 2007 World Championships in Tokyo, Japan where Shen and Zhao were in a class of their own, running away with the title by 15 points.

At the end of their free skate, Zhao sank to his knees in an impromptu on-ice proposal that did not go quite as he expected. Shen, not realizing what was about to transpire, kneeled down beside him. The audience, however, understood Zhao’s gesture, and rose to its feet in wild applause.

The couple married in a civil ceremony in 2008 and quietly stepped away from the competitive arena.
Shen and Zhao returned to the international stage for the 2009-10 season with one goal in mind — to claim the coveted Olympic title.

On the way to Vancouver, they won both of their Grand Prix events and the Final and in 2010 made one final historical entry in the record books when they waltzed off with the Olympic crown.

This time as Zhao knelt on the ice, his face buried in his hands, his wife just patted his back. “So many years have been devoted to this dream. To finally get this gold is so exciting,” Zhao said following the medal ceremony.

They retired from competition immediately thereafter and returned to performing on the international show circuit.
While they chose to celebrate their 2008 wedding vows in an intimate ceremony with only a few in attendance, they shared their 2010 official wedding ceremony with an entire nation. Shen and Zhao reconfirmed their vows in front of a live audience at the inaugural “Artistry on Ice” show while millions watched the event on national television.

“We met on the ice, we fell in love on the ice, so what better place to be formally married,” Zhao said.

It was fitting that they chose their highly successful “Artisty on Ice” tour as their swan song. The sold-out mini-tour played in four cities in June — Taipei, Shanghai, Shenzhen and Beijing.

In Shanghai, Zhao treated fans to a live vocal performance as he serenaded his wife with a rendition of “The Moon Represents My Heart.” The song was a huge hit for Taiwan’s Tiger Huang, who also performed at the show.

Zhao said he chose this particular song because of its significance. “I like the lyrics and it was a good song to tell Xue how I feel at this stage of my career and life,” Zhao said, adding that June 15 marked two decades since he and Shen first held hands on the ice. “I always sing because karaoke with friends is part of life in China. I have never taken any singing lessons, so I practiced really hard for this show.

“After 20 years of skating with Xue, I wanted to sing my heart out for her and for the fans who have always been there for us.”
Zhao said he was not nervous to sing in front of a large audience. “I have sung on TV shows before,” he explained.

When asked what the most memorable moment from his 20-year career with Shen was, Zhao said it was impossible to name one. “There are so many. How she took really good care of me when I was injured in 2005 when I was going through a really tough time with injuries,” he said in reference to recuperating from a torn Achilles tendon. “The moment I proposed to her on-ice after we won the World Championship in 2007, and of course when we won Olympic gold in 2010 after we came out of retirement.”

Shen is very excited to begin a new chapter in their lives. “Hongbo and I both feel that it is time to start a family,” she explained. “We decided last year and now a baby is in our plan.

“The Year of the Snake is a good year to have a baby,” added Shen with a hearty laugh.

“Other than becoming a mother in the near future, I also hope Hongbo can develop the next World champions soon. No pressure, Hongbo. We will also have more time to work on the ‘Artistry on Ice’ show as the artistic directors and I feel there is just so much I can do for figure skating in China. I am looking forward to it.”

Her most treasured memory from their storied career? “The wedding on ice during the first ‘Artistry on Ice’ in 2010,” Shen said. “It is every girl’s dream, getting married in front of 18,000 fans and friends.”

Shen, 33, and Zhao, 38, will now join the national coaching team. Their goal is to be a force in the development of new pairs teams in China. “We are planning on this. I feel it is my responsibility to pass what I have learned to the young skaters,” Zhao explained.

“Xue and I want to thank all the fans, media, judges, choreographers and friends from around the world for all the support over all the years,” Zhao said. “We want to especially thank Lori Nichol, Lea Ann Miller, Renee Roca, Gorsha Sur, Sandra Bezic and Tracy Wilson.”

“The Moon Represents My Heart” Lyrics (rough translation):

You ask me how deep my love for you is,
How much I really love you…
My affection is real,
My love is real,
The moon represents my heart.

You ask me how deep my love for you is,
How much I really love you…
My affection does not waver,
My love will not change,
The moon represents my heart.

Just one soft kiss,
Is enough to move my heart,
A period of time when our affection was deep,
Has made me miss you until now.

You ask me how deep my love for you is,
How much I really love you.
Go think about it,
Go and have a look [at the moon],
The moon represents my heart.

Originally published in August 2012