Chinese pairs skaters Qing Pang and Jian Tong are powerhouses on the ice. When Tong hurls his partner into the air in a high-flying split triple twist or a throw triple jump, the words power and strength come to mind.
But off the ice, this good-humored, engaging duo is anything but intimidating. Pang smiles nonstop and the soft-spoken Tong is immediately endearing.
When IFS interviewed the team in late 2004, neither spoke any English. In the ensuing years, both have made huge strides in their comprehension and verbal expression of one of the most difficult of languages.
“In 2007, we spent three months in the U.S. on the Champions on Ice tour,” Tong explained. “Everybody spoke English, no Chinese, so we learned this way.”
Pang and Tong admit that neither had any idea the inauspicious beginning to their individual skating careers would lead them down the path they have traveled the past decade and a half.
Pang learned to skate as part of a school program at age 7. “Everyone in my school went to skating classes and I fell in love with it,” she said. A year later Pang landed her first triple Salchow.
She said she was drawn to pairs skating because the challenge of mastering the technical elements fascinated her. “I especially like the throws and spins,” Pang said. “I like throw jumps the most.”
Tong’s first skates were of the roller variety and his first outings to an ice rink as a 7-year-old were purely recreational. “My friends and I would go to have some fun,” he said. “It was not serious, just fooling around.”
All that changed when a coach identified Tong as a natural talent and he started taking lessons. Tong competed as a singles skater for five years before turning to ice dance, achieving a modicum of success in both disciplines. “I was the gold medalist in juniors in my province and third in singles skating in China,” he said. Tong also won a silver medal at junior nationals in ice dance.
Tong quit ice dancing after two years and changed disciplines. He said from the moment he first saw pairs skating it fascinated him. “The men looked to me then like Superman. I wanted to try to be like Superman too,” Tong admitted. “Pairs skating is more interesting and challenging than ice dancing to me.”
A COACH EMERGES
Pairs skaters Luan Bo and Bin Yao were members of the first Chinese contingent that competed at the World Championships in Dortmund, Germany in 1980, and the first team to ever represent China at an international skating competition.
In the early 1980s when China was all but closed to the Western world, skaters had no access to videos or television to master their craft. Bo and Yao learned all of their moves by looking at still photographs of skaters from international events.
The duo skated into 15th place at their international debut. Bo and Yao also competed at 1981 and 1982 Worlds and represented China at the 1984 Olympic Winter Games.
Yao retired from competition and turned to coaching. When he paired Pang and Tong in 1993, the national skating program was in its infancy, and Yao was the only high-level pairs coach in China.
Shortly after the pairing, Yao moved to Beijing to coach Xue Shen and Hongbo Zhao. Pang and Tong, who lived and trained in Harbin, found themselves adrift. The teenagers had no option but to train and develop their skills on their own.
With no coach and no other avenues open to them to learn, Pang and Tong turned to a medium few Western skaters would ever consider. “We learned pairs skating by watching skating on television and videos,” Tong said. “Very slowly we became impressed and we started practicing the moves we saw.”
From 1993 until 1998 Pang and Tong trained mainly by themselves. “Sometimes we had Bin Yao as a coach,” Tong said. “Maybe two weeks a year we had coaching from him when we went to Beijing but almost always we worked by ourselves.
“We learned the throw triple, the triple twist and the side-by-side pairs spin in one year. Our levels went up so fast.”
In 1998, five years after joining forces, the pair landed their first split triple twist.
Having no coach in the beginning was frustrating, Pang recalled. “Sometimes I just wanted to give up,” she said, laughing at the recollection of those difficult and uncertain years. “But that changed when we were offered the chance to go to Beijing and train with Bin Yao sometimes.”
RISING THROUGH THE RANKS
Pang and Tong did not have a great deal of success in the junior ranks. In their three trips to the World Junior Championships between 1997 and 1999, the duo placed 14th, ninth and eighth, respectively.
Those experiences, however, gave them a new perspective on their budding career. “In the beginning it was just fun for us, but when we were in juniors I started to dream of becoming the national champion,” Tong said. “When I was 20 years old I decided my goal was to win the Four Continents Championships.”
The team’s rise through the senior ranks was far from meteoric. Pang and Tong placed fifth in their senior international debut at the inaugural Four Continents Championships in Halifax in 1999. A month later they placed a disappointing 14th at their first senior Worlds in Helsinki.
After a succession of second-place finishes at their national championships, Pang and Tong claimed their first title in 2000. The duo claimed the title again in 2004 and 2007.
Pang and Tong made their Grand Prix debut in 2000, skating into fourth place at Skate Canada and fifth at Cup of Russia.
Following their first major international victory at the 2002 Four Continents Championships, Pang and Tong headed to the Olympic Winter Games in Salt Lake City with high expectations.
Politics got in the way they said and things did not go as planned. “At the 2002 Olympics, the music for our short program was changed just before the competition began,” Tong said. “When the music started at practice, I said, ‘I do not know this music.’ We only had two practice sessions with the new music.”
Pang described it as disappointing. “It was special,” she said with a hint of sarcasm. “It was not a good experience.” The duo placed a disappointing ninth.
No explanation was ever given by their federation as to why the music was changed.
A GOLDEN WORLD
During the four years heading into the 2006 Olympics, Pang and Tong had a series of up-and-down seasons.
In 2004 Pang and Tong claimed bronze at the World Championships and their second Four Continents title, but the following season they fell to fourth in the World rankings and could do no better than silver at Four Continents.
The team headed to Torino with high hopes, but once again it was not to be. Pang and Tong ended up in fourth place, losing the bronze medal by a mere .24 of a point to teammates Shen and Zhao.
Pang and Tong admit they were disappointed at the time. “We made only two small mistakes in the long, but … otherwise we were happy with how we skated,” Tong said.
Disappointment changed to elation a month later when Pang and Tong claimed their first World title in Calgary. It was the moment they had both dreamed of for so many years, and when their final score flashed overhead, neither could contain their excitement.
“The crowd was cheering and it was unbelievable,” Tong said. “I was so happy. Another dream comes true. Canada is a lucky place for us. We always have good results when we compete there.”
It was the medal that almost never happened, according to Pang. “We had a very big argument at the Grand Prix Final, and I thought about quitting at that time,” she said.
In 2007 Pang and Tong captured their third World medal, the silver, at the 2007 World Championships in Tokyo, Japan.
The 2007-08 season was once again a series of highs and lows. The duo placed second at Skate America, won gold at Cup of China, recaptured their national title and reclaimed the Four Continents crown.
Their third-place finish at the Grand Prix Final was bittersweet. “I recall that we narrowly missed winning a medal the last time we were in Torino,” Tong recalled. “So we were happy to get one at the final.”
At the 2008 World Championships the pair struggled and ended up in fifth place. Both expressed dismay when two of their triples in the long program were downgraded to doubles.
“The technical panel did not give credit to our triple jumps,” Tong said. “We did two jumps with high degrees of difficulty but the points we got were for the lowest levels. Those two jumps made a combined difference of 10 points overall.
“We are going home to work harder than ever,” Tong told IFS following the competition.
Pang and Tong both admit to being fond of all things fashionable. In 2007 they had the opportunity to participate in a fashion show in China, modeling clothes by Italian designer Max Merill. “It was lot of fun,” Tong said. “The manager liked our skating very much and so he invited us to model his clothes. We like fashionable clothes.”
Both acknowledged their love of fashion has put shopping high on the list of things they like to do in their spare time. Pang admitted she has a passion for shirts and watches.
Tong said he loves the outdoors. He is an avid golfer and likes to fish. “I like to keep busy all the time,” he said.
Pang laughed as she confessed that eating is one of her favorite things to do off-ice.
When asked what their favorite countries are outside of China, Pang said she likes all the nations she has visited but particularly likes the United States. “I like the American people,” she said.
Her partner agreed. “I like the U.S. I like the country and the warmth of the people,” he said.
Their parents have never been to an international competition, Tong said. “They watch us on television at home and they are fine with that.”
Tong has an older brother who is a policeman in Harbin. Pang has an older sister. “Our families are very proud of us for what we have achieved,” Pang added.
The pair still resides in Harbin but splits their training time between home and Beijing. “Bin Yao is our only coach, so when we are in Harbin we still work on our own,” Tong said.
Pang and Tong have intimated that the 2009-10 season might be the last, and both said they want to go out on a high note.
Looking for inspiration, the team took a new direction when it came to program design for the upcoming season. They spent a month in the United States working with choreographers Sarah Kawahara in Los Angeles and Nikolai Morozov in New Jersey on new routines.
Kawahara designed Pang and Tong’s programs for the 2005-06 season, the year they claimed the World title.
Moving away from their typical lyrical music choices, Tong said the short, choreographed by Morozov, is a bluesy number while their long, crafted by Kawahara, is an upbeat tango mix.
“We finished the two programs in June,” Tong said. “We changed some elements including music style and also my hair style. My hair is too long now, and it is a bit uncomfortable, so I will get it cut in a new style.”
In July the pair had the honor of participating in the torch relay for the Olympic Games in Beijing. Prior to the commencement of the Games, the duo moved to another city to continue training.
Pang, 29, and Tong, 30, kick off their Grand Prix season at Cup of China and will close it out at NHK Trophy in Japan.
Like many of their contemporaries, their dream is to win the 2010 Olympic title. “In 2002 we came in ninth, in 2006 we were in fourth place, and in 2010 … ssh! I don’t want to say this,” Tong said, laughing as he put his fingers to his lips.
When retirement comes, both intend to stay involved in the sport. Pang said that after the 2010 Olympics she wants to become a coach and teach pairs skating.
Tong has other dreams beyond skating. “I would like to get married,” he said with a wide smile. “And I might move to Canada because Canadians are so nice.”