VANCOUVER, British Columbia - Shen Xue and Zhao Hongbo are sure to remember this Valentine's Day.
The married couple broke their own world record with a mesmerizing performance to open the pairs short program competition Sunday, and it took until the very last pair — about three hours later — for anyone to come close to topping the Chinese duo. With a score of 76.66, the pair lead two-time world champions Aliona Savchenko and Robin Szolkowy of Germany by just .70 points.
That's nothing going into Monday night's free skate, a margin that can be made up with one flourish of a hand.
"It was a gift for Valentine's Day, and today was just the short program," Zhao said. "Hopefully tomorrow will be as good as today."
Russia's Yuko Kavaguti and Alexander Smirnov are in third, giving them a chance to continue what has to be one of the longest winning streaks in sports. A Russian or Soviet pair has won the gold medal at every Olympics dating back to 1964.
Shen and Zhao retired after winning their third world title in 2007. But the couple, winners of the bronze medal at the last two Winter Games, couldn't resist one last run at that all-elusive Olympic gold. They have dominated everywhere they've skated this season, and they set the tone with a program from the heart, not just the feet.
At 31 and 36, Shen and Zhao are senior citizens when it comes to pairs skaters, but they still showed the kids how it ought to be done.
"They're the best pressure skaters I've ever seen," American Mark Ladwig said.
Shen and Zhao haven't lost a bit of their athleticism. Their triple twist was so huge he had time to put his hands down — and probably could have ducked out for tea if he'd really wanted. What makes their comeback so impressive, though, is their joy and passion. The big tricks? They mastered those a few years ago.
What they lacked back then was the artistry and emotion that makes pairs skating so moving. But Sunday, from her gorgeous black and pink lace dress to the way they touched fans way up in the rafters, every second of their performance oozed elegance.
Perhaps it's because of their experience, perhaps it's because they're married or perhaps it's because they're simply that good, but they appear to be one person when they skate. Everything is done in unison and with perfect timing. When they did their side-by-side triple toe loop jumps, they landed them right on a note of music, as if putting an exclamation point on it.
Their elements were matter of fact, not forced, and never once did the audience have that heart-in-your-throat feeling of "Will they? Won't they?"
Asked if it was their best performance, coach Yao Bin said, "Just about."
Savchenko and Szolkowy skated into the void when Shen and Zhao retired, winning the last two world titles. They will be the Chinese couple's biggest rivals for gold.