They're not old; just very experienced

Updated: 2012-12-05 02:45

By Lei Lei (China Daily)

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Veterans Pang Qing and Tong Jian are still the top pairs figure skaters in China

The 33-year-old Tong Jian and his partner, Pang Qing, who will also turn 33 later this month, are the oldest active figure skating pair. Serious injuries have bothered them, but the couple has decided to skate on.

As the only Chinese pair qualified for this season's ISU Figure Skating Grand Prix Final, which starts on Thursday in Sochi, Russia, the duo is intent on performing well.

"This, at least, will enable us to experience the Olympic venue, as the 2014 Winter Olympics will be held in Sochi," Tong said during a training session in Beijing last week.

"I hope the venue will be a lucky place for us. It's a good chance for us to feel the climate and facilities there. We will be fully prepared for the competition, physically and mentally. The judges won't lower the criteria for us due to injury concerns. We will endeavor to give out our best performance," he said.

After the retirement of Olympic and world champion pair Shen Xue and Zhao Hongbo, Pang and Tong, the two-time world champions and Olympic silver medalists, now lead China on the world stage.

But a growing number of injuries have bothered the ageing love birds in recent years.

Last year, they decided to tone down their schedule and only competed in the Nice worlds, skipping the Grand Prix series and Four Continents Championships.

The less rigorous schedule may not have been their best move as they only finished fourth at the worlds. This season, they have decided to up the workload — starting with the Grand Prix series.

However, a serious knee injury to Tong nearly aborted their season debut at the Skate America event, and Pang was also suffering knee problems. The decision to not withdraw proved to be the right choice — they finished second in the October tournament. They then went on to win at the Cup of China to secure their place in the finals.

"Competing at the US stop was the right decision for us, although it was a difficult start," Tong told China Daily. "The opportunity to reach the final was not easy for us, but we will try to perform our best there. We are not there to strive for gold. We just want to improve ourselves step by step."

Pang and Tong's appearance in the final can't hide the fact that China's figure skating is at a low point. Zhang Hao, the silver medalist at the 2006 Turin Winter Olympics with partner Zhang Dan, is now paired with 17-year-old Peng Cheng. They failed to qualify for the final in their debut season, which means China has only one pair in the final for the first time in nearly a decade.

"Although we qualified for the final, I know some fans say Chinese figure skating is declining. It is kind of true," Tong said.

"We are not at our peak in terms of physical condition and skills. The pairs in other countries, like Russia, the host country of the Winter Games, are rising quickly. But as the whole team is facing a difficult time, we have to take the responsibility to help maintain the glory of Chinese figure skating. Although we are suffering injuries, it will be a good experience for us."

Among the leading pairs in the world, Pang and Tong are not only the oldest, but also boast 13 successive world championship appearances, a record.

At the Grand Prix final in Sochi, Pang and Tong will face challenges from Tatiana Volosozhar and Maxim Trankov of Russia, the runners-up at the past two world championships.

The Russian pair united in May 2010 after successfully competing with other partners. Trankov is the 2005 World Junior Champion and a three-time European medalist with former partner Maria Mukhortova and Volosozhar is a two-time Olympian for the Ukraine with former partner Stanislav Morozov, who is now one of their coaches.

The six finalists also include two other Russian duos and two pairs from Canada. The reigning world champions — Aliona Savchenko and Robin Szolkowy of Germany — didn't qualify due to their withdrawal at the Grand Prix stop in France.

"All of our opponents are strong. We hope we can bridge the gap with the leading Russian pair (Volosozhar/Trankov) and try to achieve a big lead over the other ones," Tong said.

As for the 2014 Sochi Winter Games, the pair is struggling with the decision to skate or not. But Tong said there is a strong possibility they will be there.

"There is only year to go for the Olympics. It will be our fourth Olympics, which is a special experience," Tong said. "My knee is suffering, but we will try to be there."

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