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A heroic effort saves the show for Chinese duo

Zhang wins hearts of crowd in winning pairs silver medal

A heroic effort saves the show for Chinese duo

There's a new world record for turning cynicism to misty-eyed, lump-in-the-throat idealism, and it was set Monday night by a Chinese woman named Zhang Dan.

You go to the first Olympic pairs figure-skating competition since the 2002 judging debacle with a quiver full of arrows and you walk out with a heart full of helium.

You go in convinced this isn't a real sport and you come out awed by the athletes who perform it.

The final pair to perform in the free skate, Zhang Dan and Zhang Hao took the ice with an outside chance to pass the favored Russian pair for a gold medal. To do it, they would have to complete a very difficult, very dangerous trick, a throw quad Salchow, early in their program.

No one had ever landed it in competition before.

That's still true.

Zhang Dan crashed like Evel Knievel at Caesars Palace. She hit the ice like one of those watermelons David Letterman used to throw off the roof.

As scary as it is when a skier or a luger crashes, at least they are dressed for it. Helmets and pads and full-body suits don't remove all the danger, but they give you a chance. Zhang Dan wore nothing more protective than tulle.

She landed, her bare legs split awkwardly, on her left knee. She skidded into the boards like a short-track speed skater, and the air went out of Palavela Arena.

The Chinese fans went silent. The Russians and Italians and Americans and Koreans went silent, too.

Zhang Dan was hurt, although it was impossible to tell how badly, and she was shaken, which can be just as significant in a sport judged on grace.

Zhang Hao helped her up. Then, in as moving a sight as you'll see on any field of play, he literally skated Dan off the ice. Hao held her up, using one skate for support and the other to propel them toward the corner of the rink.

It was an incredible sight, but it was nothing compared to what followed.

After Zhang Dan wiped her tears and blew her nose, she tentatively began to skate. There was a palpable shift in the barometric pressure inside the arena.

Is she going to continue?

She did. They did. The Zhangs (who are not related) were penalized one point for the fall, but they skated the rest of their program beautifully.

"She is my hero," gushed 2002 Canadian pairs gold medalist Jamie Sale on NBC.

Sale had a lot of company. The Zhangs received the loudest, longest standing ovation of the evening.The Chinese fans stood. The Russians and Italians and Americans and Koreans stood, too. National loyalties dissolved in appreciation for the sheer grit and toughness of one great athlete.

There will surely be people who complain about the Zhangs winning a silver medal with such a fall. These are people who don't get it, or who don't have hearts to be filled.

If they can wait while a football player is attended to, or while a baseball player walks off the pain of a foul ball off the foot, they can wait two minutes for an injured skater.

Ugly as it was, it was one fall. The Zhangs were otherwise brilliant and deserved the medal. Chinese teams finished third and fourth, further proof of that nation's growing dominance of this sport. Just as important, China's 2-3-4 finish means there will be no protest from a country that feels cheated of a medal.

As for the Russians, Tatiana Totmianina and Maxim Marinin, they deserved the gold. No question. Whatever the flaws in the new system implemented post-Salt Lake City, the judges got this one right.

Marinin balked when asked if he believed the Zhangs deserved silver after such a nasty fall and delay in their program.

But there was one point the Olympic champion wanted to make. The drive toward higher and farther and more complex throws is "extremely dangerous."

"We really respect what they tried to do," Marinin said of the quad Salchow. "They are lucky. It could have been worse."

He spoke as a man who dropped his partner on her head less than 18 months ago. It took great courage for Totmianina to return to this sport after that.

But she did, and now she's a gold medalist. Just as Zhang Dan, by returning, won a silver. She accepted her medal with an ice pack on her left knee, a bandage around her left thigh and the hearts of everyone in that arena in her pocket.

Updated : 2021-10-27 14:57 GMT+08:00