In the past decade, China has become a pair skating powerhouse with the likes of Xue Shen and Hongbo Zhao, Qing Pang and Jian Tong, and Dan Zhang and Hao Zhang. Between them, these three teams have won five Olympic medals since 2002, and have improved their results with each Olympic cycle. Most recently, Shen and Zhao claimed China’s first Olympic figure skating gold in Vancouver, while Pang and Tong took the silver and went on to earn their second world title in Torino last month.
However, behind these three top teams there was a significant gap. The younger pairs were not able to follow up with stellar results yet. They won a few medals at Junior Worlds and in the Junior Grand Prix, but none of them looked like they could really replace the older generation of champions.
Right in time with the retirement of the stars on the horizon, however, the newest product of the Chinese pair skating school made an impact on the junior scene. Competing in their first international season, Wenjing Sui and Cong Han won their two Junior Grand Prix events, the Junior Grand Prix Final, and the Junior World title. Each time, they were the clear leaders of the field. They could become the Chinese pair that follows in the footsteps of the masters. At least this is what they plan themselves.
“We were deeply impressed at the Olympic Games by the performances of Xue Shen and Hongbo Zhao, but in 2014 we want to be Olympic Champions ourselves,” Sui said boldly. Her partner was quick to tone it down a little. “She wants to say that we want to give our best and want to get close to the top,” he added, “but we’d like to compete in four Olympic Games.”
Who are these two newcomers and how did they rise so quickly to the top at the junior level? Sui and Han are both from Harbin. This big city with its long and freezing cold winters is still the origin of Chinese figure skating, although there are now skating schools in Beijing and Shenzhen in the south. The top three pairs also came from Harbin, and only later moved to the capital following their coach Bin Yao.
Bin Yao’s former pairs partner Bo Luan is still coaching in Harbin, but she wasn’t really in the limelight. A few years ago she was coaching Yang Ding and Zhongfei Ren. This couple won a bronze and a silver at Junior Worlds in 2002 and 2003, but they never got past the “big three” couples and retired in 2004. Ding and Ren were already trying the quad throw toeloop in competition, but none was ever ratified as clean in ISU events.
Bo Luan now had the idea to form a new pairs team with the tiny Sui who stands 4 ft. 7 in. tall, and Han, who is a foot taller. They teamed up in 2007. Neither of them have skated with another partner before, and thus no pair skating experience. They were both single skaters.
“I’ve watched Shen and Zhao in 2002 at the Olympic Winter Games on TV and I asked my mother if I could start skating as well,” Sui recalled. “I also knew Shen and Zhao from TV and I watched their great performances,” Cong added. “Watching them I got so many positive emotions that I wanted to do the same.”
So both got involved in figure skating and were happy to do the switch to pairs. After all, pairs is the most prestigious discipline in China, and Shen and Zhao were their idols anyway.
Before starting to skate together, Sui and Han didn’t know each other as they had trained in different groups. The switch to pairs wasn’t too easy.
“It was very hard at the beginning,” Han admitted. “We started slowly. We did everything step by step.”
However, the small Sui wasn’t afraid at all of the sometimes risky and dangerous pair skating elements, such as the throws and lifts, although they were new for her. “I’m not afraid of them,” she said with a shy smile. Han, although not very tall, throws his delicate partner high and far.
It was only a question of time until the young Chinese would go for a quad throw, and sure enough, the throw quad Salchow was there at Junior Worlds in The Hague. Sui two-footed the landing, but stood up on it. This was the first time the team had risked this element in competition.
“The quad throw Salchow is a very difficult element and we’ve slowly learned it with the help of our coach,” the 17-year-old Han said. At Junior Worlds he was especially proud of having done the throw quad successfully.
It is still amazing how Sui and Han have progressed so fast. In three years, they’ve made it from beginning pair skating to Junior World Champions.
“There are three reasons for that,” Han revealed. “First of all we have a very good, responsible coach. Secondly, the Chinese Skating Association has improved our practice conditions, and thirdly, my partner can take a lot.”
The young athletes are solely focused on skating right now. Sui, 14, isn’t attending a regular school, but has a private tutor so that she can adapt her studying to the practice schedule. Han doesn’t go to school anymore, but he is learning English and speaks it well enough to answer some questions in English.
The skaters get up at six in the morning and train from 8:00 to 9:30, and in the afternoon from 1:30 to 3:00. Additionally, they have off-ice training. Right now they do not plan to move to Beijing as their families are in Harbin.
“In our spare time we do whatever we like,” Han said. This includes listening to music, reading for both, plus surfing the web for him.
Coach Luan and choreographer Wei Zhang usually suggest the music for their programs, and they were spot on this season. Both the lively Russian folk piece Barynia and the cute Charlie Chaplin medley suited the team very well.
Sui and Han just finished a great first international season, and now they are looking forward to the future. They plan to do a new short program and want to keep their free skating for next season. They haven’t decided yet whether they will check out the senior scene by competing in the senior Grand Prix, or whether they will stick completely to juniors. For ISU senior level championships, they will be too young in the upcoming season as Wenjing Sui will only be 15 on July 18.