Xue Shen and Hongbo Zhao won gold at the Olympics; how figure skating couples make it work.
It's THE love story of the 2010 Olympic Winter Games: married pair skaters Xue Shen and Hongbo Zhao of China have finally won gold in their fourth Olympics.
You've probably heard their tale by now, but if not, here's a short version: they first teamed up 18 years ago, fell in love in 2005 and married two years later. They won bronze in Salt Lake City in 2002 and Torino in 2006, and came out of retirement to go after the top honor at this year's games.
"We have not competed much in the last two years, and we came back to compete at the Olympic Games as it is our dream to win an Olympic gold medal," Zhao told the New York Times.
Too Good To Be True?
The story seems made for TV, and their adoring glances flashed across the screen, almost too cute to be true. But they are very much for real.
"They're adorable," says Canadian ice dancer and two-time Olympian Marie-France Dubreuil, who knows a thing or about being in love with your skating partner; she is married to hers, Patrice Lauzon. The two have toured with Shen and Zhao on Smucker's Stars on Ice for two seasons and were there last year when the Chinese pair announced their competitive comeback.
Dubreuil and Lauzon are in Vancouver working as commentators for French Canadian television. They have joined others in noting the intense connection and emotion that Shen and Zhao show on the ice.
"Honestly, they're attached at the hip," Dubreuil says. "I don't think it's an act. I think it's real." Dubreuil thinks the golden duo feel comfortable being openly affectionate after spending time in the U.S. and Canada and seeing how couples in love behave.
Performing With Your Spouse
Lauzon said he and his partner/wife focus on each other when they perform. They're not self-conscious about letting the public in on their love, and the Chinese pair has achieved the same effect.
"The audience almost feels like intruders into your personal life. When people are able to forget that they're being watched and be in their environment and their own little bubble, that's where you see the connection and you see amazing skating happening," Lauzon said.
Although it may not have been as crucial when living in separate dormitories as they prepared to compete this time around, Shen and Zhao have learned how to balance work life and personal life—something that all couples that work together can relate to.
"It's tricky," Lauzon says. "It's always something you have to work on. Of course, when you're at work, you have conflicts. You won't agree on everything and there will be fights sometimes. We always make sure that got over our issues before we left the ice, or else we would bring work home and that's when problems start to get worse." Could You Live and Work Together?
The upside is that skating with a romantic partner can make you a better spouse.
"You have to put the ego aside, and analyze what's good for the couple and not just yourself," Dubreuil says. "If your partner feels like hell because of the way you talk to him or treat him, your partnership is not successful. It's teamwork. You learn how to make somebody be their best."
Romance During The Games
"There are many amazing things that will happen in their lives together. They should enjoy this time," says Jenni Meno, who experienced a life changing event of her own at the Olympics. In 1992, she and fellow skater Todd Sand went from being platonic friends to girlfriend and boyfriend. After those Games, they dissolved their existing pair partnerships and began skating together with great success. At the 1994 Olympics in Lillehammer, Sand proposed. This summer they'll celebrate their 15th wedding anniversary.
"Shen and Zhao came together and obviously sacrificed a lot in their personal lives to train for this gold medal," Meno adds. "This will only make them stronger as they go through life together, have children and go through all the different things that they'll experience as a married couple."
But Meno does offer a solemn note—don't expect your kids (she and Sand have two young sons) to give you a standing ovation for clean laundry, and there are no gold medals for a nice dinner.
Photo: J. Barry Mittan