Through ups and downs, China's elite figure skating pair back to peak

BEIJING, Feb. 19 (Xinhua) -- As cheers burst out in the Capital Indoor Stadium, China's two-time world champions Sui Wenjing and Han Cong embraced each other and cried out in ecstasy.

Except for a downgraded triple Salchow, the Chinese duo staged a nearly perfect free skating routine to earn a world record score of 239.88 points and the much-anticipated Olympic title on the penultimate competition day at Beijing 2022.

Sui Wenjing (top)/Han Cong of China perform during the figure skating pair skating free skating of the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics at Capital Indoor Stadium in Beijing, Feb. 19, 2022. (Photo: Xinhua)

Four years ago, they missed the gold by a mere margin of 0.43 points in PyeongChang, South Korea. At these Games, they pulled off the sole quad twist lift to edge silver medalists Evgenia Tarasova and Vladimir Morozov from the Russian Olympic Committee by less than a point.

"We are not young any more. We pursue the Olympic spirit in attempting the quad. We hope to achieve in both skills and artistic presentation," said the 26-year-old Han.

Tough as the journey is - full of ups and downs, injuries and pandemic - the Chinese pair have fought to return to the peak and saw their dream come true.

"When you're weary, feeling small, when tears are in your eyes, I will dry them all. I'm on your side......"

"Bridge Over Troubled Water" was the music Sui and Han skated to capture their first world championships in 2017, and the one Sui has always skated with tears.

As the last note stopped, she could not hold her tears any more in the arms of Han, who softly tapped on the back to comfort his companion.

"Because we are not performing to the music, but completely recreating our own story," she explained, referring to their mutual support as the "bridge" between them through adversity and the motivation to grow stronger together.

Nobody was born a champion, nor were Sui and Han.

When the two paired up in 2007, few people were optimistic about them due to their average height and height difference. "Nobody cared about how we skated, they thought we should just play and focus on participation," recalled Han, who was dedicated to figure skating and refused to practice just for fun.

"I knew I was not gifted, so I have to work hard to make up for what I was born with," said Han. "I've been sparing no effort in training. Other athletes would find time to chill out, but even when my whole body ached with weariness, I would tell myself to go back and practice once more. Because it can help simulate my muscles and body responses."

The pair kept on it, hour after hour, day after day, repetition after repetition, until they claimed a silver at the 2015 ISU Figure Skating World Championships.

However, a bolt came from the blue when they aspired to go one step higher on the podium. Sui had to pause her skating career due to ankle injuries on both feet. After the surgery, she spent a month in bed and another two for rehabilitation.

"There was a time I couldn't stand the pain at all, I had to get an injection to fall asleep. And because I couldn't turn over in bed, my whole back was numb and my thighs and buttocks ached. It was too painful," Sui recalled. "I didn't even know if I could walk again."

While others doubted whether Sui could return to the rink, Han waited for his partner with strong belief and kept training during that period.

"I knew she would come back, and I felt inside that I wasn't skating alone, but we were skating together and she was next to me," Han said.

Fortunately, Sui fully recovered one year later. Performing to "Bridge Over Troubled Water", Sui and Han won the gold medal at the 2017 World Figure Skating Championships for the first time, ending China's seven-year wait for another title since Shen Xue/Zhao Hongbo's gold in Vancouver.

However, it was not plain sailing to success and the joy did not last long.

At PyeongChang 2018, despite being tortured by her foot injury, Sui staged as a fighter against other competitors as well as her destiny, together with her companion.

The pair pulled off a flawless free skating routine except for a tumble in a side-by-side triple Salchow jump. Finally, they missed the top of the podium with a margin of 0.43 points.

"In fact, I had a sudden periostitis in my right foot. I had thought about injecting anaesthetic before going to the rink, but I decided to take some painkiller and skate through it," Sui said in tears.

"I have nothing to regret. The Olympic gold is our next goal, we'll continue to perform our best," Han consoled his teammate.

Undergoing another surgery after PyeongChang 2018, Sui had to sit out for over half a season, and missed all Grand Prix competitions in the following year. Nobody expected the pair would come back as world champions yet again at the 2019 World Figure Skating Championships.

While they were eyeing a third worlds title in Montreal, Canada, the event was canceled due to the outbreak of COVID-19 pandemic in early 2020. The unexpected change, however, gave Han time to treat the persistent ailment in his hip joint.

"I've suffered a lot of injuries in recent years. I need to cure them to have good physical condition before I can complete for my goals," Han said.

Despite a speedy recovery, Han missed the ISU Figure Skating Grand Prix Cup of China.

"I've learned a lot from my injuries in the past years," he added. "It's not always a bad thing. You have to face it without fear and just deal with it. It would all add up to something significant in my future career."

Patience, persistence and perspiration make an unbeatable combination for the duo's success. Every competition in the 2021-2022 season, like a drill of the Games, counted a lot for every athlete. Last year, they triumphed at the Grand Prix of Figure Skating series in Canada and Italy.

When the time finally came, Sui and Han made the home debut in the team's event on Feb. 4. Skating to a Mission Impossible 2 Orchestra Suite, they won 82.83 points to top the pairs short program. And their top-class performance helped China squeeze into the final round of Olympic team event for the first time.

"Since then, we have been waiting for the start of our individual event with expectation as well as anxiety. We saw how our teammates make breakthroughs and were highly motivated to compete in our own event," said Sui, who had to wait until the third from last competition day.

Ranking first after the short program, Sui and Han were the last pair to perform on Saturday night.

"It's alright. We can do it. We got our first gold with the song, and we can definitely make it again today!" Hearing her heartbeats, Sui said to Han behind the door to the rink.

Going on the stage hand in hand with Han, Sui said a word to themselves, "Prevail over ourselves and we'll be invincible."