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What's it like to train with China's Olympic skating champs?

By Jo Ling Kent, CNN
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Training with Olympic champs
  • Dedication of Chinese stars shone as they practiced with children in U.S.
  • Zhao Hongbo and Shen Xue bought top of the range U.S. kit to take home
  • At the time they were rising stars, now they are out of retirement
  • In Vancouver they hope to win figure skating gold

Beijing, China (CNN) -- It was 12 years ago at a U.S. ice rink that I suddenly realized I was watching something special. I was a 13-year-old aspiring to be an Olympic figure skater and practicing my modest double lutzes and double axels when Chinese pair skaters Zhao Hongbo and Shen Xue whizzed by me at lightning speed.

Zhao launched Shen into the air for a throw-triple toe loop. It seemed like he was throwing her into outer space. The pair was in town for the 1998 World Championships and oddly enough, sharing the ice with me at my rink in suburban Minneapolis, Minnesota.

When Shen finally landed back on the ice, my jaw must have dropped because their coach glided up to me and said: "Jo Ling, stop staring at them and focus on yourself, otherwise you'll never be good."

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Focusing was nearly impossible with those two on the ice (and to tell you the truth the coach was right, I never became terribly good). Zhao threw Shen higher than anyone I had ever seen before and she would land over and over again without a blink. Sure, they were rough around the edges, lacking artistry and presentation but it was clear: Zhao and Shen were bound for greatness.

My mom, a formidable Chinese-American woman, was the host and translator for the Chinese Figure Skating Team during their two weeks in Minneapolis.

Coming off of a fifth place finish at the 1998 Olympics, they desired extra practice time so my mom brought them out to the suburbs where they bought up as much ice time as they could get.

As skating legends like Michelle Kwan and Alexei Yagudin were the center of media attention, Zhao and Shen were virtually off the radar, hanging out with 13-year-olds like me.

Zhao and Shen worked tirelessly to improve themselves from every angle to put their raw talent to use. While they were a powerhouse duo, their coaches knew that in order to be champions they needed to polish around the edges.

They taped every practice session to review their mistakes and learn from the other pairs. They paid close attention to improving their artistic presentation, knowing they were leagues behind the best.

They also made improvements to their hardware. Zhao and Shen asked my mom and me to take them to buy the best boots and blades and the longest lasting gear to take back to their training center in the northeastern Chinese city of Harbin.

We took them to Westwood Sports on Garfield Avenue, where my mom recommended the top-shelf Riddell skates, the same ones I used. While most skaters bought one new pair once every six months, Zhao and Shen purchased several pairs each in one sitting.

The coach also sought beautiful fabrics and sequins to make new skating outfits and selected new music for future programs. The coach even discussed potential cosmetic dentistry options with my mother.

While running around town to practices and skate shops, Zhao and Shen were extraordinarily friendly and always up for fun between practice sessions. When we shared practice ice, their coach gave me free lessons while Zhao and Shen skated circles around me.

They kindly facilitated my introduction to Chen Lu, China's two-time women's Olympic bronze medallist. As anyone could imagine, picking up a skating idol like Chen Lu in the family car was a pretty sweet perk! (She wasn't competing at that year, just cheering on her teammates.)

Eager to relax between the short and long programs, Shen and I hit the downtown Minneapolis skyways, exploring and shopping as Zhao and other teammates trailed behind. They were curious about improving their English and playfully quizzed me on my Chinese.

Zhao showed me my first-ever Chinese Yuan and I asked him about China, a place I knew almost nothing about at the time. The pair and their coach kindly invited me to train with them that summer in Harbin. I eagerly accepted but then an injury forced me to stay home instead.

When it came down to competing at the 1998 Worlds, Zhao and Shen wowed the judges in Minneapolis with their speed and skill. But a few mistakes kept them off the medal podium and they finished in fourth.

However, there was so much buzz about "that amazing Chinese pair," fourth place didn't matter. They had captivated the skating world and everyone wanted to know, "Where did these two come from?"

Much has changed since Zhao and Shen came to Minneapolis. They have gone from total unknowns to starring on the cover of Chinese Sports Illustrated.

They've fallen in love, married, overcome injuries, designed stunning skating outfits, and captured over a billion fans by collecting three World Championships, four Grand Prix Championships, and two Olympic bronze medals.

They've also transformed their artistic presentation, putting forth passionate programs that in 1998 might have seemed impossible. Most importantly, they have come out of retirement to break their own records.

And on Monday Zhao and Shen became the first non-Soviet, non-Russian pair to take the Olympic figure skating gold medal since 1964.

A few things, though, have stayed the same. Shen still wears the Riddell brand skates my mom recommended, they are still impressively modest and they still whiz across the ice with lightning speed. I still can't take my eyes off them and, now more than ever, wish I could be in Vancouver to watch them go for gold.