The 2008 Smucker’s Stars On Ice tour will be in town on Tuesday, February 26, 2008, 7:00 p.m. at the Xcel Energy Center in Downtown St. Paul. The World Champion Chinese pairs skaters Xue Shen and Hongbo Zhao have recently joined the tour and will appear with the cast in Minnesota.
We have grown accustomed to seeing cast members that include Olympic and World champion skaters such as Ilia Kukik, Todd Eldredge, Yuka Sato, Michael Weiss, Jennifer Robinson, and pairs skaters, Jamie Sale and David Pelletier; Marie-France Dubreuil and Patrice Lauzon; Kyoko Ina and John Zimmerman. They are all part of this year’s cast (some part-time) and this year also features Sasha Cohen, the 2006 Olympic Silver Medalist, who missed the recent U.S. Figure Skating Association National Competition in St. Paul to heal from an injury, will be the featured cast member.
The edition of Xue Shen and Hongbo Zhao is very exciting, as they have recently married, and are contemplating whether to continue competing, or perhaps to tour professionally, or a third option of returning to train coaches and skaters at a schoolfor beginners to the elite level in Shenzhen, China.
Though they won their third World title in Tokyo in 2007, the pair are still thinking over whether they will continue skating in competition. They now hold seven World medals, two Olympic medals, three Four Continents titles and five Grand Prix Final golds.
Xue, 30, and Hongbo, 35, were born in Harbin, China, but call Beijing their home city. The pair began skating together in 2002 and quickly rose to the top in China with their technical proficiency. A few years later they began competing internationally and started working with Western choreographers on their artistic abilities.
The pair are well-known for giving outstanding performances at all levels of competition, including performances while injured, to earn standing ovations and praise from the skating world. This happened when Shen suffered a foot injury at the 2003 World Figure Skating Championships in Washington, DC, and with Zhao’s torn Achilles tendon at the 2006 Olympic Winter Games in Torino, Italy, where they still rose to the occasion to win their second Olympic bronze medal.
After skating together for 16 years the two were recently married. Zhao proposed to Shen on the ice following a performance. They were married in China on May 28, 2007.
Find out about tickets online at www.starsonice.com.
Asian American Press Interview with Hongbo Zhao
Conducted and translated by Nanyin Zhang
Asian American Press: You have four performances remaining for this season with Stars on Ice. What can you say about the long season of forty performances? How does it compare with competition skating?
Hongbo Zhao: We have done 8 performances. We’ve been feeling pretty good, not much pressure. Compared with the past competing experience, this time we feel very relaxed. We try to do our best in each performance to best communicate with the audience.
AAP: What can you tell us about the music and the choreography of your own skating in the Stars on Ice program and how it fits in with the “Live and In Color” theme of the show?
HZ: We have two pieces. One piece is called “Feeling Good” and the other “Angel.” The first is a very modern piece. We have very good choreographers, one of whom won the world champion because of the technical component. Many moves have a very modern feel. This is the first time we attempt the modern style. Most of the pieces we did in the past were more classical. I like our new style a lot. The other piece returns to the classical style, with a ballet feel to it.
AAP: Which style do you prefer?
HZ: I like both styles. Every time when we work on a new piece, we are very selective. We bring dance, style, and music into our performance.
AAP: Tell us about your pairs skating and your cast performances?
HZ: With the first piece, we express the great feelings, happiness, and love.
AAP: There are many people in the Chinese and Asian community in Minnesota. What would you want to tell them about coming to see you perform with Stars on Ice?
HZ: It is around the Chinese New Year. I would like to say Happy Chinese New Year to all of you. We are very happy to have the opportunity to perform in Minnesota. We hope more people will come to support figure skating. We are now spending more time performing. Hope all Chinese will support the cause of China’s figure skating.
AAP: Would you like to skate another season with Stars on Ice?
HZ: Very likely. The agent for this tour is also our agent. Therefore, we will perform when we don’t compete. In the past, we spent more time competing, which left us little time to perform. This is the first year that we were able to join such performance tour.
AAP: You have both been praised for your heart and determination to perform at championship level, even with injuries and all of the pressure that comes with competition. This seems more than just professionalism. What is it about your love of skating and your commitment to each other that allows you to keep rising to the higher level?
HZ: We are relaxed and have the right mentality. In all competitions, at the utmost level, it depends on how you handle stress. In all these years, we have experienced various competitions, from the world’s 15th to the world champions. Many skaters might be afraid of losing after becoming the champions; this way they would be very nervous. For us, if we train well, we will prepare for the competition with great joy. We will strive to do the best we can every time when we compete. If there are mistakes, then it might be that we are not lucky. Therefore, being able to relax and handle stress is the key. Also, we have passion for skating. Last year we could feel that skating is such a joy. After last year’s injury, both of us were longing for the opportunity to skate again in the ice rink. My achilles tendon was broken. We couldn’t skate together. After that, we were anxious to get back on ice, to express ourselves. I have trained 27 years for skating; Shen Xue trained for more than 20 years. Our passion for skating is very profound. Not all people can feel or understand that.
AAP: Is it different now to skate as a married couple than before?
HZ: Not much difference. Before we got married, we were together all the time except when we were sleeping. Right now, we are together 24 hours a day. [laugh]
So really, not much difference. We probably express ourselves better on ice. We can interpret our pieces in a more mature way.
AAP: Can you tell us what it is like to skate for long periods of time in the United States and North America, and to be away from China for so long? What do you miss most about China? What do you like best about America? or least if you like.
HZ: In the U.S., all audience is very professional. I can feel that the market in the U.S. is not very strong now. It might also have something to do with style. Some people might not understand our performance. But again, the audience is professional. Many children participate in this sport. The audience is more professional than that in some other countries when it comes to rules. Therefore, we make sure that we do our best in each performance so that we can bring the best to the audience.
We have not felt homesick yet. We travel very often so we are used to it.
The U.S. and Canada are very similar. My English is still not very fluent. To be honest, I still like China more. Maybe when my English gets better, we might be able to feel better what attracts us in the U.S.
There’s nothing that I don’t like in particular. Again, our English is still not very good. When we can speak English more fluently, I might be able to answer this question better.
AAP: What have you learned from skating for so long that you can now teach in your school for figure skating and coaching in China?
HZ: I have my skating club that was just open last July. I have several hundreds of long-term students. The total enrollment for figure skating has reached two thousand.
Figure skating is a beautiful sport. Children will understand in the learning process that if they make an effort, they will be rewarded. I started to train when I was very young. To be good at one profession is always difficult. However, you must be persistent. If you try hard enough, you will be paid off. When growing up, children will toughen up. They will know how to look beyond difficulties and failure when they come. This is very important. Even if they don’t have potential to be professional skaters, they can still train themselves to be stronger, more elegant and poised.
AAP: Even though you not have not won gold medals in the Olympics, the other champion skaters are calling you the best pair skaters? What is it that they credit you for redefining the technical and artistic style of pairs skating?
HZ: They are just being nice. [laugh] We can also say that about them. All top athletes have made incredible effort and gone through tremendous hardship that is beyond the comprehension of most people. Therefore, we all respect each other. Many people in this troupe were our former competitors. We are all very friendly, performing together. We don’t have negative feelings toward each other at all.
We became the world’s champions in 1999. From 1999 to last year, we remained to be the world’s top three. Many people think we should have been satisfied after one championship. In reality, we have been competing for all those years and have stayed among top three. What others admire in us might be the spirit, instead of our techniques. We never gave up, even when we had injuries.
AAP: Have you made a decision to skate in competition again?
HZ: Possible. We haven’t made the final decision yet. We still want to give it one more try in 2010. We would like to try our best to attempt to win the Olympic championship. Of course, it is extremely difficult due to age, technique, and many other factors. It’s not that we have advantage just because we’ve been around for a long time. We can only win if we perform at our best with difficult moves and highest level of technical standard. Therefore, we are still thinking but haven’t decided yet.
Nanyin Zhang, Ph.D., is a researcher at the Center for Magnetic Resonance Research, University of Minnesota. He volunteered for the interview because he says, Hongbo Zhao and Xue Shen are considered heroes in China.