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Living the dream: Moorhead's Ladwig, partner Evora finish 10th in pairs

USA's Amanda Evora and Mark Ladwig react after performing their pairs free program during the figure skating competition at the Vancouver Olympics on Monday night in Vancouver

VANCOUVER, B.C. - Mark Ladwig's competition goal here at the 2010 Winter Olympics was "to show the world what we can do."

Monday night after another strong if not perfect performance with pairs figure skating partner Amanda Evora, the Moorhead native could proudly say: Mission accomplished.

Ladwig, 29, and Evora, 25, earned 114.06 for their 4½-minute finale set to a Rachmaninov piano concerto to rank 10th in the event segment. Their presentation scores, which notably increased from those awarded a day earlier, signaled they had arrived on the global scene.

With points earned in Sunday's short program, the U.S. silver medalists' put a total of 171.92 on the board, good for 10th overall among 20 couples from 12 countries.

Although they didn't advance in the standings, Evora and Ladwig did narrow the points gap between themselves and the couples ahead of them and outdistanced their previous personal best total score by a whopping 24 points.

Their training mates and U.S. national champions Caydee Denney, 16, and Jeremy Barrett, 25, settled for 13th spot with 158.33.

The Olympic gold medal went to sentimental favorites Xue Shen and Hongbo Zhao, of China, in their fourth try to land atop the Olympic podium. With that they made history, winning China's first-ever Olympic gold figure skating medal.

Shen and Zhao, bronze medalists in 2002 and 2006, delivered a sophisticated performance set to Adagio. The married duo, who returned to competition after a two-year hiatus, struggled with one lift, but on a night where catastophe struck many top contenders that miscue was not enough to derail their Olympic dream.

Their win also ended the 46-year hold that Russian (or Soviet Union) couples had on the Olympic pairs gold with12 straight wins, beginning in 1964.

In 2002 at the Salt Lake Games, however, the Russian duo shared top honors with Canadians Jamie Sale and David Pelletier in the wake of the judging scandal.

Silver went to another Chinese couple, Qing Pang and Jian Tong, who were the only pair among the frontrunners to skate without major error. Germany's reigning world champions Aliona Savchenko and Robin Szolkowy, who were less than one point out of first after round one, committed several errors and settled for bronze.

Evora and Ladwig wowed the crowd with their huge throw triple lutz, the element she fell on at the U.S. Nationals. However, he doubled out on an intended triple jump and Evora spun out of the landing of her double Axel.

What points they lost there, they recouped thanks to their impressive throws and amazing lifts. The last two of their three spectacular lifts, alone, earned 17.5 points.

"Being in 10th after the short, I was really nervous going into the long," said Evora. "We wanted to stay in the top 10, and I put more pressure on myself than I should have. To compete as well as we did under the pressure I put on myself, it's really a success for me."

These Games were the first global meet in which Evora and Ladwig had competed and only their second ISU Championship, their first being five years ago.

Next up for Evora and Ladwig and Denney and Barrett is the ISU world championships being staged in Turin, the host city for the 2006 Olympic Games from March 22-28.

That event will mark another first for Evora and Ladwig, while Denney and Barrett were ninth in their world debut last year.

Although their coach Lyndon Johnston, himself a two-time Olympian representing Canada at the 1984 and 1988 Games, has encouraged his athletes to "drink in everything last little bit" of their Olympic experience, the pairs will head back to Florida in a few days to continue their training for Worlds before returning to Vancouver for the closing ceremony on Feb. 28.

In her final comments to the media, Evora seemed to suggest that she and Ladwig will be back next season to continue their climb up the international ladder.

"It's nice that we've been together for eight years, but some teams have been together for longer," Evora said, thinking perhaps of Shen and Zhao, who have been partners for 18 years and are now aged 31 and 36.

"It's an inspiration for me to see that Olympic dreams and Olympic champions take a lifetime of sacrifice and a lifetime of hard work. To know I'm 25 and still young and a late bloomer, there's still hope for us in the future."