A long and winding road has led China’s top pairs team of Wenjing Sui and Cong Han to where they are today. Over the years, both have been hampered by recurring injuries that required surgeries and long recuperation periods.
With all those woes now in the past, the duo arrived on the international circuit in the fall healthy, fit and well trained as they embarked on a journey that will end on the Olympic stage in Beijing in February.
Sui and Han were the only Chinese skaters to contest two Grand Prix events this season. As the lone medal prospect for their nation at the 2022 Olympic Winter Games, competition experience was essential to test out their programs in front of international judging panels.
Though their teammates, Peng Cheng and Yang Jin, were scheduled to compete at two events, the Chinese federation withdrew the team from Internationaux de France in advance of the competition.
Sui and Han kicked off their Olympic campaign in mid-October with a victory at the Asian Open Figure Skating Trophy, the designated test event for the 2022 Games.
The duo then relocated to Torino, Italy, where members of the Chinese figure skating team were training in preparation for the Grand Prix Series. At the end of October, Sui, Han and their coach Hongbo Zhao flew to Canada for their first event, Skate Canada International.
They were expected to have no challengers in Vancouver and, after taking the lead in the short program with a score of 78.94, Sui and Han headed into the free with a 9.48-point lead. Though it was not perfect, both were happy with how they performed and appreciated the support they received from the audience. “We were so excited to compete in Canada,” said the 29-year-old Han.
“We knew we had problems with Levels from the last competition, but we only had a little bit of time to practice before coming to Canada. We were in quarantine for three days, but that was nothing new for us, and we were able to train during that time.”
Known for their speed and unison, Sui and Han were untouchable in the long program, scoring a runaway victory and capturing their first Skate Canada title with an overall score of 224.05. Although it was 10.79 points lower than the personal best they achieved at the 2019 World Championships, the duo was satisfied with their performance and the result. “This was our first Grand Prix in Canada so it was really exciting. Thank you to the audience who clapped and cheered for us,” said Sui, 26.
At their second event, Gran Premio D’Italia, the duo once again outperformed the rest of the field, winning the short program with a slightly improved score of 80.07, which gave them a 3.36-point lead over Peng and Jin heading into the free. It was no contest in the long program, however, with Sui and Han scoring another decisive victory.
The duo captured their second Grand Prix title of the season with 224.55 points in total, an almost identical score to the one they earned in Canada. Sui and Han were the first pairs team to qualify for the Grand Prix Final. “That was our third competition in a month and we did our best in this program,” Han said at the post-event press conference. “Because of the back-to-back competitions we were a little tired, but we were excited to be in Torino. I saw a lot of the audience giving us support. The judges liked our program and gave us a high score. Thank you to everyone for coming together.”
Sui was more subdued, noting she was “a little sad because I did not skate quite as well.”
As no interviews with the team were permitted until the Grand Prix Series began, there were many questions to be asked, including what their goals were and whether they had achieved them. Han said they had no specific goal for the Asian Open Trophy, but their main goal was to be well prepared for their two Grand Prix competitions.
They were also grateful to the Italian federation for giving the Chinese team the opportunity to train in Torino for three weeks. “That really helped us to recover from jet lag and adjust to the rink. Everyone felt really comfortable. We have good friends here and we were able to train with them in the same venue,” Sui explained.
“For us, it felt similar to competing at Cup of China. We were really happy to train in a pretty rink in a nice environment,” Han added. “That really motivated us to do better programs. We treasured the opportunity to train here, and we are also grateful to our country that we were able to come to Italy and also go to Canada. We are also very happy to win in Torino.
“Through this competition we realized we have room to improve the Levels and the score. I am glad that we were able to execute the jumps well and to really enjoy the programs. This competition experience helped us to show the best of Sui and Han, but I do think we can skate the programs better. I can see that our condition is improving throughout the season.”
Sui agreed. “This month was really hard for us because we had three competitions, changing countries and the time differences, but I think we overcame all the challenges. After the short program my body did not feel great, but we still did quite well in the free. We have some problems we need to fix, but we can keep working and make the programs better.”
Sui and Han, who joined forces in 2007, were inspired to take up pairs skating after watching Zhao and his partner Xue Shen compete at the 2002 Olympic Winter Games. Through good times and bad, they have emulated the relationship their coach had with his partner, always remaining the best of friends and supporting each other without question or hesitation.
“During the pandemic, we spent a lot of time together and my father once said to me that I spend more time with Cong than I do with him,” Sui said with a laugh. “In that aspect, Cong does qualify to be my dad. At another event, I was calling him and suddenly I called him dad. I asked myself why I said that, but maybe it was because he really cares about me.”
Following the cancellation of the Grand Prix Final the team planned to use the time leading up to the Olympic Winter Games to work on their programs and elements “so we can show our best in Beijing.”
“We do feel pressure, but most of it is to become better and that empowers us,” said Sui. “We want to show that we are true fighters and I hope that our programs can touch more people when they are facing difficulties and influence people to be better.”
This season, they have a new short program set to “Mission Impossible 2 Orchestra Suite: Part 1” by Hans Zimmer. Han said their choreographer, Lori Nichol, gave them many suggestions for their programs but she feels the Spanish style suits them. “We also love this style. It can show Wenjing like a fire; she is very strong and beautiful and sexy. There are many different things in the emotions. It can let us show the audience and the judges that we are a strong team that is coming back from injuries.”
“The short program is about power, energy and emotion. We love flamenco and it has been four years since we used this style of music,” Sui added.
For the free skate, the team brought back the program they used during the 2016-2017 season. This time, however, the iconic “Bridge Over Troubled Water” by Simon & Garfunkel, has much more meaning for them. When Nichol first brought the piece to the table in 2016, Sui was still recovering from surgery to both her feet. Unable to compete in the latter part of that year, they had just two opportunities to show the program that season — 2017 Four Continents and the World Championships.
“I had to wait for Sui to come back to the rink and at that time I was like a bridge to help and support her,” said Han, who was often seen carrying Sui to their training venue on his back. “Last year I had surgery myself and Sui became the bridge that was waiting for me. Two years ago we talked with Lori and our team about this music. I know a lot of people like it.
“The story is not only our story but also everyone’s story because we are all in difficult times. During the choreography process we also thought about how we wanted to skate this program, what kind of emotions we wanted to show and how to touch the audiences’ hearts.
“I just wanted our program to touch the world and to convey to everyone that no matter what difficulties you are facing, we will always support and help each other to go to the brightest future together.”
“Through the years we have been the bridge for each other, and I really treasure the relationship between us,” Sui added. “It was really touching doing the choreography with Lori. There were a lot of times we had tears in our eyes even though we choreographed the program over Zoom. Also, we have all been in difficult times when we were not able to see our friends and families, and whenever we see each other, we do not know when the next time will be. So I hope that through sharing the same feelings we can have this connection and bridge to each other’s hearts.”
On Dec. 11, China’s Winter Sports Management Center confirmed Sui and Han and Cheng and Jin as the entries for the pairs event at the Olympic Winter Games. “We are really proud to have the opportunity to compete at home,” said Sui. “Like every other competition, we just want to do our very best and achieve the goals that we set for ourselves.”
The duo competed the short program in the Team Event at the Games, helping China make the top five for the final. Now, on the eve of what could be the crowning moment of their career, Sui and Han will go up against the team from ROC in a battle for Olympic gold in Beijing.
“The pressure actually pushes us to be better and it helps us to become better masterpieces. We hope we will be able to show the best of ourselves (at the Olympic Games),” said Sui. “And I hope that we can really become the light that lights up the world to help and support everyone, and to share our sincere emotions with everyone through the programs.”