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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Russian Pair Stuns Crowd, Judges

ReutersRussia's Berezhnaya and Sikharulidze performing in the short program on Saturday.
SALT LAKE CITY -- The lyrical and technically superb short program of Russian pair Yelena Berezhnaya and Anton Sikharulidze drew gasps from the audience and top marks from the judges in the Olympic figure skating opener Saturday.

Canada's gold medal co-favorites Jamie Sale and David Pelletier also impressed with their playful tango, accented with comedic touches -- both scripted and not -- to take second place at the Salt Lake Ice Center.

As Sale bent backward over his partner's knee in their final pose, the couple lost their balance and collapsed in a heap onto each other. Showing good humor, the reigning world champions stayed down and improvised another ending from where they lay.

"It was the weirdest thing," Pelletier said. "I didn't know what was happening until I was on the ice. I thought 'I came all the way to the Olympics to do that?'"

In third are China's Xue Shen and Hongbo Zhao, who produced a huge throw triple loop and soaring twist lift, but lost their synchronization on the individual spin. "It's not our best," Shen said. Zhao added: "We hope we can perform better in the long program and I think we can compete with everybody."

Because the two-minute 40-second short program is worth just one-third of the total score, any of the top three pairs can claim gold with a win in Monday's finale.

Clearly pleased with their performance, which combined high-flying aerial maneuvers with delicate choreography, Berezhnaya and Sikharulidze embraced at the end of their routine as he pumped his fist in the air.

"I think we did the best on this program tonight. I was very glad," said Berezhnaya, the 1998 Olympic silver medalist and world champion of 1998 and 1999.

Should they pair prevail Monday, they would extend Russia's Olympic winning streak to 11 consecutive gold pair skating medals over a 38-year span. In fourth and fifth place, and within striking distance of the podium, are another Russian duo, Tatyana Totmianina and Maxim Marinin and Americans Kyoko Ina and John Zimmerman.

The partisan U.S. audience booed the judges' marks for the American couple, who delivered an inspired performance on home ice.

The three top U.S. men's figure skaters refused to count themselves out of the hunt for Olympic gold on Saturday, saying Russian favorites Yevgeny Plushenko and Alexei Yagudin were not invincible.

Todd Eldredge, Michael Weiss and Timothy Goebel, who between them have won seven of the last eight U.S. titles, presented a united front to questions about their Russians rivals at a news conference Saturday.

"A good example of a situation where anything can happen is that the St. Louis [Rams] were 14-point favorites going into the Super Bowl and the Patriots won it, so you should never count out anybody," Eldredge said.

His coach, Richard Callaghan, added: "I'm really happy that the Russians are the favorites, so our guys can just do their work."

Eldredge, the 1996 world champion, was third at the world championships last season, with Goebel fourth. Yagudin, who had won the world title for the previous three years, settled for silver behind Plushenko, but recently beat his compatriot at the Grand Prix Final, where Goebel finished third and Eldredge fourth.

The men's figure skating begins Tuesday with the short program and the medals will be awarded Thursday after the free program.