A Russo-Japanese Pair

Articles, Articles by Barry Mittan

Yuko Kawaguchi & Alexander Smirnov

About one hundred years ago, Japan and Russia were at war. Now they are at peace and two of their athletes have joined hands to compete in pairs figure skating. They are 26-year-old Yuko Kawaguchi, who was born in Aichi, Japan and 23-year-old Alexander Smirnov, who is from Tver in Russia. This is not the first Japanese-Russian team to compete in pairs, but this is the first such team to compete for Russia.

The couple, who have been together since May 2006, won the Coupe de Nice in both 2006 and 2007 and took the bronze medal at the Cup of Russia in both of those years as well as a bronze at Skate Canada in 2007.

Their goals for the 2007-08 season were to make the Grand Prix Final, win first or second place at Europeans, and to fight for a spot on the podium at Worlds. They placed fifth at the ISU Grand Prix Final and won the bronze medal at Europeans. They were fourth at the World Championships in 2008, up from ninth in 2007.

But their careers almost ended on Christmas in 2006. That’s when Kawaguchi fell on a throw triple loop and broke her ankle, requiring surgery to repair the damage. The couple missed Russian Nationals and Europeans, but Kawaguchi was healthy enough to compete at the World Championships in her native country. That made her the first foreigner to compete for Russia at Worlds. “I wanted to compete at Worlds no matter what,” Kawaguchi said. “It was so close to my home.”

But they may not compete at the 2010 Olympic Games in Canada. “I’m still deciding about my citizenship,” Kawaguchi said, “but I want to go to the Olympics. You only have that chance once or twice. Japan doesn’t allow dual citizenship. If I give up my Japanese citizenship, I can’t get it back for ten years and I’ll need a visa to go home and see my parents.”

Smirnov began skating when he was three years old. “My parents wanted me to skate,” he said. “I landed a triple toe loop when I was 15, but when I was 16, I was getting taller and taller and it became more and more difficult to jump, so I started doing pairs.” Smirnov previously competed with Alexandra Danilova and Ekaterina Vasileva, reaching sixth at World Juniors in 2006.

Kawaguchi has now competed in pairs for three countries. With Russia’s Alexander Markhuntsov, she placed second at the World Junior Figure Skating Championships in 2001, 13th at the World Figure Skating Championships in 2002, and seventh at the Four Continents Championships in 2003, competing for Japan, where she won three national senior pairs titles.

After she split with Markhuntsov in 2003, American Josh Martin came to Russia to skate with her. But he was injured when he was hit by a car while rollerblading to practice and decided to return home to the U.S. in mid-2004. She then competed with Devin Patrick, who taught her the throw quadruple salchow, finishing 15th at U. S. Nationals in 2006. But then they split because he wanted to return to the U.S. and she wanted to stay in Russia.

Kawaguchi started to skate when she was five. “My mother loved ice dancing so she wanted me to learn to skate,” she said. She competed for Japan in ladies through the 1998-99 season with her best finish a gold medal at the 1998 Mexico Cup. But after seeing Elena Berezhnaia and Anton Sikharulidze at the 1998 Olympics in Nagano, Japan, she fell in love with pairs and wanted to skate like Berezhnaia.

So she contacted their coach, Tamara Moskvina, and asked her to teach her. She went to Moskvina’s summer camps and kept asking to do pairs until Moskvina agreed to take her on as a student and paired her with Markhuntsov.

Moskvina coaches the couple in St. Petersburg, Russia. They train on the ice for three hours a day, six days a week and do two more hours a day off ice. But when they started skating together, they worked with Nikolai Velikov.

“We both split from our other partners at the same time and we had always practiced together, so we got together,” Kawaguchi said. “First, I went to his group for three or four months, but then we went back to Tamara because I felt more comfortable after working with her for years.”

“We didn’t have any good boys in our group and I wanted the best for Yuka,” Moskvina added. “I liked the way she worked with us for eight years. So I let her go with Velikov and I appreciate what he did for them.”

Both of the skaters had doubts at the beginning because their first tryout was nothing special. Smirnov was concerned that Kawaguchi wasn’t Russian and seemed too quiet and reserved, while she had doubts about his character and abilities, but they came to understand one another. Her work ethic especially pleased Smirnov, who said, “If I’m tired, she is always pushing me.”

Druchinina and Peter Tchernyshev choreographed their programs for 2007-08. That included “Rondo Capriccioso” by Camille Saint Saens for their short program, which is the same as in 2006-07, and music from the “Love Story” soundtrack by Francis Lai for their new long. They skated their exhibition programs to “Sirtaki”, the first short program that they tried for 2007-08.

“Tamara picks all the music,” Kawaguchi said. “Peter comes to Russia and does the programs and then Tatiana edits them. “They had a short program from their old coach, but I went back to get an old program that suited them better,” Moskvina said. “I’ve liked ‘Love Story’ for many years, but it was taken for the 2002 Olympics. It suits them very well.”

Major elements in the couple’s short program included side-by-side triple toe loops and a throw triple loop. Their long program includes a throw quadruple salchow and throw triple loop plus side-by-side double axels and a triple toe-triple toe sequence. They also include a lot of unusual elements that Moskvina devises herself. “Yuka used to do all of them with the other boys,” Moskvina said.

“They land the quad salchow about half the time, but I decided to keep it in the program,” Moskvina stated. “We’re working on side by side triple salchows. It’s going well but I decided to use the side-by-side double axels in the second part. With the quad and the triple-triple and the side by side triple salchows, it was too much.”

Kawaguchi, who has lived in Russia for five years, will graduate from a university in St. Petersburg this year with a degree in international relations. “I like to learn languages and I want to do something in diplomacy,” she said. “That’s my big dream.” She now speaks English and Russian as well as Japanese.

Smirnov finished his studies in municipality management in November 2006 and started to study at a sports university in 2007. “I don’t like studying,” he said, “but if I want to work in skating at a high level, I have to have an education in sports.”

Off ice, Smirnov likes to read, go to movies, and play other sports. Kawaguchi stays inside. “I’m too tired to go out,” Kawaguchi said. “I stay home and study English and Russian or read fantasy stories. On holidays, I like to go see my family.”

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