The 2010 Olympic season brought both triumph and disappointment to Yuko Kavaguti and Alexander Smirnov.
Ranked the number-one team in Russia in 2010, they won the European Championships that year and had high ambitions heading into the Olympic Winter Games in Vancouver. But they fell short of their own expectations and those of their nation when they finished fourth. It was the first time since 1960 that a Russian pairs team had not stood on the top step of an Olympic podium.
A few weeks later, Kavaguti and Smirnov came back and won a second consecutive bronze medal at the World Championships.
Some people were surprised that Kavaguti — who had given up her Japanese citizenship and become a Russian national in order to be eligible to compete at the 2010 Olympic Games — and Smirnov decided to continue.
“We didn’t do everything yet that we can do, and therefore we want to stay in the sport,” Smirnov told IFS.
“If we had skated our very best at the Olympic Games or World Championships, then we could have said goodbye, but as we didn’t do that, we want to stay,” Kavaguti added.
But even though the motivation was there, injuries threatened to jeopardize the plans of the St. Petersburg duo last summer. First Kavaguti underwent surgery in Japan last spring to deal with frequent shoulder dislocations. The recovery period was several months, and when Kavaguti finally was able to train more or less at capacity, Smirnov needed groin surgery.
“I don’t think that it was hard to come back because of the Olympic season, but more so because of our injuries,” Smirnov explained. “The most frightening thought was that we would have to stop because we were just physically unable to continue, although we still wanted to.”
Both knew they were in good physical condition but were aware they had to be careful, Kavaguti added.
The team competed at only one Grand Prix event last season (Cup of Russia), which they won, but at Russian nationals, they finished second behind the new team of Tatiana Volosozhar and Maxim Trankov.
A month later, Kavaguti and Smirnov placed second at the European Championships, despite winning the free skate. “Everything is fine for us now. Obviously we started our season late, but we caught up,” Kavaguti said.
“The merit of this comeback is because of our own strength, our coach Tamara [Moskvina] and the people that supported us even when we weren’t in shape at all,” Smirnov explained.
“At first, we felt embarrassed to go out onto the ice — we couldn’t do anything. It was very hard to skate, but everybody supported us and probably thanks to that, because nobody turned away from us or dismissed us and said, that’s it, guys, you can stop. On the contrary, there was support and that helped us, and of course we found strength within ourselves.”
Both of this season’s programs, the mystic “Thus Spoke Zarathustra” and the lyrical “Clair de Lune,” have been especially motivating for Kavaguti.
“The two new programs that we did last spring right after the surgery helped me a lot because I loved them so much that I wanted to skate and to show them,” she said with a smile.
Smirnov said it took a long time before they decided on the music for the short program. “We looked at everything from the flight into the cosmos to the Valkyries. There wasn’t anything that we didn’t consider,” he said. “We looked a long time for the right image and couldn’t really decide.”
Finding the storyline for the free program was less complicated. “In the beginning, this was an idea of Peter Tchernyshev,” Smirnov explained. “We wanted to portray the movie ‘Twilight.’ We even wanted to have costumes similar to the ones in the movie, but it didn’t work so we refrained from that.
“Now we are just skating with our soul. We want to improve this aspect, because when an element doesn’t work, it affects us. We didn’t yet skate it 100 percent,” he said, adding that he felt that maybe a lack of expression cost them the gold at the European Championships.
Inside Russia, Kavaguti and Smirnov have to deal with their new rivals, especially Volosozhar and Trankov. “We are all for healthy competition, but the most important thing is that it is healthy. We are still on the national team, and at the Europeans we proved that we are the leaders of the national team”, Smirnov said.
He refused to speculate whether the Russian skating federation would throw its support behind the new team. “Everywhere there are political games and we don’t get into that. We should skate and the politicians should take care of the politics. Therefore we try not to get into that and not to think about it, because if we do that we can’t focus on our skating.”
Outside of skating, something special happened to Smirnov last August: he married his girlfriend of one and a half years, Ekaterina Garus. When asked how his life changed, he shrugged. “Everything is great, I’m happy, I don’t think there were any major changes,” he said.
But Kavaguti disagreed. “I think Sasha did change after his marriage, in a positive way. He is more grown up now,” she later explained.
Although Garus is a hairdresser and stylist, she is not involved in the duo’s look or styling. However, Smirnov did change his hairstyle. “We decided to try something new. Tamara said, ‘Try something different, because your hairstyle doesn’t fit the short program. A romantic style does not fit as the program is more aggressive, more masculine.’
“That was her opinion so I decided to try it. But in general, my wife doesn’t get into it, because our group is already complete with me, Yuko, Tamara, our choreographers and Igor Moskvin. She only comes to competitions when she has time,” Smirnov added.
Competing at Worlds in Japan was something Kavaguti and Smirnov were especially looking forward to. Like the rest of the world, they were saddened and shocked by the catastrophes that hit that nation in March, which resulted in the World Championships being moved from Tokyo to Moscow.
Kavaguti’s mother lives in Chiba, where the oil refinery was burning and the gas line to her house was cut off.
Originally published in June 2011