Saturday, December 3, 2011

Art on Ice: Yuko Kavaguti

Meet Yuko Kavaguti. At one time, she was Yuko Kawaguchi. Let me explain.

Yuko Kawaguchi was born in Aichi, Japan in 1981. A competitive figure skater for Japan, the story goes that she saw the inspiring performances Elena Berezhnaya delivered with Anton Sikharulidze in pairs at the 1998 Nagano Olympics and was inspired to switch disciplines to pairs. Not one to do things halfway, Yuko contacted their coach, the legendary Russian skater Tamara Moskvina, asking that she become her coach so she could be like her idol. Eventually, Moskvina relented, pairing her with Russian skater Alexander Markuntsov. Yuko moved halfway around the world to train in Hackensack, New Jersey. Despite being the first Japanese pair to medal at an ISU (International Skating Union) championship, rules dictate that to compete for the nation you represent at the Olympics, you must be a citizen. When Markuntsov was unable to secure a Japanese passport, the partnership dissolved.

Not one to give up on her career, and with changes in pairs partnerships not uncommon, Yuko was matched with two different American partners and even relocated to St. Petersburg to continue training with Moskvina, even though she didn’t speak a word of Russian. Again, not one to do things halfway, Yuko enrolled at the State University of St. Petersburg and graduated with a degree in International Relations, learning Russian along the way. She now speaks it fluently. Although these initial partnerships did not work out, in the spring of 2006, Yuko was paired by Nikolai Velikov with the strapping Alexander “Sasha” Smirnov and, after initially training with him, they both chose to go with Moskvina. This match turned out serendipitously, as they captured three consecutive Russian national titles, two world championship bronze medals and the European championship in 2010.

During this time, Yuko faced a difficult decision. As the top-ranked Russian team, they were expected to compete at the next Olympics. As Smirnov would be unable to obtain Japanese citizenship, if she wanted to compete at the Olympics, Yuko had to acquire Russian citizenship instead. As Japan does not allow dual citizenships, she had to give up her original passport, leading to the name change that resulted from the transliteration from Kanji to Cyrillic. She cannot get her passport back until at least 2018, and requires a Japanese visa just to visit her parents there. Some media outlets viciously labeled her a “traitor skater”, but this was in 2008, and by then she was already collecting several medals on the ISU Grand Prix circuit (it’s the world cup season in figure skating) and the pair's sheer excellence managed to silence some critics. To this day, Yuko has a following in her native Japan and is greeted with warm, appreciative applause whenever she steps onto the ice in competitions there.

The duo faced disappointment at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics. Despite being one of the favourites to medal, they made several mistakes in their free skate and finished off the podium. While a fourth-place finish is an impressive debut in the Olympics, the fact that this was the first time in 50 years that Russia did not even place on the podium was, over there, considered the equivalent of the Chicago Bulls not winning the NBA championship in the 1990s over here. Or for a more local example, that’s like the Oilers not winning the Stanley Cup every year like they did in the 1980s. In Russia, figure skating is considered a fine art as well as a sport and is supremely respected: in other words, I am not speaking out of hyperbole. Undeterred, and despite intense media scrutiny from both the Japanese and Russian press, the pair soldiered on, and are still competing at the highest level in the sport.

Today, Yuko and Sasha continue to compete and have won almost all of their events this season. They have several trademark programs and continue to develop artistically as well as athletically, despite Yuko’s continuing problems with a frequently-dislocated shoulder that required surgery just after the Olympic season. In fact, at a recent competition, she dislocated it again and looked, in her costume, like she was bandaged together. At more than one tournament, she popped her own shoulder back in. That, and she can also contort herself into some rather extraordinary positions. More than one commentator has referred to her as a human pretzel. There's even a blog post dedicated to her contortions here.

Yuko’s dedication to her sport and her art is what makes her one of the Blogger’s personal heroes. Nothing will stand in the way of her achieving her goals, as injury, moving across the world more than once, and change in nationalities are just some of the things she has endured to achieve her goals. Now 30 years old, Yuko is settled in St. Petersburg, where she lives in an apartment she purchased with her own money and continues to train with Sasha and Moskvina. She and Sasha have qualified for one of the pre-eminent competitions of the Grand Prix circuit, the annual Grand Prix Final next week, and should be slated to compete in Russian Nationals, the Europeans and the World Championships. Injuries and fierce competition from pairs in China, Germany, Canada and even Russia and her native Japan be damned, she hopes to compete at the 2014 Sochi Olympics and win a medal on Russian home soil. In the meantime, you can appreciate this Russo-Japanese dynamo’s performances below:

Short Program: 2010 European Championships to Saint-Saens’s The Swan:

Free Skate: 2010 European Championships (then a world-record score) to Tchaikovsky’s Valse Sentimentale in F Minor and Strauss’s On the Beautiful Blue Danube:

Short Program: 2011 Cup of China competition to American guitarist Joe Satriani's "All Alone", signaling a new change in direction for them in terms of music and style:

Free Skate: 2011 Cup of Russia Tournament to Debussy’s Clair de Lune, which is their program this season:

Yuko has stated that she wishes to become an international diplomat one day. Given her dedication to her skating career to date, one wonders what she can do for world peace.