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Figure Skating - Athletes
Yuko Kawaguchi:
Yuko Kawaguchi and Alexander Smirnov
Photo © Alex Wilf
Yuko Kawaguchi and Alexander Smirnov

I was planning to interview Yuko Kawaguchi - the Japanese skater who became Russian just to be able to participate the Olympics since August when I came to St. Petersburg to interview Moskvina. But Yuko was so tired from the training that I didn't dare bugging her. We met a month later in Moscow. Exactly on time Yuko showed at the hotel entrance - light and colourful like a butterfly.

- You have a date, Yuko?

- Yes, but later. First I'm to speak to you. Am not in a hurry, don't worry.

Looking at Yuko taking her place in front of the table I recalled Moscvina's words:

«In real life Yuko is a happy girl. Yet she is very reasonable. I even try on her some of my decisions and talking to her as an equal. We think alike of alot of things. Besides Yuko is much more practical compared to the Russians»

Yuko picked the interview language herself - Russian.

- Yuko, there is probably not a single figure skating fan in Russia who wouldn't know your story of coming to train under Moskvina to become a skater like Elena Berezhnaya. Do you remember your fist time on the skates?

- Of course. My mother wanted me to skate. She used to skate herself. She didn't want me to become a professional, just for fun. She liked the ice dancers - Natalia Bestemianova and Ludmila Pahomova prior to that. We had plenty of tapes at home - mother would tape all the competitions and would constantly re-watch them. I wasn't particularly interested.

Probably now it's silly to talk about what is interesting or not for a 5 y.o. but I remember that I wanted to play and dance yet I had to go to the ice rink instead.

- It's a common practice in the Russian families that the child is studying outside the school as well - sports, music. What about Japan?

- The same. When I went to school I had 12 different subjects a day. Piano, swimming , synchronize swimming, jazz dancing, ballet dancing, flamenco, calligraphy -you know, when you paint the beautiful hieroglyphs with a special brush. It's an art to learn how to sit right, to hold the brush, move your hand. I still love it. I used to skate just twice a week back then. It was quite expensive for my family.

- Can you still play the piano?

- I do sometimes. Though I don't have the real instrument - just an electronic one that I got from Tamara Mosvina's granddaughter. Dasha wouldn't play it so she gave it to me. I like playing it when I have time.

- How come your parents let you go to the US to Moskvina?

- First they wouldn't even hear of my leaving for a long time. We just spoke to Moskvina of a 2 weeks classes. I wanted to skate pairs - there was a Russian coach who worked with the ice dancers on our ice rink in Chibo - Viktor Ryzhkin and Alexey Tihonov skated for 3 years with his partner for 3 years at the same ice rink. I didn't have a
partner though. The Japanese boys don't care about figure skating. Moskvina didn't have anyone either. So she told me I have to skate alone.

- And then Alexandr Markuntsov appeared?

- Yes. Moskvina called me immediately to come to her. Sasha and I represented Japan and every 2-3 months we would come there from the US for the competition or just to renew the visas. Now am coming home much less often and can feel that my mother is not too thrilled that we hardly see each other . She even told me once that she never wanted me to become a skater of such a high level. Especially in pairs and not ice dance. There are still no good pairs in Japan. Just now they start to appear in juniors. It's a long way, there aren't enough rinks. Had my parents been reach I would skate more often than just twice a week as a kid.

- What do your parents do?

- Mother is an English teacher. But she didn't work in the school all the time - she had students who she helped before the exams. Father is a businessman. But not a major one, so I went to a public school and not to a private where the rich kids go.

- Did you learn English thanks to your mother?

- Yes. Father also loved the languages, he even learned Russian for two years. We have lots of dictionaries at home. Though father can't speak the foreign languages, but he understands when the others speak Russian, Korean, Chinese. But he doesn't want to speak it since he can't do it well.

- Where did you learn Russian so well? In the US?

- No. I only learned English there. It was funny - Markuntsov didn't speak any English at all, I hardly understood any Russian. Just «hello», «thank you» and «goodbye» that I remembered from Ryzhkin. We trained under Igor Moskvin in the US and when he had to explain something to me, he would just pick me as a doll, turn the hands, legs, head. I couldn't explain whether it was convenient for me or not, I just tried to do the move. And somehow it worked exactly the way Igor Borisovich meant.

- Do you remember your first world championship with Markuntsov?

- You bet! We did the parallel jump and both fell. Absolutely in sync. As if it wasn't a mistake but a part of the choreography. We probably should had got some bonus for it.

- Why did you end your partnership?

- For Japan? There was no point. Sometimes we spent more time travelling from place to place than on the ice. Or we had to spend about 3 months in Japan without the coach just to get the paperwork. So Sasha decided to retire.

- And why did you go on searching for a new partner? Did you like figure skating so much or did you want to win?

- I love skating. And competing. Hence I stayed with Moskvina in the US. That's when I started learning Russian. I tried to remember the words that Igor Borisovich was saying, would listen carefully to Tamara Nikolaevna if she spoke Russian to someone. But before I came to Russia I didn't understand much.

- I can imagine how hard it was for you at first.

- No. It wasn't hard. Though I coulndt' say much I could listen. On the ice rink, on the streets. And unlike my father I wasn't afraid to speak. For him it's a stress, for me it's a pleasure. Though my grammar is still far from perfect.

- Your spoken Russian is really good and correct.

- Am trying very hard. The same with skating. It was hard to part with the first partner but I can «disconnect» from the unpleasant thoughts. Something didn't work. But it already happen so it has to stay behind. I have to think of tomorrow.

- It's a good attitude, but not an easy one. Did you move on equally fast when during your first working season with the current partner Alexandr Smirnov you broke your leg?

- I didn't have any choice. Yes, I broke a leg. But I couldn't turn the time so it would remain unbroken, right? Injuries are something that can happen to anyone. So I was just trying to recover fast.

- You skated really well with Smirnov last world championship at the short programme. What happened at the long?

- We wanted to skate clean badly. Usually I don't care about the popped elements, even if I fall. But during the worlds we were in a great shape and I was not ready to something that wouldnt' work out. After the first mistake in the LP I got so upset that I couldn't concentrate again.

- Is it scary to skate with Smirnov? The lifts are high, the throws are far...

- Sasha is very careful with me. I sometimes argue with him telling him am not a kid - am an adult. And that there is no need to treat me as a child. It insults me. But... as if he is afraid to break me. Because of his cautioness I don't feel comfortable in the air. It's scary not when you are thrown far but when the throw is not powerful enough. You were a diver, so you know how it is when there are alot of turns to make and not enough speed and height.

- It is not in fashion in Japan to argue with men. The men is considered being always right.

- It used to be so when women didn't work. Now it's different. Sometimes it's the woman who decides.

- Looking at you - so tiny its hard to imagine the men would take you seriously.

- I do feel sometimes that they look down on me. What does she understand? But when I start speaking to people they change their mind.

- What do you think of yourself as a skater?

- Now I want much more than I did when I first started skating pair.s But when I start thinking of my goals there is something inside me that snaps and says I shouldn't be thinking of it. Because all the pleasure of the skating would be gone. There is no point skating with no pleasure. That's what am fighting against all the time. Previously I never skated on such a high level as I do now. I didn't even realize it would be possible. Tamara Nikolaevna has very high expectations and it's sometimes hard for me. I learn slowly. I needed 3 years just to land a single axel. 3! And now we learn something new at every training session and it has to be done well. I have to think think think.. All the time. So I
realize there is no point thinking of anything else.

- Who do you find easier to talk to during the work - Tamara Nikolaevna or Igor Borisovich?

- Depends on the subject. I know to whom to turn about what. What should I discuss with a coach and what with a choreographer - Tatiana Druchnina.

- Does it annoy you having to obey in everything - the hair style, the programmes the costumes?

- I trust those I work with. I like the costumes. Especially the swan. Though I liked the «tutus» the dress I skated in the SP 2 years ago. Very simple and smart. I don't have enough costumes to get tired of them. The same with the programmes Though the «Swan» to Saent-Sans music is special for me. I liked so much from the very beginning that
I decided to become a Russian citizen if I can skate that programme at the Olympics.

- I didn't realize you liked the ballet so much.

- I do. Of course, my arms are not as expressive as Uliana Lopatkina's, but I try to work on that. I was dreaming for quite a while to become a ballet dancer and not a skater.

- Are you sorry not becoming one?

- Not anymore. There is no such speed in ballet. There are no such jumps. I love the feeling of the flight and the fast spins. You just take off the ice and blown by that feeling.

- Pairs skating is hard in that sense. Too much depends on the partner.

- Yes. Especially in the complicated elements. For example, when Sasha and I are doing the triple jumps I can «save» the landing even if something went wrong with the asix. It's harder in the quad throw. Every movement there has a meaning. It demands a special preparation. Hence the competitions are easier for me. I even like when someone else is present at the training. In those cases the training becomes a performance and the special mood comes.

- What do you do besides skating?

- I continue learning Russian with a tutor. Mainly phonetics. I want to speak with no accent. It's a hard work. I like being home, like cooking.

- Is your flat in St. Petersburg designed as a Japanese or European?

- Probably Euroepan. Though the food is Japanese. Mother sends me Japanese spices, souses. Sometimes it is so expensive that there is no money left for my mother to come to Russia. But still I can't cook the fish the way we do.

- A couple of years ago during the competition in Japan I ate fish that was cooked by a Japanese colleague. I stopped going to Japanese restaurants in other countries after that. Everything seems dull there.

- That's right. Although no one believes me when I say that. But that's not a big deal.



© Елена Вайцеховская, 2003
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