(Corrects Moskvina's record, 14th para)
By Gennady Fyodorov
MOSCOW Oct 14 Yuko Kawaguchi was branded a
traitor in her native Japan when she changed nationality to
pursue her childhood dream of competing in the Olympics.
Since Japan does not allow dual citizenship, the figure
skater was forced to give up her Japanese passport in exchange
for a Russian one, enabling her and partner Alexander Smirnov to
represent her adopted country at next year's Winter Games in
"It was a very hard choice for me to make. But since I was a
little girl I wanted to compete in the Olympics so in the end I
had to make that choice in order for me to fulfil my childhood
dream," the Aichi native told Reuters in an interview.
While competing internationally for Russia required approval
only from the sport's governing body, the International Skating
Union (ISU), she had to obtain Russian citizenship in order to
take part in the Olympics.
Kawaguchi, who turns 28 next month, made her international
debut for Russia at the 2007 world championships in Tokyo, where
she and Smirnov finished ninth.
They have steadily improved in each of the last two seasons,
coming fourth in the world in 2008 before taking bronze at this
year's world championships in Los Angeles.
While switching countries is common among athletes nowadays,
Kawaguchi's decision met with angry reaction back in Japan.
"I've read some nasty comments on the Internet. Those who
don't know how international rules work in sports even called me
a traitor but I don't get angry at them," she said.
"People who follow sports understand that I'm not a traitor.
I still consider myself Japanese. I chose to compete for Russia
because I didn't have a (good) partner in Japan."
Japan have regularly produced world-class skaters in
individual events for men and women but struggled to find
top-level performers for pairs competition.
Russia have dominated Olympic pairs skating for nearly half
a century, winning gold at every Winter Games since 1964.
Despite the fact that Kawaguchi and Smirnov represent their
best hope for a medal in Vancouver, there was some resentment
towards the Japan native among Russian sports officials who felt
the country should develop their own skaters.
The pair's coach, Tamara Moskvina, disagreed.
"Unlike some nations who pay millions to lure top athletes,
we didn't buy Kawaguchi," the renowned trainer, who has guided
four different pairs to Olympic titles, told Reuters.
"It was strictly her own decision and she paid her own way
to come to Russia and train here. It was her perseverance and
hard work that made her a top skater."
Kawaguchi's resilience was the main reason she ended up in
Russia in the first place.
Inspired by watching Russia's Yelena Berezhnaya and Anton
Sikharulidze compete at the 1998 Nagano Olympics, Kawaguchi
wrote to their coach Moskvina, asking if she could also train
"I enjoyed watching Yelena skate. She was the most graceful
skater; she was also very small, just like myself, but with a
very big heart," said the 1.57-metre tall Kawaguchi, who looks
even smaller skating alongside the powerfully-built Smirnov.
"She was very persistent, so I finally agreed to take her
aboard," Moskvina recalled. "She also had to come to America as
I was working in Hackensack, New Jersey, at the time."
After spending several years in the United States, Kawaguchi
followed Moskvina to St Petersburg when she returned home after
leading Berezhnaya and Sikharulidze to the 2002 Olympic gold.
Kawaguchi and Smirnov, 25, each had two different partners
before deciding to work together. She first skated with
Russian-born Alexander Markuntsov, representing Japan.
"We had a good working relationship," said Kawaguchi, who
became the first pairs skater from Japan to medal at an
international competition when she and Markuntsov won silver at
the 2001 world junior championships.
"But it was very difficult for Alexander to acquire Japanese
citizenship, thus we couldn't represent Japan in the Olympics so
after a while we decided to break up."
Kawaguchi then teamed up with American Devin Patrick.
"It was a different story with Patrick. We had problems on
the ice; we weren't getting along too well," she said.
St Petersburg-based Smirnov, who had skated with Alexandra
Danilova and Yekaterina Vasilyeva before teaming up with
Kawaguchi, was quick to pay compliments to his new partner.
"We often trained at the same rink and I could see how hard
she works," said Smirnov. "I thought I was a hard worker but
after watching her I was really amazed by her work level."
Moskvina said: "The combination of Japanese discipline and
work ethic together with Russian artistry and elegance is what
makes them unique."
Asked to asses their Olympic chances, she was cautious,
however, saying: "Don't forget they have only been together for
"Winning any medal in Vancouver would be a great success
because time is on their side."
(Editing by Clare Fallon; To query or comment on this story