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Russian pairs want to regain prior dominance

Top-two pairs push each other to stardom

Maxim Trankov said that he and Maria Mukhortova's place ahead of Yuko Kawaguchi and Alexander Smirnov on the podium is "where we belong."
Maxim Trankov said that he and Maria Mukhortova's place ahead of Yuko Kawaguchi and Alexander Smirnov on the podium is "where we belong." (Getty Images)

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By Tatiana Flade, special to icenetwork.com
(03/17/2008) - Russia has dominated pairs skating over the decades like no other country. They have collected 12 Olympic and 32 world gold medals since 1964. However, after the retirement of 2006 Olympic champions Tatiana Totmianina and Maxim Marinin, Russia lost its firm grip on the gold. The hopes for the future rest on the shoulders of two teams that are currently the best Russia has to offer: current national champions Yuko Kawaguchi and Alexander Smirnov and 2008 European silver medalists Maria Mukhortova and Maxim Trankov. Both teams will compete at the 2008 ISU World Figure Skating Championships this week, and with high finishes, they will be trying to secure extra places for Russia in the field at next year's worlds. Most of all, they want to determine between them who is number one and number two in Russia.

The two pairs are close in ability and are close rivals. They met three times in competition this season and the record is two-to-one in favor of Kawaguchi and Smirnov so far. The Japanese-Russian duo edged out Mukhortova and Trankov at the Cup of Russia by merely 1.89 points. This small margin also made the difference of who qualified for the Grand Prix Final and who didn't -- Kawaguchi and Smirnov finished fifth in Turin, while their rivals were the first substitutes. A month later at Russian nationals, Kawaguchi and Smirnov won. But then, at the 2008 European Championships in January, Mukhortova and Trankov earned the silver medal; Kawaguchi and Smirnov took the bronze. It was the first appearance for both couples at Europeans, since they were injured in the 2006-07 season. In Gothenburg, their goal is to improve on last year's performance, when Kawaguchi and Smirnov placed ninth, and Mukhortova and Trankov finished 11th.

Both teams train in St. Petersburg, Russia's capital of pair skating, but they are very different from each other. Kawaguchi and Smirnov are more athletic and even include a throw quadruple Salchow in their free skate.

Mukhortova and Trankov, on the other hand, are the more elegant pair with beautiful lines. They might not have a quad in their arsenal, but they perform two different side-by-side triples -- the Salchow and the toe loop.

Kawaguchi is originally from Japan and is the first foreign skater to represent Russia in international competition. She has been living and training in Russia since 2003 and now has to make a tough decision about her future. If she wants to be eligible for the 2010 Olympic Winter Games in Vancouver, she would need to take Russian citizenship. As Japan is not tolerating double citizenship, the 26-year-old would need to give up her Japanese passport.

"If Sasha and I are having good results, maybe I'll do it. The Olympics is something you get to participate in once or twice in your life. The Japanese authorities told me that I can re-apply for Japanese citizenship after giving it up, but only after ten years. The laws are very strict. If I have Russian citizenship, I'll need a visa in order to travel home," Kawaguchi said. She added that she will decide after this season if she wants to change her citizenship.

Kawaguchi and Smirnov, who are now coached by the legendary Tamara Moskvina, teamed up only in the spring of 2006, but they gelled quickly as a team. They medaled in their first major international competition, the 2006 Cup of Russia, where they took the bronze. Unfortunately, Kawaguchi broke her ankle in December 2006, which forced the team out of nationals and Europeans that season. They did come back for the world championships in her native Japan though. Now they are looking forward to competing in their second worlds.

"Our preparation went well. We are healthy. The quad throw Salchow has been going really well in practice," Kawaguchi told icenetwork.com in Gothenburg. "Our goal here is to enjoy skating," she added.

Mukhortova and Trankov have been skating together since 2003 and won the 2005 World Junior Championships. They are now students of Oleg Vasiliev after several coaching changes last season.

"They have been training well and are in good shape," Vasiliev said in Gothenburg after the team arrived Sunday evening. Even though they wouldn't admit it, beating their Russian rivals at Europeans is important to Mukhortova and Trankov.

"We weren't upset [to finish second at Russian nationals], because we knew that we are better," Trankov said with a smile. "When we were second at European, and they were third, we just ended up where we belong, and that's all. The most important thing for us is to skate clean. To win the gold or the silver feels only really good if you skate well," he explained.

Now both teams are up against each other again this week, but at the same time, they are fighting for the same goal: to continue Russia's glorious tradition in pairs skating.