Japanese Skater's Debut for Russia

Japan's Yuko Kawaguchi will write a new chapter in figure skating history when she makes her international debut for Russia at the world championships in Tokyo next week.

Kawaguchi, 25, and her partner Alexander Smirnov, 22, qualified for the worlds after handily winning the pairs title at last month's Russia Cup competition in Tver.

The pair was forced to miss the European championships in Warsaw in January after Kawaguchi broke her ankle in training in December, sidelining her for almost two months.

"I really wanted to skate for Russia at these world championships," she said.

"The fact they are held in Japan makes it even more special. I'm sure the Japanese public will give us a warm welcome."

Until now, no foreign skater had represented Russia at a major international competition. The dominant force in figure skating for decades, it was Russia that regularly supplied other countries with top-notch skaters.

Rostov native Maxim Staviski teamed up with Albena Denkova to win the 2006 world ice dance gold for Bulgaria, the country's first global figure skating title.

Moscow-born Marina Anissina, skating with Gwendal Peizerat, brought France the Olympic gold in 2002 when they won the ice dancing competition in Salt Lake City.

Several Russians also competed for the United States, Israel, Austria, Lithuania and other former Soviet states.

Kawaguchi and Smirnov 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," Kawaguchi said, who became the first pairs skater from Japan to medal at an international competition when she and Markuntsov won a silver at the 2001 world junior championships.

"But the problem was him getting Japanese citizenship, so we could represent Japan in major competitions, like the Olympics.

"It's very difficult for a foreigner to acquire Japanese citizenship, 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.

"Even though Yuko and I had different partners, we often trained at the same rink in St. Petersburg and I could see how hard she trains," Smirnov said. "I thought I was a hard worker, but after watching her, I was really amazed how hard she works."

Kawaguchi said: "When we learn a new element I have to repeat it many times. Some skaters just do it on the spot but I must do it over and over again before I do it right.

"So my partner needs to be patient with me. That was one of the reasons I had problems with Patrick -- he wasn't patient enough, that's why we argued all the time."

Kawaguchi's resilience was the main reason she ended up in Russia in the first place.

She was a singles skater in 1997 when she wrote a letter to Tamara Moskvina, asking the famous coach whether she could train her.

"I told her I'm a pairs coach and don't work with individual skaters," Moskvina said, who has coached three different pairs to Olympic gold medals in the last 15 years.

"But she was very persistent, so I told her if she wanted to work with me she must have a partner. She also had to come to America as I was working in Hackensack, New Jersey at the time."

After spending several years in the U.S., Kawaguchi had to deal with another dilemma, whether to follow Moskvina to St. Petersburg when she decided to return home after guiding Yelena Berezhnaya and Anton Sikharulidze to the 2002 Olympic gold.

"It was a tough decision, but I really wanted to learn a new culture, new language," said the diminutive Japanese, who is studying international relations at the St. Petersburg State University and speaks good Russian.

"After living here for nearly four years, I almost feel Russian myself. I really like it here. Now, I have a new dream, I want to represent Russia at the Olympics."

This is no easy task, even if she qualifies.

While competing in world or European championships for an adopted country only requires an approval from the International Skating Union, in order to take part in the Olympic Games Kawaguchi must obtain Russian citizenship.

That means she must first give up her Japanese passport as Japan does not recognize dual citizenship, something the native of Aichi is reluctant to do.

"To give up your country is unthinkable for a Japanese, so I'm not sure if I'm prepared to do it," she said.

"Instead, I want to ask the Japanese Prime Minister if he could make an exception and allow me to hold two passports, Japanese and Russian. Because if I do something special, like win an Olympic medal, then I would make both countries proud."