Pairs skater changes country, name in quest for gold

The road to Vancouver has been a long one for Russian skater Yuko Kavaguti. It’s taken the 28-year-old across three continents, three skating partners, and one name change.

You see, Yuko Kavaguti was born Yuko Kawaguchi. She started as a singles skater in her native Japan, but switched to pairs after watching Elena Berezhnaya and Anton Sikharulidze skate at the 1998 Nagano Games.

Unable to find a suitable Japanese partner, Yuko paired up with Russian skater Alexander Markuntsov in 1999. The duo represented Japan with moderate success, but dissolved their partnership in 2003 when it proved too difficult to obtain Japanese citizenship for Markuntsov (a requirement for the Olympics).

Yuko then moved to the United States and competed with Devin Patrick for two seasons, but their relationship was rocky and it showed in their results. In spring of 2006, she paired up with another Russian, Alexander Smirnov, for one last shot at the Olympics.

In December 2008, Yuko made the difficult decision to relinquish her Japanese citizenship in order to compete for Russia. (Japan doesn’t allow dual citizenship.) Some in her native country branded her a traitor. Some in her adopted country resented that a foreign-born skater would represent Russia in its most dominant discipline. (Russia has won every pairs gold since 1964.)

Along with her new citizenship came a new, more “Russian-sounding” last name – Kavaguti.

"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," Kavaguti explained to Reuters.

She’s right. As the 2009 World bronze medalists and the 2010 European champions, Kavaguti and Smirnov are now Russia’s top pair in Vancouver.

She’ll be called onto Olympic ice by a name she wasn’t born with, but that doesn’t matter. "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 fulfill my childhood dream."

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