Russia is sending three pairs to Vancouver: Kavaguti and Smirnov, Mukhortova and Trankov, and Bazarova and Larianov. This is where we remind you that Russia (and the Soviet Union before 1992) has won the gold in the Olympic pairs contest at every Olympics since 1964.*
*In 2002, they shared the gold. You probably forgot about that one, it didn't make too many headlines.
Yuko Kavaguti and Alexander Smirnov
Yuko Kavaguti used to be Yuko Kawaguchi. She gave up her Japanese citizenship to skate with Smirnov for Russia. That, folks, is dedication.
I think this team may be peaking at just the right time for this season's Olympics. They have a few things on their side:
First, they have made a methodical climb up the ranks in the world championships. They started at ninth in 2007, jumped to fourth in 2008, and finally got on the podium with a bronze medal last season. The next thing that is working in the team's favor is that they are coached by Tamara Moskvina. I have been convinced of this woman's magical powers ever since watching Elena Berezhnaya and Anton Sikharulidze get judged in the short program at the 1998 Olympics in Nagano. Moskvina definitely has a "type" in her pairs, and Kavaguti and Smirnov embody it quite well. The last thing they have going for them is that, while they did not do well at the Grand Prix final, finishing fifth, they appear to have staying power for the season, even appear to improve throughout the season, while other pairs are seemingly fizzling out. Their most recent triumph was the European championships win, where they asserted themselves over countrymates Mukhortova and Trankov, as well as world champions Savchenko and Szolkowy. Not a bad time for Kavaguti and Smirnov to shift the European balance of power. And look at that - just before the Olympics a Russian team is all of a sudden the top European pair again. That does seem to happen a lot.
This team has a not-so-secret weapon that it hasn't really taken too much advantage of lately - the throw quadruple salchow. Attempting the move has resulted in Kavaguti dislocating her shoulder mid-program, so I'm not sure if it will be included in their Olympic programs, as it appears unpredictable. That girl is a fighter, though.
The Programs: The programs are good. I think the free skate is both beautiful and fun, but neither program is among my top programs of the season.
Latest Performances: Their free skate at Europeans was great but not quite perfect. Also, her shoulder appeared to be bothering her for a second in there - but she is always able to power through. I don't know if that will be an issue for the Olympics.
Strengths: Everything, when they are on.
Weaknesses: Making errors on jump landings, getting lost in the crowd when everyone is performing well. Although, with their European win, they probably have the confidence to ensure that they stand out.
It gives me the creeps when: She pops her shoulder back in after dislocating it.
I think it's awesome when: She fights through her pain!
Outlook: I think it's starting to look good for this team to medal - especially if Savchenko and Szolkowy continue their troubles.
Maria Mukhortova and Maxim Trankov
This team has had a very up and down relationship. They have just not been able to break through in the way they need to to be on the world podium. Their highest placement came last year when they placed fifth. They always seem to be right in the medal mix in all competitions, though.
Mukhortova and Trankov seemed to have a breakthrough this season when they skated a beautiful and clean free skate at Trophee Eric Bompard to upset world champions Savchenko and Szolkowy in the event. However, they have not matched that performance all season, and since losing the Russian nationals and Europeans to teammates Kavaguti and Smirnov, they are not only fighting to be memorable on the world scene, but they are also fighting to be regarded as the top Russian team. And I think they may have lost that fight at this point.
The other issue is that, although they are beautiful skaters, if they skate perfectly against a perfect Savchenko and Szolkowy or Shen and Zhao, I think the other teams would win in that matchup. So Mukhortova and Trankov might need to capitalize on the errors of others.
I truly hope we get to watch them skate in the Olympics, though. I really like to watch them and I think their "Love Story" free skate is beautiful.
The Programs: Their short program is gorgeous, their free skate is gorgeous. Worth a look.
Latest Performance: Their free skate at Europeans started out so lovely, and then they lost focus midway through. That is the story of this team.
Strengths: They are strong and crisp, quick and graceful when they are on.
Weakness: They lose focus and the program can implode quickly. They have also had...a rocky interpersonal relationship over the years.
It gives me the creeps when: She gives him the "look." The look that says, this is all your fault. And we need couples therapy.
I think it's awesome when: They skate clean and she gives him the look that says, you are the best partner a girl could ever skate with! What fools we've been!
Outlook: If they skate clean, they may still need other people to err in order to get the gold. But I wouldn't be completely surprised if they were on the podium. I would be surprised, however, if they win the gold.