Ice Network

Kavaguti, Smirnov turn back time with stellar short

Russian pair continues comeback after lost season; Americans go 3-4-5
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Alexander Smirnov looked fully healed from the knee surgery he underwent last October, as he and partner Yuko Kavaguti easily won the short program with 69.16 points. -Getty Images

How long has Yuko Kavaguti been competing pairs internationally?

When she started, Bill Clinton was president. The NBC comedy Friends was just hitting its stride. The term "smartphone" had yet to be coined.

But when reminded of her astounding longevity at the press conference following Saturday's short program at 2014 Skate America, Kavaguti took exception.

"I don't think [my career] is the longest; I think his is the longest one," the 32-year-old Japan native said, pointing to China's Hao Zhang, who sat to her left. And Kavaguti is right: The 30-year-old Zhang has been on the international scene since 1998, about a year longer than she has.

Besides, why retire when you can still skate a transcendent short program at your first Grand Prix event in almost two years?

That's what Kavaguti and partner Alexander Smirnov -- no youngster himself at age 30 -- did with a stellar short to "Méditation" from Thaïs by Jules Massenet.

Every element -- from the huge opening Level 4 triple twist, to a magnificent lift, to an intricate and impossibly flexible closing pairs spin -- was finished and secure. The Russians' 69.16-point score gave them a 6.78-point lead over the veteran Zhang and his 17-year-old partner, Cheng Peng.

"We are just so happy to be competing again," said Smirnov, whose wife, Ekaterina, gave birth to a son just over a week ago.

Kavaguti began skating pairs in 1999; a few years later, she and former partner Alexander Markuntsov won the world junior silver medal. She moved with coach Tamara Moskvina to Saint Petersburg in 2003, and after a few failed starts with U.S. partners, teamed with Smirnov in 2006.

Despite a series of injuries and surgeries over the years, Kavaguti and Smirnov won a European title, three national titles and two world bronze medals. Kavaguti became a Russian citizen in 2008, sacrificing her Japanese citizenship in the process, and the pair placed fourth at the Vancouver Olympic Games.

When Smirnov ruptured a patellar tendon in the fall of 2013, costing the team the entire season and a chance at their second Olympic Games, many expected them to retire. But they persevered.

"It was a very big surgery I had, in Germany," Smirnov said. "The rehab took more than half a year."

"I continued to train until the last moment," Kavaguti said. "I didn't give up; I thought he [might still be able] to do the Olympics. I kept myself training. It didn't happen, but that is OK."

Kavaguti and Smirnov still haven't given up their dream of a second Olympics.

"We don't know if we will try for 2018," Kavaguti said. "We will think about it later."

Peng and Zhang skated with style and emotion to music by Tchaikovsky, showing a superb lift and a big throw triple loop. But Peng fell on an under-rotated triple toe, sliding into the boards in the process, and they placed second to the Russians with 62.38 points.

"It wasn't up to our level of training," Peng said, and then added, "We spent a month working with Lori Nichol on our programs this season, and also worked with a ballet coach and acting coach. This helped us a great deal."

Haven Denney and Brandon Frazier, the 2013 world junior champions who placed fifth in the U.S. last season, had one of their finest short programs ever. They showed off a much-improved triple twist, strong side-by-side triple Salchows and solid throw triple loop.

Their program to Andy Williams' version of the theme from The Godfather ("Speak Softly My Love") is a step up in sophistication and maturity for the South Florida pair, who sit third with 61.08 points.

The team's primary coach is three-time U.S. champion John Zimmerman, but they also now train with Ingo Steuer, who steered Germans Aliona Savchenko and Robin Szolkowy to five world titles.

"John and Ingo have different ways of training and teaching, and they work really well together," Frazier said. "We came back from competing in Canada last week, and we only had four days to prepare for this competition. We tried to bounce back quickly, and Ingo has done this so many times with Aliona and Robin [that] he knew exactly what to have us do."

The pair has also worked with British ice dancer John Kerr, who recently moved to Southern Florida, on their stroking technique and portions of their Godfather step sequence.

"I needed to know how to emote with Haven, how to skate deep in the knees, not look as if I were muscling the crossovers," Frazier said. "Number one was to learn how to do proper skating and pushing, and that made it easier to emote with Haven during the program. I still have miles to go, but we see improvement."

Alexa Scimeca and Chris Knierim, and Madeline Aaron and Max Settlage -- both of whom are based in Colorado Springs -- sit fourth and fifth, respectively.

Scimeca and Knierim opened their "El Tango de Roxanne" short with a spectacular triple twist that gained Level 4 from the technical panel. Scimeca fell on the next move, a triple Salchow, but the pair recovered well and ended with a solid throw triple flip and Level 4 death spiral. They are still in the hunt for a medal with 60.61 points.

Aaron and Settlage set a new personal best with a sparkling short to Léo Delibes' ballet Coppélia. The program was highlighted by a strong throw triple loop and solid side-by-side triple Salchows, as well as Aaron's balletic carriage and positions. They earned 58.41 points.

"A lot of work went into this: relating to each other in practice each day, helping each other get through rough practices," Aaron said. "We try to make the best out of every practice we have, take nothing for granted and work our hardest."

Aaron and Settlage placed fifth at the 2014 World Junior Figure Skating Championships. Skate America is their first senior Grand Prix.

"Now that we have taken that step (to senior), it's nowhere near as difficult as we thought it would be," Settlage said. "We feel confident. We feel that we belong."