Rinkside in Los Angeles, part trois

Belbin is no longer self-proclaimed "Miss Chicken Legs"

New Russian citizen Yuko Kavaguti and partner Alexander Smirnov won the world pairs bronze medal on Wednesday night in L.A.
New Russian citizen Yuko Kavaguti and partner Alexander Smirnov won the world pairs bronze medal on Wednesday night in L.A. (Getty Images)


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By Lynn Rutherford, special to
(03/26/2009) - Tanith Belbin will never be mistaken for a fullback, but the slender ice dancer claims she's developed a bit of a thigh problem.

"I can't fit into my skinny jeans anymore," she said.

The skater blames Gennadi Karponossov, who with wife Natalia Linichuk has coached Belbin and partner Benjamin Agosto at the Ice Works Arena in Aston, Pa., since last spring.

"We've been doing these stroking exercises, and Gennadi warned, 'All the girls get mad at me. They say I make their thighs bigger.' I said, 'No way, that will never happen to me. I'm Miss Chicken Legs.' But it has. I can see and feel the difference."

Linichuk and Karponossov, who won the Olympic dance title in 1980, have coached countless lovely ice dancers through the years, including Oksana Grishuk, Irina Lobacheva and Angelika Krylova. When Grishuk and Lobacheva made appearances backstage this week, Belbin was impressed.

"I said to Natalia, 'Your girls are so beautiful. They still carry themselves like such champions. When they walk into a room, everyone takes notice.' She just smiled and said, 'That is what I do.'"

New name, new country

After more than 10 years on the skating scene, Yuko Kawaguchi is now Yuko Kavaguti.

The Russian Skating Federation sent the ISU a formal spelling change in conjunction with the Tokyo-born skater's becoming a Russian citizen in February.

"I'm happy about this, because if I wasn't a citizen, I couldn't compete at the Olympics next year," said Kavaguti, who won the pairs bronze medal with partner Alexander Smirnov on Wednesday night.

The tiny Kavaguti is one of the most tenacious athletes in the sport. In 1998, the then 17-year-old's admiration of Elena Berezhnaya, who would later win Olympic gold with partner Anton Sikharulidze, inspired her to contact Berezhnaya's coach, Tamara Moskvina.

As Moskvina often tells it, "I got fax in English, saying, 'I am Japanese girl skater from Tokyo. I admire Elena Berezhnaya. I want to be in pairs. I want to take lessons from Elena Berezhnaya's teacher.'"

So Kavaguti left her home country, initially settling at Moskvina's training site in Hackensack, N.J., and partnering with Alexander Markuntsov, a pupil of Moskvina's husband, Igor Moskvin.

After the 2002 Olympics, Moskvina returned to her hometown of St. Petersburg. Kavaguti followed, eventually enrolling in St. Petersburg University and graduating with a degree in international relations.

Her partnership with Markuntsov ended in 2003, and after skating for a time with American Devin Patrick, she teamed with Smirnov in 2006. The couple trained under Nikolai Velikov for several months before turning to Moskvina.

"His personality is not difficult. It is easy to skate with him; he is always happy and makes me laugh with his jokes," Kavaguti said.

The decision to seek citizenship was not easy. Last year, when she was still considering the move, Kavaguti explained, "If I [become] a Russian citizen, it is possible to get back my Japanese citizenship, but only if I marry a Japanese citizen and live [in Japan] for 10 years.

"With a Russian passport, you have to get visas to visit many countries. If I went home, I would need a visa to see my mom. But I would like to go to the Olympics."

The results are in

Sixteen pairs have qualified for next year's Vancouver Olympic Games, with the following countries granted entries:
• Germany -- two
• China -- three
• Russia -- three
• Ukraine -- two
• Canada -- two
• United States -- two
• France -- one
• Great Britain -- one

It's a disappointing result for Skate Canada, which brought three pairs to this event and hoped to have the largest possible Olympic team in Vancouver. In order for a country to qualify three pairs, the top two placements could not equal more than 13.