It appeared as if Team USA was on the right track in terms of pairs teams at the 2012 U.S. National Figure Skating Championships in San Jose, Calif., last January. Caydee Denney and John Coughlin captured the title with inspiring performances after teaming up just one month before the competition.
Silver medalists Mary Beth Marley and Rockne Brubaker were starting to live up to all the hype surrounding their partnership, and made their first World Team. Bronze medalists and Olympians Amanda Evora and Mark Ladwig were a strong number three, providing the depth that U.S. pairs has not seen in quite some time.
But then came the off-season when Evora announced her retirement from skating. A few months later, Marley and Brubaker announced the end of their partnership. And just last month, it was announce that Coughlin had undergone hip surgery, forcing Denney and Coughlin to pull out of the 2013 U.S. Championships in Omaha, Neb.
With the top three teams gone, the door has opened wide for Marissa Castelli, 22, and Simon Shnapir, 25. Fifth in San Jose a year ago, the duo heads into nationals this month as favorites to win the championship pairs title.
“We’re trying not to focus or get caught up with what’s going on around us,” Castelli explained. “We have a job to do, and can only worry about ourselves.”
The label of favorites might have come by default, however, Castelli and Shnapir have made improvements to their skating that would have put them in the same room for discussion as reigning champions Denney and Coughlin.
In early November, the Boston-trained duo won the first international competition of their careers (Ice Challenge in Graz, Austria), and followed it up with a bronze medal at the Grand Prix’s NHK Trophy in Sendai just mere weeks later.
“Ice Challenge was a great experience for us,” Castelli said. “It gave us a chance to experience being on top at an international competition. Going in to NHK, we knew that we had a chance of doing well, and we were thrilled at the opportunity to gain experience on the international scene. We got two personal bests and really felt great skating our programs in Japan.”
Shnapir agreed with his partner’s assessment.
“Winning a Grand Prix medal was really amazing,” he said. “Though we felt like we could have skated better, we were so happy with the result, and we feel like our hard work is starting to pay off.”
The drastic improvements to the duo’s skating might be attributed to their fifth place finish in San Jose. Third after the short program, Castelli and Shnapir expressed disappointment with their free skate.
“After nationals, we were left with a dissatisfied feeling, and we don’t want to feel like that again,” Castelli said. “We have learned a great lesson from this past year, and we’re ready to show what we have (in Omaha). This year we have also learned that we can compete with the top teams, and we are so excited to continue to push the envelope and put out great performances.”
To get to this point was not easy, though, as the duo put in a lot of work in the off-season, and made some changes along the way to compliment the hard work.
“Individually, I have really worked on the consistency of my jumps,” Shnapir admitted. “As a team, I think that we have improved dramatically in the way we communicate with each other and how we work together. Our commitment to giving 100 per cent every day for the team—and for these new programs, has really made all of the difference.”
The new programs, a short program to Stray Cat Strut and Pink Panther, and a freeskate to Julian Plaza’s Payadora were crafted by Canadian Julie Marcotte.
“Having seen (Marcotte’s) work in the past with teams like (Narumi) Takahashi and (Mervin) Tran and (Meagan) Duhamel and (Eric) Radford, we really felt like she could give us an edge to our skating and choreograph programs with complexity and many more transitions,” Castelli explained. “She really wanted us to keep the programs as original as possible and not make many changes when we got back home. We learned that by committing to the choreography of the new programs, it helped improve our commitment to each other.”
Castelli and Shnapir have retained the leadership of Bobby Martin and Carrie Wall, who will be responsible for guiding them through the minefield of the US Championships.
“(Martin) is our head coach. He is definitely the technical guy, as well as the one who does most of the planning and scheduling,” Shnapir explained. “He works closely with (Wall) who is also very technical. For the in-betweens, polishing of movements, and steps, we work with Mark Mitchell who also coaches at our club. Peter Johansson works with us on throws.”
Castelli and Shnapir are in the middle of their seventh season of competing together, making them the longest paired team that will compete in Omaha.
“Simon and I have become so comfortable with each other on the ice, and we really enjoy skating together,” Castelli said. “We have been to a lot of competitions together, and the experience has only made us stronger.”
Shnapir added, “I believe that longevity is one of the most important keys to success in pairs skating. For us, just having the experience of competing together for so many years helps us more than anything else.”
The duo also has another distinction among the field in Omaha—the biggest height differential between partners. Castelli measures in at five feet, while Shnapir towers over her at six feet-four inches. For some elements, the height difference is an advantage, but both skaters believe that it is also a disadvantage when it comes to spins.
“Lifts and throws are fairly easy,” Shnapir said, “but it’s the pairs spins and side by side spins, that can be a little more difficult. I’m definitely not as flexible as Marissa, so certain positions are difficult to match.”
Castelli added, “I would say that the most difficult thing is pairs spins because Simon sometimes lifts me up off the ice when he comes to an upright position.”
Originally from Cranston, R.I., Castelli is a student at the Community College of Rhode Island, and is planning for a career as a personal trainer or physical therapist after her skating career ends.
“For now, I am taking classes that interest me like psychology and history,” she said.
Outside of her own skating, Castelli coaches some younger students, and takes pilates classes with men’s skater Ross Miner. The college student also enjoys reading, watching movies, and walking around Boston.
“The city is full of history,” she said. “You always learn something new.”
Russian-born, Boston-raised Shnapir is also a student—at Emerson College, where he is majoring in marketing. Like Castelli, he also coaches in his spare time, and enjoys outdoor activities.
“It’s tough to enjoy the outdoors here in the northeast in the winter, but during the warmer months, I enjoy cycling a lot.”
Now with Omaha just around the corner, Castelli and Shnapir are staying focused on their goals.
“We are just looking to stay consistent and keep the energy alive in our programs,” Castelli said. “We have gotten great feedback, and are really looking forward to performing our programs again at nationals. Our ultimate goal is to win in Omaha with two clean skates, and continue on to the Four Continents Championships and the World Championships.”