Castelli, Shnapir hope for home-ice advantageBoston pair attempts to defend U.S. title, secure Olympic berth
Simon Shnapir vividly remembers being a spectator the last time Boston played host to the U.S. Figure Skating Championships, in 2001. It was the first time he had seen live skating at the championship level, and he said, "It completely changed my perspective."
Shanpir was 13 when he sat in the stands at that year's event. Even though at that point he had been skating for about seven years, he still was awed by the power and speed of high-caliber skating. The U.S. pairs champions back in 2001 were Kyoko Ina and John Zimmerman, and their win in Boston marked their second consecutive national title.
This week, Shnapir has a shot at winning his second U.S. pairs title, with longtime partner Marissa Castelli, at the 2014 Prudential U.S. Figure Skating Championships. He and Castelli train with coach Bobby Martin at the Skating Club of Boston, which is just about five miles away from the TD Garden -- the place where they will try to defend their national championship and compete for a spot on the 2014 U.S. Olympic team. Castelli and Shnapir begin their quest with the short program Thursday at 4:15 p.m., followed by the free skate Saturday.
Castelli, a native of nearby Providence, R.I., who has now lived and trained in Boston for years, admitted she was "very nervous" at first about the idea of competing in her adopted hometown. Now she is looking at the experience with a different perspective, calling it "the best advantage we could have."
"Lately, I've been looking at it as such a blessing," she said. "To have everyone I love and everyone that has watched me grow come cheer me on and to watch me … It's going to be so much more motivational and so much energy between Simon and I and the fans, so we're extremely thrilled to have (nationals) in Boston."
Two American teams will earn spots on the team that will compete in Sochi next month. In addition to Castelli and Shnapir, the other top teams vying for a chance to represent Team USA are Caydee Denney and John Coughlin, the 2012 U.S. pairs champions, and Alexa Scimeca and Chris Knierim, who were runners-up in 2013. Both Denney and Coughlin, and Scimeca and Knierim train in Colorado Springs with coach Dalilah Sappenfield.
Of the three top contenders, Castelli and Shnapir have been together the longest, having begun their career together in April 2006. Denney and Coughlin teamed up in May 2011. Denney had previously skated with Jeremy Barrett and together they competed at the last winter Olympics, in Vancouver. Meanwhile, Scimeca and Knierim have come the farthest in the shortest amount of time, having paired up in 2012.
Although it has not always been easy for Castelli and Shnapir -- they have been prone to fighting and have threatened to break up -- they have learned how important it has been for them to stick together.
"We hit rock bottom two years ago," Castelli said. "We thought we were going to place (at nationals), and we didn't. We could either give up at that point or push ahead. We learned the hard way, and we are glad we have stuck it out."
Castelli and Shnapir placed a disappointing fifth in 2012 but came back with a U.S. title in 2013.
Pairs skating in the United States has treaded a rocky road the last few years. The last U.S. team to defend its national title was Keauna McLaughlin and Rockne Brubaker in 2008 and 2009. They were believed to be on track to go to Vancouver in 2010, but they didn't make the U.S. podium. Since then, Denney has won two national titles but with two different partners, as has Coughlin.
"We tell the younger skaters even in our own rink to hang in there," Shnapir said. "You look at the pairs teams that have been successful and you see the years they have been together. I mean, (China's) Xue Shen and Hongbo Zhao, they were together for nearly two decades."
Shen and Zhao capped off their long career with an Olympic gold medal in 2010.
Castelli and Shnapir hope to separate themselves from the pack with a throw quadruple Salchow. Although they have yet to land it cleanly in competition, Castelli said recently that it has been going well in practices.
Denney, meanwhile, is the only skater in the pairs event with Olympic experience, and Coughlin said he has leaned on his partner this season for advice as they try to qualify for Sochi as a duo. Denney and Coughlin's biggest obstacle was overcoming a hip injury that Coughlin suffered a year ago. He underwent surgery Dec. 4, 2012, which forced the team to miss the 2013 U.S. Championships.
Scimeca and Knierim had a breakthrough season last year and were the top-placing American team at the world championships (in ninth), but this season they have struggled with injuries, as he suffered a broken ankle and was off the ice for about a month.
"It's sore a lot," Knierim said but added that there is "nothing I can't do."
Scimeca and Knierim planned on putting triple toes in their program, but the injury has forced them to scale back a bit and do double Axels instead.
In addition, there are several other teams to watch this week in Boston. Among the other contenders are Haven Denney (Caydee's younger sister) and her partner, Brandon Frazier; Felicia Zhang and Nathan Bartholomay; and Lindsay Davis and Rockne Brubaker.
Denney and Frazier are the 2013 world junior champions and train with Zimmerman and his wife, Silvia Fontana, an Italian champion and Olympian. Denney and Frazier made their Grand Prix debut last fall at Skate Canada and finished fifth. They also placed fifth at the NHK Trophy.
The Denney sisters are looking forward to seeing each other in Boston. Haven trains in Florida, and Caydee is in Colorado.
"She's my No. 1 supporter and fan," Haven said of her older sister, Caydee. "Skating brings our relationships even closer as sisters and friends."
Zhang and Bartholomay have an interesting coaching group, as they are guided by Jim Peterson, Lyndon Johnston and Amanda Evora. Peterson and Johnston coached both U.S. pairs teams in Vancouver in 2010. One of those teams was Denney and Barrett; the other was Amanda Evora and Mark Ladwig. Now Evora is part of the coaching team.
"I just hope I can bring my experience to some Olympic hopefuls," Evora said.