Castelli, Shnapir cook up masterpiece in pairs shortZhang, Bartholomay land second; Leng, LeDuc stun with third-place finish
After putting down a near-flawless performance in front of a partisan Boston crowd in the TD Garden at the 2014 Prudential U.S. Figure Skating Championships, Simon Shnapir walked toward a monitor and had to take a second look.
The short program score for his performance with longtime partner Marissa Castelli had already been announced -- all 73.13 points of it -- but he had to look once more to believe it.
"Wow," he marveled. "Look at the technical!"
It was as if the entire evening of skating was surreal. Entering these Championships, he and Castelli had wondered what it would be like to perform at this competition in an Olympic season in their training town of Boston. They experienced the gamut of emotions along the way, worrying at times that the pressure would be too great and then changing their perspective to think that maybe it could work to their advantage to skate with so many friends and family in the crowd.
But they didn't know how they would react until that moment they stepped out on the ice.
Their program, cleverly choreographed to Santana's "Black Magic Woman" and "Smooth," was both magical and smooth, and they rode the wave of support from the crowd all the way to the top of the standings. Their scores -- the highest in a pairs short program at a U.S. championships by a whopping 6.59 points -- put them in the top spot entering the free skate Saturday afternoon.
Two American pairs teams will be named by an international selection committee to compete in the Olympic Winter Games next month in Sochi, and Castelli and Shnapir, the reigning U.S. champions, hope to make the decision even easier for the committee by defending their crown. Although the national champion does not earn an automatic spot on the Olympic team, it certainly wouldn't hurt a team's campaign.
Making the evening all the more special for Castelli and Shnapir was the fact that they were skating in their training home. The two have practiced together for eight years at the Skating Club of Boston, located less than five miles away from the TD Garden. They each said they had several family and friends in the stands. Some of the fans cheering them on were students of theirs from the rink.
"Props to this crowd," Shnapir said. "It was more than we could have asked for. Unbelievable.
"It's kind of humbling, actually, to know how many people were cheering us on."
They couldn't provide specific numbers as to how many family were in the crowd Thursday night but expect even more to be in the TD Garden for the free skate. But the ones who did come to watch the short program made their presence known.
"I got a lot of text messages saying, 'Oh I'm sitting in this row,'" Castelli said.
And Castelli and Shnapir did everything to make the hometown fans happy. They appeared ready to go from the moment their music began to play, nailing an opening triple twist. After they landed their side-by-side triple Salchows, Shnapir flashed a grin that reached the Celtics and Bruins championship banners in the rafters.
"We just said, 'Let's go out there and do it,'" Castelli said.
The pair hopes to make more history in the free skate, with the goal of becoming the first pair to land a throw quad Salchow at this event.
"They have been extremely consistent in practices," said their coach, Bobby Martin. "About four or five weeks ago, they really turned the corner."
Sitting in second place with 66.50 points is the team of Felicia Zhang and Nathan Bartholomay, who have trained together nearly three years and finished third in the U.S. last year. Skating to "Carousel Waltz" by Rodgers and Hammerstein, the duo performed a strong short program, featuring a throw triple Lutz.
Zhang and Batholomay are coached by the team that guided both U.S. pairs teams to Vancouver for the Winter Games in 2010, Jim Peterson and Lyndon Johnston. Also on their coaching staff is Amanda Evora, who competed in Vancouver with partner Mark Ladwig.
Zhang and Bartholomay admitted they came into this week "quietly coming in under the radar," but they hope their performances here will put them in the spotlight.
In third place is another team that flew into Boston under the radar: DeeDee Leng and Timothy LeDuc, who finished ninth a year ago. They were solid this year and were credited with 66.40 points for their routine to Peter Gabriel's "The Feeling Begins."
"We turned to each other during our bow and said, 'Wow, that was probably the most fun we've had competing together," LeDuc said.
In an odd twist, the teams that came in with a lot of the spotlight will be the ones with the most to prove on Saturday.
Caydee Denney, the one pairs skater with Olympic experience in the field -- having competed with former partner Jeremy Barrett in Vancouver -- is now hoping to regroup in the free skate for a shot at skating in Sochi. Skating to Giacomo Puccini's classic, Tosca, Denney and Coughlin made costly mistakes and sit in fourth place. Their program featured a strong triple twist, but she doubled the triple toe on their side-by-side jumps and put her hand down on the landing of a throw triple flip to score 65.40 points.
Denney and Coughlin did not compete last year in Omaha, Neb., because he was recovering from a hip injury, but they had a relatively strong international campaign this fall, finishing fourth at Skate America and taking a bronze medal at the Trophée Eric Bompard in Paris.
"We were both probably a little bit over-excited today," Coughlin said. "I think everybody knows we'll be out there come Saturday."
Alexa Scimeca and Chris Knierim train along with Denney and Coughlin with the same coach, Dalilah Sappenfield, in Colorado Springs, Colo., and also struggled in the short program. Scimeca and Knierim won the silver medal at the 2013 U.S. Championships and earned a spot on the world team, finishing ninth in London, Ontario, and have been expected to contend for the title this year.
Skating to "Papa, Can You Hear Me," the theme song from the movie, Yentl, Scimeca and Knierim opened their program with a huge triple twist and a big throw triple flip. But they followed that up with side-by-side falls on their triple Salchows and ended their program several seconds after their music ended, costing them crucial points. They finished with 64.68 points and enter the free skate in fifth place.
"It's disappointing to go out there and do a little worse than what you know you can do," Scimeca said.
One of the other disappointing showings came from Haven Denney (Caydee's younger sister) and Brandon Frazier. The world junior champions struggled with a fall on the triple Salchow to place eighth.
But one reason for optimism for the teams that placed lower than they hoped to is the fact that the standings in American pairs competitions have the habit of changing as quickly as a Kardashian husband.
"Last year, we had a disappointing short as well," Scimeca said, "And we were able to pull up."