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Pairs free-for-all: Castelli, Shnapir bring home gold

Zhang, Bartholomay edge Denney, Coughlin for high-stakes silver
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Champions. Two-time champions. Marissa Castelli and Simon Shnapir shot through their 'James Bond' free skate to the tune of 132.58 points, a total which was good for third in the segment and gave the team its second U.S. title in a row. -Jay Adeff

The on-ice portion of the pairs event at the 2014 Prudential U.S. Figure Skating Championships ended late Saturday afternoon, but the competition is far from over.

Marissa Castelli and Simon Shnapir defended their title in their hometown and on the ice where Shnapir's beloved Boston Bruins call home and, in doing so, seemingly cemented their spot on the U.S. Olympic team in Sochi.

They won't know for certain, however, if they can book their flights to Russia until Sunday at noon, when U.S. Figure Skating officials announce the nominees for the Winter Games, since no teams -- not even the champions from this event -- have any guarantees. The decision comes down to an international selection committee, and it will have its hands full determining which two teams will compete in the Olympics.

The real discussion will come down to whether the United States wants to send the team that won the silver medal here -- Felicia Zhang and Nathan Bartholomay -- or the third-place finishers in Caydee Denney and John Coughlin.

"We have no idea about that," said Coughlin, who won the U.S. title with Denney in 2012 but couldn't compete at the U.S. championships a year ago with a hip injury. "A year ago, I had a machine bicycling my leg for me and I was sitting here rooting as hard as I could for everyone on the team, as was Caydee, because when the U.S. does well, it bodes well for all of us."

"I'm not going to be complaining any time soon," Coughlin added.

Arguments can be made for both teams to go to Sochi. The biggest reason to send Zhang and Bartholomay is that they beat Denney and Coughlin at these U.S. championships, even though it was by a scant 0.29 points, and they did so as the only team in the event to perform clean short and free programs.

Their coach, Jim Peterson, was so elated with their performance to Les Misérables that afterward he picked up coaching partner Amanda Evora and twirled her in the air, perhaps in hopes of adding another lift to the team's routine.

"It's completely out of our control," Peterson said. "What a coach wants most is to have his skaters skate to their potential, and I'm going to sleep very well tonight knowing they did just that, and they made a strong case to be Olympians."

Peterson knows what it takes to coach Olympic pairs teams since he and Lyndon Johnston guided both U.S. teams to Vancouver four years ago. One of those teams featured none other than Caydee Denney (with then partner Jeremy Barrett); the other was Evora and Mark Ladwig.

"I definitely have to say, being on this side of the boards is more nerve-racking during the competition," Evora said.

Zhang and Bartholomay finished third at the U.S. championships in 2013. In the last year internationally, they placed fourth at Four Continents and sixth and seventh in their two Grand Prix events.

The case for Denney and Coughlin is that they won the free skate portion of the competition here in Boston, besting Zhang and Bartholomay by 0.81 points and Castelli and Shnapir by 3.45 points. They also placed third and fourth in their two Grand Prix events. No other U.S. pairs team earned a podium finish at a Grand Prix this season.

Even though they won the free skate, there were some big gaffes, most notably Coughlin performing three single toe loops instead of planned doubles.

"After the short program, we stood there together and decided that no matter the outcome, that we wanted to be present in every moment of the program," Coughlin said, adding, "I remember every moment of it, including my consecutive single toe loops at Olympic trials. We wanted to let the crowd in and get everybody excited for us."

Coughlin and Denney were so excited by their Phantom of the Opera free skate that they were both pumping their fists in the kiss and cry, but that was just the start of their emotional roller-coaster ride. Just a few minutes later, Zhang and Bartholomay skated, and within moments, Denney and Coughlin saw they were standing in third place and their Olympic dreams were placed on hold. 

It would seem almost impossible for the selection committee not to send Castelli and Shnapir, especially since they defended their U.S. title and were able to do so under the intense spotlight of competing in their training town.

Even though, as Shnapir admitted, they "left a lot of points on the table," falling on their throw quadruple Salchow -- the most difficult throw attempted by any team in the field -- and popping a planned triple, they still amassed 205.71 points, the highest total for a pairs team at a U.S. championships.

Shnapir, who was born in Moscow and still has several relatives in Russia, likely will return to his homeland next month. He has said that he has been brushing up on his Russian lately.

Leading up to these U.S. championships, however, Shnapir said he didn't want to think too far in the future. But he can pretty much rest assured that the Russian language brush-up will come in handy.

NOT FOR THE FAINT OF HEART: This competition has had its share of emotional stress. After the pairs short program, Bartholomay's mother, Ann, fainted and had to be taken to a local hospital for treatment. It was the result of an apparent blood-pressure problem, and she was able to watch her son compete in the free skate.

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