Ice Network

To Russia with Love: Shnapir, Edmunds go home

Skaters with Russian ties descend on Sochi to compete for Team USA
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Simon Shnapir and Polina Edmunds have Russian roots, but they are extremely proud to represent the United States in Sochi. -Getty Images

Simon Shnapir will be competing in the Olympic Winter Games in his home country, but one he barely remembers.

"I'm not really sure what to expect or what I'm going to feel until I'm going to be there," said Shnapir, who was born in Moscow back in 1987. "I know the connection is there, but my earliest childhood memories are from the States."

He was just a toddler when his parents decided to leave Russia and immigrate to the United States. They are both chemical engineers, and as Shnapir explained, they simply wanted to seek a better life.

"It was a great choice," said Shnapir, who is 26 and calls Boston home.

He made the return visit to Russia to compete in pairs skating in Sochi, and although his roots are Russian, he only will have a handful of relatives come watch him compete there. He might have been born in Russia, but there is no doubt that his allegiance is 100-percent American.

"I am so proud to be representing the U.S.," Shnapir said.

Shnapir grew up like most American kids in the Boston suburbs and cheered on the local teams, especially the NHL's Boston Bruins. He picked up figure skating when he was 6 and was paired up with Marissa Castelli in 2006.

Their partnership hasn't always been smooth sailing, and the two readily admit to having regular quarrels and near breakups. But the two did something decidedly more Russian in tradition than American: They stayed together. And it's their longevity that has helped set them apart and put them on the top of the U.S. standings.

Castelli and Shnapir won their first U.S. title in 2013 and defended it last month in their home city of Boston.

"They can't break us apart now," Shnapir said shortly after winning their second U.S. crown. 

The couple trains at the nearby Skating Club of Boston, and there was such a home-crowd feeling for Castelli and Shnapir at the U.S. championships that they said they could recognize friends and family in the TD Garden, which is normally used to host Bruins and Boston Celtics games. After their free skate, Shnapir bent down and kissed the ice.

He had achieved his goal of making the Olympic team after performing in his adopted hometown of Boston.

Now he is going to compete in his home away from home, in Russia. First up is the team competition, which begins Feb. 6, a day before the Opening Ceremony. Castelli and Shnapir helped Team USA earn a gold medal at the World Team Trophy, a similarly styled team event as the one which will make its debut in Sochi, back in April in Tokyo.

As much as he is looking forward to the team event, he is also excited about using his Russian language skills. In past events, he has been able to chat a bit with Russian world pairs champion Maxim Trankov, who -- along with Tatiana Volosozhar -- is considered a heavy favorite to win the pairs gold medal in Sochi.

Castelli and Shnapir have traveled all over the world for skating, as far away as Japan and France, but the Olympic Winter Games in Sochi will mark the couple's first competition in Russia.

Having Shnapir around with his Russian skills will, no doubt, help Castelli. She laughed when asked about her ability to speak Russian, saying Shnapir has tried to teach her a bit.

"I'm not very good at foreign languages," she said.

Shnapir isn't the only member of the Team USA figure skating contingent in Sochi who can converse in Russian. Polina Edmunds, who took the ladies competition by surprise in Boston and won the silver medal, was born in Santa Clara, Calif., but her mother, Nina (who doubles as one of her coaches), is from Russia.

Nina and her family are from the city of Tver, a Russian city about 100 miles northwest of Moscow.

"I started skating when I was 6 years old," Nina said. "My dad was a hockey player who played college hockey, and I started skating and just loved to skate."

She rose through the ranks in Russia and landed some triple jumps, but was not in contention for a spot on the Olympic team. Nina met her now husband, businessman John Edmunds, when he was visiting Russia in the mid 1990s while on a sabbatical with an organization called Global Volunteers. The two became pen pals, and he made a return visit a year later. He learned enough Russian to ask Nina's father for permission to marry her.

She said 'Yes,' and the two now live in California and have three children: two boys who play hockey and Polina, who first started wearing figure skates when she was 20 months old.

In addition to Nina, Polina is coached by David Glynn. Her choreographer is Marina Klimova, who won Olympic gold, silver and bronze medals in ice dancing with partner Sergei Ponomarenko. Kimova represented the Soviet Union in 1984 and 1988 and the Unified Team in 1992.

Polina, just 15, clearly has a lot of Russian influences in her life but has only made a couple of trips to Russia before making this one to Sochi. And she remembers almost nothing about her mother's home country since she was about 2 for one of those trips and younger than 2 for the other.

But Russian culture and language is prevalent in her home, not only from her mom, but also from her grandmother, who makes extended trips to the Edmunds' abode. Nina Edmunds uses Skype to communicate with relatives back home.

"I fully understand what they're saying," Polina Edmunds said. "Then I respond in English."

Edmunds was not sure how many relatives would be making the journey to see her compete in Russia, although she did expect some of her mom's relatives to come. Back in September, Edmunds' uncle took an 18-hour train ride from Tver to watch her compete in a Junior Grand Prix event in Belarus.

"I do know they're all really excited to watch me on TV," Edmunds said.

For Polina and Nina, getting the opportunity to share an Olympic dream in Sochi is double the excitement. The two have had their sights set on Polina competing in Russia ever since Sochi was announced as the host city for the Winter Games.

Now, they are back in Mother Russia for the biggest skating competition of them all.