Ice Network

Shnapir cites health concerns in decision to retire

Two-time U.S. champion calls competing in Sochi 'crowning achievement'
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Citing recurring back pain as a major factor in his decision to end his competitive career, Simon Shnapir hopes to get involved in other areas of figure skating. -Getty Images

Simon Shnapir always knew in the back of his mind that his competitive figure skating career couldn't, and wouldn't, last forever.

Although Shnapir hoped his career would last a little longer, having trained and competed with Dee Dee Leng last season, he announced Tuesday that he is ready to transition to the next stage of his career.

It is quite understandable. Shnapir has achieved quite a bit. He won two U.S. pairs titles and competed in the 2014 Olympic Winter Games in Sochi, where he was part of the U.S. group that claimed a bronze medal in the team competition. Although there was the potential for more success, injuries felled both Shnapir and Leng. Shnapir has experienced some back injuries of late, and Leng recently suffered a concussion after falling in practice on a throw triple flip.

With the Olympics three years down the road and their health at the forefront of their minds, the duo decided to end their partnership, and Shnapir is sending his career into a new direction.

Shnapir, who has coached even while he was training for the last five years at the Skating Club of Boston, said right now his main focus is to concentrate on building a career in full-time coaching.

"I'll be honest; even before the [Olympic] Games in Sochi, I was already thinking about my future," Shnapir said. "But until recently, it's just been really different. I hate to use this word, but I think DeeDee and I were just supremely unlucky. There are times when you are successful, and it takes hard work, dedication and all of those things, but it also takes a little luck."

Shnapir has certainly experienced his share of good and bad luck in this sport. A scrappy, tireless skater, Shnapir proved that his passion for the sport would help him prevail on the ice.

Longtime coach Bobby Martin learned early on that Shnapir could never be counted out. Shnapir spent nearly eight years with partner Marissa Castelli, and although there were times when it appeared they would split, they managed to stick together long enough to win two U.S. titles and earn a berth to the 2014 Olympic Winter Games in Sochi.

Shnapir not only enjoyed the fact that he won a U.S. title in his hometown of Boston, but he also relished the rare feat of competing in the Olympic Games in the birth country -- in this case, Russia. He was born in Moscow and immigrated to the United States when he was a toddler. At the Olympicn Winter Games, he not only had relatives from Boston travel to support him but relatives from various parts of Russia as well.

"To me, family is most important," Shnapir said. "My parents sacrificed everything just to move to the U.S.

"Honestly, they wanted the 'American dream' for our whole family as so many did during that time. I think they accomplished that and much more. I know my mom and dad were experiencing the Games vicariously through me, and I want to say that they enjoyed the entire experience as much as I did, if not more. This 20-plus year journey of mine has been a roller coaster ride for them, and sometimes it's easy to overlook the emotional involvement from their perspective.

"As I struggled, they did too. As I triumphed, they shared in that moment. Either way, their support for me and their love has never wavered. And I am forever grateful for them and their love."

Shnapir admitted it took a while to comprehend all that surrounded the two-month time period at the start of 2014.

One moment that stands out in particular was a drive to practice at the Skating Club of Boston, not long before the U.S. championships, when he found himself traveling behind a commuter bus that featured a poster of himself and Castelli.

"It's kind of hard to come up with a word for that moment, but I think it started to make things personal and special for me," Shnapir said.

Then there was competing at the TD Garden in Boston, where Shnapir had been a spectator in the stands many times before while watching his beloved Bruins.

"It really felt like home," Shnapir said of competing there. "There were so many fans there coming and supporting us.

"I remember after they introduced us in the short program in Boston, the announcer said, 'Representing the Skating Club of Boston, right here in Boston, Massachusetts,' and I usually don't notice those things when I'm competing, but I think I smiled inside when I heard that.

"It works differently for different people, but I always found skating in front of a hometown crowd can be very nerve-racking. It's almost as if the fans feel like they are expecting things from you. I remember Friday night exhibitions could be nerve-racking. I remember Marissa and I were nervous, but we wanted to put on a show. I loved that electricity and energy."

Although it was pretty clear he and Castelli were headed to the Olympics after their free skate clinched the U.S. pairs title, they had to wait until the next day for the official U.S. Olympic Team to be announced. Like the rest of the U.S. team members, Shnapir received a text message confirming his spot on the team moments before the news conference announcement.

"I still have that text on my old phone," Shnapir said. "I'm probably never going to delete that."

The moment he received the text was intense, and Shnapir said the skaters were instructed not to make much noise.

"I think I had to go somewhere by myself and just hide," Shnapir said. "It's kind of like a baseball player yelling into his glove. We all had to be quiet but we were all borderline freaking out."

The Olympics, of course, were what Shnapir referred to as "the most crowning achievement" of his career. Being there with his parents, his grandmother, aunt and other relatives made the trip all the more special.

And to return to Boston with a bronze medal was all the more sweet.

"I remember being with Jason Brown, and he's crying and then looking over on the podium and seeing Meryl [Davis] and Charlie [White] and to think we took home a bronze medal for the team," Shnapir said. "It was almost an out-of-body experience."

Not long after that run at the U.S. championships, a ninth-place showing at the Olympics and an 11th-place finish at the world championships, Castelli and Shnapir split. Castelli went on to skate with Mervin Tran. Shnapir sought a partner and paired up with Leng.

But Shnapir and Leng hit several road bumps early on. She injured her hip, then he suffered some back problems. Then came Leng's concussion. Leng and her mother left Boston this past weekend and headed to her hometown of Chicago.

"These injuries were just not one-to-two weekers," Shnapir said. "There were times when I could not even sit, let alone stand, because of the pain. It's just too bad. Every time we'd take a step forward, we'd step back. The hard part is that we had a great tryout and we got along really, really well. I genuinely like her as a person. Injuries just worked against us.

"It's not that we're not willing to take the risk to keep going. It's about being smart. I'd like to still have the use of my body. And with the concussion and DeeDee, there are just serious health risks."

Although Shnapir vowed that his decision to retire is final, he added that it doesn't make the choice any easier. He is excited to start a new chapter, but said he will no doubt miss a lot about being a competitor.

Oddly enough, one thing he said he will miss most are those pre-skating jitters.

"I'm definitely going to miss that," said Shnapir, who began skating when he was 6. "It sounds a little strange, but getting nervous and excited for a competition can be a gratifying feeling. It's very empowering.

"Being nervous isn't a bad thing," he added. "It's about being able to harness those nerves, to embrace your nerves and use them to your advantage. Eternally, forever, we're show people. We're performers. You get worried because you want to present yourself well."

Martin, who spent roughly 15 years coaching Shnapir, said the most difficult part about Shnapir ending his career now is that the potential for his and Leng's partnership will not be fully realized.

"I personally would've liked to have seen where this could have been," said Martin, who coached Shnapir along with Carrie Wall at the Skating Club of Boston.

"I've learned so, so much from my relationship with Simon," Martin added. "You just never know what anyone is capable of doing. Simon, with his Marge Simpson hair…he wasn't anyone who I would've said, 'He's going to be an Olympian one day.' But he kept showing up, and he kept doing his thing. He had great feet on the ice and was always stable.

"When he was losing it when he was about 15, and I tried to kick him out of the rink. He'd show up the next morning and skate like a madman to show me that he needed to be there. It has to be innate, and with Simon, it was innate. As coaches, we can inspire, but it has to come from inside. We help them stay on track."

For now, Shnapir is open to pretty much anything involved with skating. Although he is primarily focused on coaching, he has looked into becoming a technical specialist and is interested in broadcasting as well. He is not currently involved with local leadership for the 2016 World Championships, which will take place in Boston on March 28-April 3, but said he wouldn't mind helping with that effort.

"I want to give back to a sport that has given me so much," Shnapir said. "I'm excited to give back in other ways."