The Inside Edge: Pairs bids and Boston bits

Castelli, Shnapir stay composed as U.S. championships loom; Aiken makes on-ice proposal

Hopeful 2013 U.S. pairs challengers Marissa Castelli and Simon Shnapir in Boston.
Hopeful 2013 U.S. pairs challengers Marissa Castelli and Simon Shnapir in Boston. (Sarah S. Brannen)


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By Sarah S. Brannen and Drew Meekins, special to
(12/18/2012) - When the news about John Coughlin's hip surgery was announced earlier this month, meaning that he and Caydee Denney won't be able to defend their U.S. title, Marissa Castelli and Simon Shnapir were thrust into a new position heading into the battle to win the title in Omaha next month.

"It's definitely different," Castelli said on a quiet morning at the Skating Club of Boston last week. "It's a little more stressful, but we're just going to do what we've been doing. Every day, we're going to take it one step at a time. Nothing has to change."

"Actually, to be honest; no, I don't feel any pressure," Shnapir said in his basso profundo voice. "It's unfortunate to hear about John, and we wish him a speedy recovery, of course. One thing that we've really committed to this season is approaching every competition like it's just another competition. We have to continue to look at it that way.

"Some competitions are obviously going to be bigger than others, but we just do what we do every day in practice, train hard, and then we go out and showcase what we have."

Although Castelli and Shnapir have been working on a throw triple Axel for some time, and a throw quad Salchow since the spring, they are aiming for consistency and, thus, will include a throw double Axel and triple Salchow in their programs in Omaha.

"This is our plan: We're going to focus on what we do well and keep on skating well," Castelli said. "Triple Axel is risky -- well, it's not a risky element for us -- I know that I can land it -- but if we have one mistake in the program, it might bring down the rest of the program."

"This season we've put out many more clean run-throughs in practice than we have in the past," Shnapir said. "That's been a big stepping stone for us, a big improvement, and that's really shown when we've competed."

"If we make it to worlds, we're definitely going to try it (triple Axel or quad Sal)," Castelli said. "We do it when we have extra time. We don't focus our training around it. We're really working on the whole program, not just one individual element anywhere. Now we're working on the flow in and out of each element and making it a seamless program."

And with that, Castelli and Shnapir went off to warm up. On the next session, they skated a perfectly clean short program.

Boston tidbits and a Button cameo

Stephen Carriere, stretching by the boards, applauded Castelli and Shnapir's clean short vigorously, although almost soundlessly.

"I can't make noise with these gloves on!" he said, reaching over to pound on the boards.

Carriere had just been teaching Harrison Choate a lively Astaire-like program on the floor; the two were to perform in a show in Cambridge, Mass., on Dec. 15 and Choate must have missed the choreography session.

On the ice, former U.S. championships competitor Jason Wong was diligently trying a string of triple Axels, rotating them but not quite landing them. Wong has been doing far more coaching than skating lately.

"I haven't tried a triple Axel in weeks!" he said.

"I'm coaching him," Ross Miner joked.

In the next session, Miner got on the clean ice and did patch for a few minutes, tracing a couple of different compulsory figures.

"I'm not very good at it," he said. "I do five or 10 minutes every now and then."

After the session, Miner chatted about the NHK Trophy and the upcoming U.S. championships.

"The flight back from Sendai was the bumpiest flight I've ever been on," he said. "My mother was a flight attendant for 13 years, and she was sitting behind me going 'Oh God, oh God, oh God.' And I'm like, this is not helping right now!"

Going into Omaha as the two-time U.S. bronze medalist, as well as the Four Continents and NHK bronze medalist, we asked Miner if he's thinking about the possibility of upgrading to a medal of a different color.

"My mantra is, 'Get off the ice happy,'" Miner said, "But I'm really confident in my ability to do the stuff that I'm working on. We've made a lot of changes to the program since NHK. Just choreographic, adding transitions.

"It's the time of year where I'm very comfortable with my long program and I feel like I can get through it without any hassle, so I can add a lot of stuff to it. I'm really excited to go to Omaha."

Miner took one day off after he came back from NHK, and he plans to take one more day off between now and the championships: Dec. 25.

"I won't skate on Christmas Day but I'm sure I'll be here Christmas Eve," he said. "I'm going to skate on New Year's Day, and I'm doing the "First Night" show at the Frog Pond on New Year's Eve. Everyone wants to skate on Christmas Eve, right? That's what people dream about!"

We left off talking about serious stuff and moved on to reality TV.

A presence materialized behind us: the one and only Dick Button. Miner asked if he was going to skate, and he cracked up.

"Oh yes," Button said. "I'm going to get out there and do some spins. And twizzles. I hate twizzles! No, I don't hate them; I hate that you're forced to do them."

Button had just seen a performance by a Chinese ballet and acrobatic company, and he told us all about it.

"They were doing Swan Lake," he said. "One woman extended her leg behind her and flapped it like a wing; it was spectacular. And there were people on pointe standing on people's heads."

And with that, Button shimmered away.

Kween of Washington

According to a Dec. 6 article in the Washington Post, Michelle Kwan has taken a job as a senior adviser for public diplomacy and public affairs at the U.S. State Department.

Kwan, who recently got a degree from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, also mentioned that she and fiancé Clay Pell are planning a Rhode Island wedding sometime next year.

On-ice proposal

2011 U.S. junior bronze medalist Alexander Aiken got engaged to Michelle Pennington on Dec. 15 during the Christmas show at the Jacksonville Ice and Sportsplex in Florida, where both skaters teach. Pennington competed at the U.S. championships three times as a novice and junior ice dancer; she was the 2006 novice pewter medalist with Brad Coulter. Aiken told us that the couple may wed next summer or fall.

During the show, Aiken skated in a group number to Bruno Mars' "Marry You," at the end of which he dropped to one knee and presented Pennington with a ring. Check us out on Twitter for a link to a video of the proposal.

"I convinced all the little ones to be at the rink at 6 a.m. for rehearsals before my fiancée came into work," Aiken said. "Somehow, they all managed to keep the secret for a month and never complained. I couldn't have done it without them. They all did great, and it couldn't have been a more perfect day!"

Aiken moved to Jacksonville last spring to train with Evy and Mary Scotvold. He finished fifth at the recent Eastern Sectional Championships. He is currently coaching and planning to continue his education.

"I'm not sure what I want to major in yet, but it will mostly be something that will help my coaching career," he said. "At the moment, I've sort of stepped back from the competitive side of skating to focus on other things, but there's always a chance I'll be back."

Another doctor on ice

Former pairs skater David Leenen, who finished ninth at the novice level at the 2010 U.S. Championships with partner Morgan Sowa, has been accepted to medical school. He is still waiting to hear from a few more schools before he makes a decision. Congratulations!

Happy Holidays,
Sarah and Drew