When they heard that Boston was going to be the final stop on the road to Olympus, Marissa Castelli and Simon Shnapir felt their stomachs do a triple twist. “We were pretty nervous,” she confessed. “We looked at each other and said, oh, no!”
There is nothing better than skating in front of friends and family and there is nothing worse. Even the Friday night exhibitions at the Skating Club of Boston are nerve-racking for them. So how would Castelli and Shnapir feel taking the ice at TD Garden to defend their US pairs title with a trip to Sochi on the line? Would they levitate to the rafters? Or would they go kersplat?
“We came up to the challenge and we rose to the occasion,” Castelli declared Thursday evening after she and Shnapir nailed their short program to take a lead of more than half a dozen points (73.13-66.50) over Felicia Zhang and Nathan Bartholomay into Saturday’s free skate.
The moment they took the ice as the final pair, Castelli, who comes from Cranston, R.I., and Shnapir, who lives in Sudbury, were buoyed by a rush of hometown exuberance that built with every jump and spin and throw of their Santana program. “The home crowd helped them a ton,” said their coach, Bobby Martin. “They had awesome energy and they relaxed and they did what they had to do.”
What his pupils needed to do was put out the performance they knew they had in them and send a message to their rivals that there’d be more of the same on Saturday. American pairs skating has been an unstable mix for years, with five champions in as many seasons and none of them global medal contenders.
There were two Olympic spots available and almost any combination seemed feasible. “We’ve been thinking anything can happen,” said Zhang, who was third with Bartholomay last year, just missing the world team. Who knew how former champs John Coughlin and Caydee Denney, who missed last year’s championships in the wake of his hip surgery, would perform? Would Alexa Scimeca and Chris Knierim, last year’s runners-up, have another strong week? How would Rockne Brubaker, who’d won two titles with Keauna McLaughlin and a silver medal with Mary Beth Marley, perform with new partner Lindsay Davis?
But the biggest question revolved around Castelli and Shnapir, skating’s version of “The Honeymooners,” who’ve been off and on (including a trial separation) ever since they connected in 2006. “Simon and I have had our ups and downs,” she conceded. “We fight. Everyone knows that. But at the end of the day we come together.” Martin had been sensing it all week. “The Skating Club has been buzzing,” he said. “They had people there every day. It helped them. They absolutely feed off it.”
By the time their moment came, the stage had been set. Davis had fallen on their opening triple Salchows and she and Brubaker ended up 10th. Denney touched down on her throw triple flip. Both Scimeca and Knierim tumbled on their triple sals. And DeeDee Leng and Timothy LeDuc, ninth last year, submitted a sprightly effort that put them third by a point ahead of Denney and Coughlin. “We turned to each other and said, wow, that’s the most fun we’ve ever had competing so far,” LeDuc said.
Castelli and Shnapir, who’d be the first champions to repeat since McLaughlin and Brubaker in 2009, let the exuberance that greeted their appearance carry them to a euphoric performance that hit all the marks — their triple twist, their triple Sals, and a huge throw triple Sal that was a precursor to the throw quadruple Sal that they’ll do in the free skate, a jump that’s never been landed at nationals. “Let’s make a little history,” mused Martin.
If not here and now, where and when? “We rode this wave great,” proclaimed Shnapir. “And we’re ready to keep riding it through Saturday.”