LONDON, Ontario — They were the most combustible couple since Dick and Liz, both Leos born on the same August date.
“I’m a very fiery, energetic person,” says Marissa Castelli. “When I know I want something, I go right after it.”
“I’m very passionate,” says Simon Shnapir. “I can be very stubborn. I think we both can, to be honest.”
Their personalities made for a mercurial combination both on and off the ice.
“There were probably seven, eight, nine times when they were standing on the edge of the cliff, ready to jump,” reckons their coach, Bobby Martin.
So the 22-year-old Castelli and the 25-year-old Shnapir decided to take a trial separation last year after finishing fifth at the US Figure Skating Championships for the second year in a row.
“What we’d been doing wasn’t working because we weren’t getting any better,” she says, “and we weren’t moving up.”
Either they could get back together and get on the same page or they could split for good. After a frank talk with Martin and a few deep breaths, Castelli and Shnapir decided to give it an all-in go for this season and ended up claiming the US title, the first pair from the Skating Club of Boston to manage that in more than half a century.
“There’s been a lot of work, been a lot of volatility around it,” observes Martin, whose pupils will compete against the Germans, Russians, and Chinese Wednesday at the World Figure Skating Championships here. “But seven years later, here we are.”
In a day when pairs skating has come to resemble sequined speed-dating, Castelli and Shnapir’s productive persistence is testimony to the advantages of staying together for better or worse.
“It’s been survival of the fittest,” says Martin. “Whoever’s left standing, in some ways.”
Tai Babilonia and Randy Gardner, the last Americans to win the world pairs crown in 1979, claimed five consecutive domestic titles. Castelli and Shnapir are the fifth champions in as many years. Besides clubmates Gretchen Donlan and Andrew Speroff, they were the only two among last year’s top five finishers who were back at the January event in Omaha.
Caydee Denney and John Coughlin, the reigning champs, abdicated after Coughlin had hip surgery in December. Mary Ann Marley and Amanda Evora already had stepped away from the sport. If there ever was a year for a fifth-place pair to vault to the top of the podium, this was it.
“The door was open for Marissa and Simon but they walked through it,” says Martin. “They still had to show up and do what they needed to do.”
They did it despite a syncopated spin on their side-by-side flying camels midway through the long program that left him standing and her spinning.
“I said, oh crap,” Shnapir recalls. “Probably other words, too. That’s not something we practice. We don’t train that. That doesn’t really happen. It was a complete fluke.”
Wisely, they treated it like one. Castelli and Shnapir had a 9-point cushion after the short program and only needed a clean finish to take the title. So they landed their double axel-double toe combination jumps, performed their throw triple salchow and a couple of lifts, and beat Alexa Scimela and Christopher Knierim by nearly 8 points.
“That said so much about them,” says Martin. “Here’s another reason why seven years means something.”
Moment of truth
They were a most unlikely item when they joined up in 2006. Shnapir was a transplanted Muscovite who came here as a toddler and went to Lincoln-Sudbury High School. Castelli, whose mother teaches skating, was a lacrosse player for Cranston West in Rhode Island.
To train together, she had to make the commute up I-95 to the Allston rink for evening sessions, doing her homework in the car.
But their potential was obvious. Castelli and Shnapir went from ninth in the novice Nationals to third in the junior Worlds in two seasons and found themselves on the senior Grand Prix circuit the year after that.
By last season, they realistically could start thinking about the Olympics — until they fell apart in the long program at the nationals in San Jose and reached a competitive crossroads.
“It was clear that what they were doing was not going to be able to continue,” said Martin. “Period.”
Feel free to pick up the phone and call around, their coach told them as he was heading West for vacation. When he returned, they would talk. But as of then, they were coachless.
“It definitely shook them up,” Martin said. “I made them stew. When we sat down, they said, ‘We’ve decided we absolutely want to skate together, we want to skate in Boston, and we want to skate with you.’
“I said, ‘That’s great, but I’ve got a choice, too. I will happily work with you. I want to do whatever’s going to be best for you, but you need to do X, Y, and Z. If you don’t, then this is not going to happen.’ ”
What resulted was more dedication, more run-throughs in practice and five-hour drives to Montreal to consult with new choreographer Julie Marcotte, who works with Canadian champions Meghan Duhamel and Eric Radford. And more candid communication with each other.
“We had to give and take a lot,” says Castelli.
“And we still do,” says Shnapir, who is taking time off from his studies at Emerson as is Castelli from the Community College of Rhode Island. “We still continue to work on it and improve on it because it’s never perfect.
“No relationship like that is, but I think we did a lot that offseason to buckle down and say, this is it.”
Picking up steam
The Grand Prix season was encouraging — fifth place at Skate America in October and third at the NHK Trophy in Japan in November. When Denney and Coughlin withdrew from Nationals, Castelli and Shnapir found themselves touted as favorites.
“We never had a medal before,” she says. “So we said, well, we can do what everyone has predicted or we can completely go the other way.”
Victory provided both elation and validation.
“We’d never put together the actual full package before,” says Castelli. “We can do the jumps, we can do the throws, we can do the twists, we can do the lifts, we can do everything. We just hadn’t packaged it correctly. ‘’
“Everyone knew we had it, we just hadn’t put it all together yet.”
The question this week is whether she and Shnapir, who collected bronze at last month’s Four Continents Championships in Osaka, can do it for the first time on the full global stage, where the US is sending two rookie pairs to the world event for the first time in a pre-Olympic year, with entry quotas for Sochi on the line.
“We’ll give them the same message that we always have,” says Martin.
“A rink’s a rink, your program’s your program. You perform it and let everyone else decide where they want to put you and how they want to do it. Just do your job.”
Castelli and Shnapir already have done something no other Skating Club duo has accomplished since Maribel Y. Owen and Dudley Richards in 1961.
Those are the last names on the banner listing the club’s national pairs titlists, and there’s no room below for the new ones.
“I think they’re going to have to get an extension,” says Shnapir. “Or maybe we’ll get our own banner.”