As Marissa Castelli practiced landing her jumps at the Skating Club of Boston, her partner Simon Shnapir watched from a small set of bleachers and recalled the first time the reigning national pairs champions skated together.
It was a tryout in 2006, the figure skating version of an awkward first date. Castelli was a 5-footer with an impressively athletic physique from time spent cheerleading, running track, playing lacrosse, and doing gymnastics. Shnapir was nearly his full height of 6 feet 4 inches, capable of lifting and throwing partners with ease.
On the ice, they presented some intriguing possibilities. But matching skaters is “not anything magical,” said Shnapir. It’s not based on personality. As the pair’s coach Bobby Martin noted, “We weren’t administering a Myers-Briggs test or anything and trying to see if they were emotionally compatible or not.”
Martin and another coach watched from rinkside perches, trying to determine whether the teenagers would have nice lines and work well together physically. Even though Castelli now acknowledges to “freaking out inside a little bit” with each overhead lift Shnapir attempted, it was clear their vast size difference could be a distinct advantage, putting a whole new repertoire of high-flying elements in play.
“I knew that there was an opportunity to really chuck her, to really throw her up there,” said Shnapir, who grew up in Sudbury. “That was cool for me because every pair guy wants to feel strong and confident and be able to toss his partner up there.”
Castelli and Shnapir did reach impressive new heights, rising quickly through the US developmental ranks. But when they stumbled at the senior level at the 2012 US Championships, a Myers-Briggs personality test didn’t seem like a bad idea.
Disappointed with placing fifth for a second year in a row, the pair nearly disintegrated. In many ways, it was a long time coming for two skaters whose compatibility on the ice contrasted with their clashing personalities off it.
The relationship suffered because of Castelli’s and Shnapir’s admitted stubbornness and poor communication. Shnapir, 26, describes himself and Castelli, 23, as “fiery Leos” (they were both born on Aug. 20).
And so, they acted out. They didn’t show empathy when one struggled. They were disrespectful to each other and Martin. Sometimes that meant not showing up on time for workouts or following through with strength and conditioning workouts. They clashed about music and choreography.
Castelli, who grew up in Cranston, R.I., found it hard to talk to Shnapir, especially about her feelings because, she said, “what I was feeling was insecurity about things.”
One issue led to another, and in the wake of the fifth-place finish at the 2012 nationals, it became a vicious downward spiral. But it was a near-breakup that pushed Castelli and Shnapir to the key turning point in their career.
“They had a hard time coming to grips with what was going to be needed to take that last little step,’’ said Martin. “There was a lot of soul searching, looking in the mirror.
“It was really hard to do that. It really forced them to evaluate themselves and figure out how to get beyond that and take some ownership of some of that stuff. It was a sense of maturity that they needed to get to.
“The most frustrating part was that when their heads were on straight, when they worked and skated together, they could do amazing things. You’d think, ‘Guys, just get out of your own way and this will all go great.’ ”
The soul-searching started when Martin went on vacation in February 2012. Before he left, Martin told them, “I’m going to get some space and evaluate what I’m doing with you guys.”
Castelli and Shnapir spent five days apart, then started talking about what they wanted to do. They knew it wasn’t time to give up. The stubbornness that often pushed them apart helped keep them together.
“We’re both passionate about what we do,” said Shnapir. “We just had to find a common path to achieving our goals because our goals were the same.”
“We had to hit the bottom to come back up,” said Castelli. “Our general work habits of coming in and working and making sure the commitment was to each other and not against each other, that was one of our main things.
“For a while, it was always a competition because we didn’t get along. Now, we try to make it more of a team event.”
Castelli and Shnapir also discussed in detail how they were going to improve communication and decided to focus on short-term goals. Then they started working with Montreal-based choreographer Julie Marcotte.
Shnapir described the move to Marcotte as “a blind leap of faith for me and Marissa.” Taking that leap together helped Castelli and Shnapir bond and stopped their bickering about routines. The changes in attitude and approach propelled the pair to their first national championship in 2013.
Yet they remain a work in progress.
“Marissa and Simon’s relationship is still evolving,” said Martin. “They’re much more tolerant of each other. As much as they know what button to push, they’re also starting to figure out how to get the most out of each other, too.
“They’re flipping around some of the things that were on the negative side and starting to learn how to use it on the positive side.”