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Castelli, Shnapir are true survivors on the ice

Junior skaters are sole U.S. pair to qualify for either Final

Marissa Castelli and Simon Shnapir started strong at the Liberty Open in August and rode all the way to the Junior Grand Prix Final in South Korea.
Marissa Castelli and Simon Shnapir started strong at the Liberty Open in August and rode all the way to the Junior Grand Prix Final in South Korea. (Sarah S. Brannen)

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By Lynn Rutherford, special to icenetwork.com
(12/06/2008) - You might call Marissa Castelli and Simon Shnapir the sole survivors of the sometimes unforgiving Grand Prix circuit, just like the theme music they've used to set themselves apart this season.

The Boston-based duo is the only U.S. pair to qualify outright for the Grand Prix Final in either the junior or senior category. In Korea next week, they're scheduled to face off against five up-and-coming Russian duos, along with teams from China and Japan.

"Our short program is Survivor, because I really wanted to go with something fun and different this year," said the bubbly 18-year-old Castelli, who's proud to call herself "100 percent Italian."

"I picked out this music and told our coaches, 'It's from the TV show, and I really like it, and we just have to use it.' That show actually has something like 14 albums out, all drum music. So Sheryl [Franks] did a jungle-type of program for us, and I think it's working because it's helping us stand out. It's fun; it's my favorite program."

The 21-year-old Shnapir, a student at Emerson (Mass.) College who was born in Moscow but moved to the U.S. with his family as a young child, doesn't watch the long-running reality show but nevertheless agreed.

"I think we've had a lot of success with the program -- a lot of positive response from judges -- and I think its working well for us," he said.

The couple, who are coached by Franks, Bobby Martin and Carrie Wall, freely admit their tickets to Korea came partly due to a little bit of luck.

"One of the Russian teams pulled out of their second event, and that helped us make the cut-off," Shnapir said. "Still, this year has been quite a surprise. We were hoping just to get two Junior Grand Prix events.

"At the Czech Republic JGP, we placed fourth with a decent short and a few technical mistakes in our long. Going into our second [event] in Great Britain, we were around eighth or ninth in the standings, and then we skated well and got another fourth place, so we made the Final. We can always do better, but fourth is pretty good, especially when you consider that some of these other teams are actually also doing senior Grand Prix events."

Castelli is thrilled to be making the trip, especially since the senior and junior events will be held together for the first time.

"I'm so excited to go see the German team [world champions Aliona Savchenko and Robin Szolkowy] and the other top pair teams," she said. "I'm excited to compete, too, but I'm not really that nervous because [we've] already [qualified] at the bottom, and we can only go up, not down."

"I feel exactly the same way. We already made it this far; we can only move up," Shnapir added.

Franks thinks the young couple is being a bit too modest.

"This team has a bright future; they just have to keep it going," said the coach and choreographer, who placed seventh at the 1980 Olympics with pair partner Michael Botticelli.

"Marissa is extremely creative, one of the best [students] in all my years of coaching. To do her best, she has to feel the music. I said, 'You like Survivor? I'll give it to you.' Simon stands up like a good guy and presents her well, and she goes to town."

It was Wall, another of the coaches, who first suggested the skaters team up. The petite Castelli, then pursuing a singles career, wasn't sure she wanted to try pairs with the 6'4" Shnapir.

"I didn't want to skate with him at first," she admitted. "The first time I was asked, I said no. I wanted to do singles. But then, after a while, I decided I would give it another try. I had a few tryouts, and we decided to skate together."

"Yeah, at first she didn't want to try out," Shnapir remembered. "I was like, 'What did I do? Do I smell bad?' But then we tried it, and things went well, and here we are."

The couple began training in earnest in June 2006. They placed ninth in novice pairs at the 2007 State Farm U.S. Figure Skating Championships and made their international debut that fall with a 10th-place finish at the JGP Estonia. In January 2008, they won the U.S. novice pairs bronze medal.

Working with Martin, Franks and Wall, the duo trained alone at first, but two novice pairs and an intermediate pair have joined the school, adding inspiration to their practice sessions. The three advanced teams qualified for the U.S. Championships, with intermediates BriAnna-Marie Habeeb and Timothy Habeeb scheduled to compete at the 2009 U.S. Junior Figure Skating Championships next week.

"The other pairs are getting more competitive, and practices are more fun. Skating together helps us a bit, and it definitely helps them," Shnapir said.

Franks believes the coaching trio is only just coming into its own.

"Bobby is wonderful; he knows the numbers in the new judging system," she said. "Carrie loves to travel, and she loves going to the competitions. Me, after all of those years competing and touring, I like to stay home and do the choreography.

"So we're a good team. What might take a long time to develop has only taken us a few years. Sometimes it's hard to get coaches on the same page."

Franks, Martin and Wall have many of their pair sessions at the rink attached to the Fessenden School, a private day and boarding school for boys once attended by Senators Ted Kennedy and John Kerry. Her husband is the rink's manager. Castelli and Shnapir will perfect their programs there, and at the Colonial Figure Skating Club and Skating Club of Boston, in the weeks before the 2009 U.S. Figure Skating Championships in Cleveland in January.

"This year we started doing a triple twist in the free. Our first triple twist was at the Liberty Summer Competition, and we've been doing it ever since," Shnapir said. "We're trying to make it better and better."

"We're also working on our levels; we added another level to our star lift," Castelli added. "We're trying to get all of the points we should get."

Both admitted they have their eyes squarely set on the U.S. junior pairs title.

"We're hoping [to win]; it would be great," Shnapir said. "We're also looking at junior worlds. Competing there and doing well would be the ultimate."

"This will be our only chance to do junior worlds [before we age out], and I really want to experience it," Castelli added. "Hopefully, maybe one day, we can compete at [senior] worlds, but right now we have to get through nationals first."