Road to Omaha: Door open for Castelli, Shnapir

'Mock' U.S. championships ease the way; Back to basics for Donlan, Speroff

A win at Ice Challenge and a bronze medal at the NHK Trophy have Marissa Castelli and Simon Shnapir flying high this season.
A win at Ice Challenge and a bronze medal at the NHK Trophy have Marissa Castelli and Simon Shnapir flying high this season. (Getty Images)


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By Lynn Rutherford, special to
(01/15/2013) - When Marissa Castelli and Simon Shnapir hit the ice in Omaha for the 2013 U.S. Figure Skating Championships next week, they may get a mild case of déjà vu.

A few weeks ago, their coach, Bobby Martin, held his annual 'mock' U.S. championships. This year, it was more elaborate than ever. Judges included Taffy Holliday, who sat on the pairs panel at the 2010 Olympic Winter Games. Jacki Crugnola, a national technical specialist, dissected the elements. Announcer Wendy Sheridan introduced the skaters from a prepared script.

"Of course, it's impossible to simulate nationals, but we treat it like a legitimate competition," said Martin, who coaches Castelli and Shnapir at the Skating Club of Boston. "It gets more intricate every year. Wendy announced the senior pairs event at nationals last season, so when the kids heard her voice, they thought, 'Oh, my God, we've heard this before.' I even used the 'crowd noise' app on my phone, so everyone could hear fans."

The extra preparation will come in handy in Omaha, where Castelli and Shnapir, fifth in the U.S. each of the last two seasons, will be in the spotlight like never before.

With reigning U.S. champions Caydee Denney and John Coughlin sidelined by Coughlin's hip injury, the duo -- which won a bronze medal at the NHK Trophy in November -- is favored to win the title.

"[Denney and Coughlin's absence] doesn't really change the competition; there is always something going on around us," Shnapir, 25, said on a teleconference with reporters last week. "We're staying [focused] on going out in Omaha and doing the programs we do at home. For us, it doesn't feel like any added pressure."

That's exactly the kind of mindset Martin wants.

"More attention will be paid to them, but they are prepared for that," Martin said. "They're not competing against anybody; they are focusing on themselves and doing the best performances they can do."

Martin's mock U.S. championships is one of the final steps of a carefully constructed plan designed to lift Castelli and Shnapir from the ranks of the "just misses" to a top spot. The duo, paired in 2006, won U.S. junior and world junior bronze medals in 2009 but has yet to capture a U.S. senior medal.

Determined to climb up to the podium this season, the skaters -- whom Castelli has admitted are sometimes known as "The Fighters" in their rink -- re-committed themselves to the sport, and each other, this summer.

"We looked at each other and said, 'We're going to push for the Olympics. We're going to do everything we can. We're going to be that solid team,'" Castelli, 22, said.

"Our commitment to each other has really been the No. 1 thing, as well as our communication," Shnapir said. "We've found success with that."

The pair also adopted a more sophisticated look this season, traveling to Montreal to choreograph their programs with Julie Marcotte, sister of pairs coach Bruno Marcotte. Julie also created programs for world pairs bronze medalists Narumi Takahashi and Mervin Tran, and Canadian pairs champions Meagan Duhamel and Eric Radford. (Takahashi and Tran have since ended their partnership.)

In prior seasons, the skaters had turned to Martin and his coaching colleagues, Carrie Wall and Sheryl Franks, for choreography.

"It's a natural progression, part of their development they were ready for," Martin said. "Bruno and I have been good friends for years, and we talked about it. I went up there to meet with Bruno and Julie, and it's a good fit. Julie has just worked magic. She did a wonderful job putting the two programs together."

This fall, the routines -- a short to "Stray Cat Strut" and free skate to tango music -- helped lift the pair to higher program components scores and their first-ever Grand Prix medal.

"After NHK, we headed back up to Montreal and worked with Julie again," Castelli said. "We haven't changed anything; we just worked on the overall programs. We felt this year we had a really good setup with our elements, and we just had to work on our confidence and drive for nationals."

The past few seasons, the team has attempted the throw triple Axel, a maneuver only two-time U.S. pairs champions Rena Inoue and John Baldwin have landed cleanly in international competition. Although they have also worked to perfect the throw quadruple Salchow, it's likely neither element will appear in competition in Omaha. Instead, the pair will stick with throw double Axel and throw triple Salchow, the elements they executed in their Grand Prix events.

"We spent a lot of time working on the throw Axel and quad, and we kind of weighed our options," Shnapir said. "We just decided, if we put out strong, clean programs without them, we can still score well.

"I think our new programs and the commitment we made together to really stick to the original concept -- working on our skating skills and in-between elements and transitions and whatnot -- has helped us improve our score internationally. You can see the biggest jump for us has been our second mark. If we were to make the world team, it's definitely something we would like to try in the programs, putting in the harder throws."

Castelli admitted she would love to try the quad in competition, but the decision is up to "the big boss": Martin. And for now, the coach is focused on showing his pair's consistency in Omaha.

"The biggest thing this year is their maturation and growth in every aspect of their skating," he said. "Clearly, they want to build the performance side. One throw isn't going to win a competition. We hope to use [the throw triple Axel or throw quad] as a 'secret weapon' down the road."

Back to basics for Donlan, Speroff

Martin, Wall and Franks also coach Gretchen Donlan and Andrew Speroff, who captured the pewter medal at the 2012 U.S. Championships but had disappointing outings in the fall, including a sixth-place finish at Skate America.

They, too, competed in the mock event, and Martin said they are hitting their stride just in time for the U.S. championships.

"Right now, they are ramping up," he said. "It helps that Gretchen (a Boston University freshman) has a break in school. We've tweaked some small stuff to stress their line and elegance, which is their biggest strength. I think we sort of got away from that, and by upping the ante with transitions, maybe out-tricked ourselves a bit."

The coaches re-worked the pair's short program music, the "Nocturne" from the Lady Caliph soundtrack, including a small change Martin thinks will pay dividends.

"We didn't have a pause before the footwork sequence; it all just flowed," he said. "Now, we've added [a pause], and it's amazing how their timing and unison has improved."

Baga, Toth join in the Boston fun

Kiri Baga and Taylor Toth, who train in Chicago under Jeremy Allen, also competed in Martin's mock U.S. championships, as did Boston junior pair Alexandria Shaughnessy and James Morgan, and several younger pairs.

"We went to Boston for a week with Bobby and Carrie before sectionals, just to train with other pair teams," Toth said. "It's great to take advantage of [the mock event], because we don't have too much experience competing together."

A newcomer to the pairs scene, Baga teamed with Toth last March. She is also competing in senior ladies in Omaha, where she hopes to improve on her 10th-place finish from a year ago.

"Same day, too, for the shorts and longs," she said, referring to this year's schedule. "I train like that, so I should be able to handle it, and I'm in good shape, so I'm excited to go.

"It's been fun learning all of the new moves. It can be scary and exhausting, but I love both and that's why I'm doing both."