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Castelli, Shnapir's non-split decision pays off

U.S. pairs champions found success after nearly parting ways

U.S. pairs champions Marissa Castelli and Simon Shnapir nearly split up last year.
U.S. pairs champions Marissa Castelli and Simon Shnapir nearly split up last year. (Getty Images)

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By Amy Rosewater, special to icenetwork.com
(03/07/2013) - Any frustrated U.S. pairs team thinking of calling it quits might reconsider after following the turnaround Marissa Castelli and Simon Shnapir have enjoyed this season.

Castelli and Shnapir, skating in their seventh season together, almost didn't continue through 2012-13. Yet, they stuck it out, and this week the duo from Boston will make its world championships debut in London, Ontario.

Who would've thought things would work out the way they have?

Probably the last people would have been Castelli and Shnapir and their coach, Bobby Martin.

"There were at least nine times, and maybe more, when one or the other was standing on a cliff, ready to jump," Martin said. "Really, Marissa and Simon's story is about perseverance, of 'Hey, I can stick this out and make things work.'"

Three years ago, Castelli and Shnapir made their senior-level debut at the 2010 U.S. Championships and placed 10th. In each of their next two trips to nationals, they finished fifth, and when they came back to Boston after the 2012 U.S. Championships, they were on the verge of splitting. They were fighting; they weren't happy, and their coaches weren't happy.

That February, Martin took his family on a 10-day vacation to Lake Tahoe, but before he left, he gave the couple an ultimatum: They had to skate, but they couldn't take lessons from any other coaches at the rink. And when Martin was to return, he needed to know if they were still going to skate together.

"Things were not going to continue like they were when I came back," Martin said.

Upon his return, Castelli and Shnapir decided that, yes, things were going to change, and that they wanted to remain with their coaches in Boston. (In addition to Martin, Castelli and Shnapir work with Carrie Wall and Sheryl Franks at the Skating Club of Boston.)

Castelli confirmed that the possibility of splitting was real.

"Yes, that was actually something we considered," she said. "We had a really difficult time at the end of last season, and we kind of hit our all-time low."

But with the 2014 Olympic Winter Games in Sochi, Russia, around the corner, and with so much history together, they decided to give skating one more shot together. From that point on, Castelli said they decided to "kick it up and train like we never have before."

"It's a completely new team, new relationship," Shnapir added.

One of the first things the skaters decided to do was go to Montreal to work with choreographer Julie Marcotte. She came up with ideas for both their short program and free skate, and they took her plans to heart. They use "Stray Cat Strut" and "Pink Panther" for their short and a tango for the free skate, and they haven't veered off Marcotte's course.

Their work and change in attitude have paid off.

They opened the season with a fifth-place showing at Skate America and followed up with their first international victory, at the 2012 Ice Challenge in Graz, Austria. Then they earned their first Grand Prix medal, a bronze, at the NHK Trophy.

When 2012 U.S. champions Caydee Denney and John Coughlin withdrew from the 2013 U.S. Championships (he suffered a hip injury), Castelli and Shnapir found themselves in the unusual and unexpected position as favorites for the title. After all, they had never been on the podium at nationals at the senior level, much less the team to beat for gold.

"To be considered favorites at nationals was amazing and something I never could've imagined," Castelli said.

Yet Castelli and Shnapir turned those sudden expectations into reality, earning the national title and a berth to the 2013 World Championships.

Martin, for one, has been pleased with the transformation. Not only are the skaters more enjoyable to work with, but their level of skating has improved. Martin's philosophy is to keep a team's average performance at a high level so he has an idea of how much to expect at a competition. In the past, there was so much tension that it was tough for anyone to gauge how they would perform.

That's changed for the better.

"I can stand now at the board and know what to expect," Martin said.

When asked about his expectations for the team at the world championships, Martin said, "I want to see a good, solid competition from the moment they step on that plane to the moment they come back to Boston. I also want them to enjoy themselves. They've earned this. They deserve this."

New to the international scene, Castelli and Shnapir still have a ways to go toward polishing their skating and making a name for themselves. They are an incredibly strong team, and they feature huge triple twists and big throws -- they have worked on throw triple Axels and throw quads, though they said they don't plan to attempt one in competition at worlds. But there is definite room for improvement with spins and overall artistry.

In the scheme of things, however, especially considering how far they have come from last year, those criticisms pale by comparison.

They are looking forward, not back.

"We've really committed to each other," Castelli said. "It's amazing what we can achieve together, and it hasn't stopped yet. And we have even bigger goals and dreams for the next year."