Natives gain huge lead as U.S. pairs skating opens in Boston

Thursday, January 9, 2014 | 10:05 p.m. CST

BOSTON — Marissa Castelli and Simon Shnapir found out the U.S. championships in an Olympic year would be held in their hometown of Boston and thought, "Oh, no."

All that pressure, all those hopes from the friends and family who would watch them try to qualify for the Sochi Games.

But when they took the ice Thursday for the pairs short program, the two New Englanders soared on that support. The defending champs staked themselves to a huge lead of 6.63 points.

"We do little exhibitions at our home club, Skating Club of Boston, and those are some of the most nerve-racking performances for us," Shnapir said. "There's almost this feeling of expectation that we have to do well. It's definitely challenging. But as soon as we hit our spot, as soon as we heard our names called, we felt that energy."

Castelli's jaw dropped when their mark of 73.13 points was announced.

"I was in shock at first; I was not expecting that," she said. "I like to try to calculate it in my head. I would have been happy with 66 or 67, so it was just insane."

The crowd was screaming for them from the moment they took the ice to warm up for their performance, the last of the afternoon.

The roars swelled as they skated to "Black Magic Woman" and "Smooth" by Carlos Santana. Their speed on the ice and the height of their jumps were on another level from the rest of the competition, and when Castelli smoothly landed a big throw triple salchow, Shnapir might have thought from the reaction that his beloved Bruins had just scored a goal at TD Garden.

"Props to the crowd — that was more than we could have asked for," Shnapir said. "The energy in the house was enormous and it really helped us.."

The real competition during Saturday's free skate could be for the United States' second Olympic spot. Felicia Zhang and Nathan Bartholomay lead third-place DeeDee Leng and Timothy LeDuc by 0.1 points.

Castelli and Shnapir held an even bigger lead after last year's short program, up nine points on Zhang and Bartholomay. But this was a far more impressive performance than the one that earned them 62.27 points in 2013.

Their personal best coming in was 62.56, and they finished 13th at the world championships, as American pairs have struggled to keep up at major international events.

The 23-year-old Castelli and 26-year-old Shnapir began skating together in April 2006, a longevity that is unusual among current American pairs. They competed at nationals before the Vancouver Games but knew they weren't contenders to go to the Olympics and finished 10th. They were fifth in 2011 and '12 before last year's breakthrough.

Zhang and Bartholomay wound up finishing third at the 2013 U.S. championships, missing a spot at worlds.

"We're very quietly coming in under the radar a little bit," Bartholomay said. "But it's a good feeling to know that if you put down a good program you're going to get rewarded."

Many of Castelli's relatives in Rhode Island will see her compete for the first time Saturday, and they could watch her clinch an Olympic berth.

"It's such a special and intimate moment between Simon and I, having everyone who watched us grow up, some people who've watched us for eight years stay together, through success and failures, and we just really want to make this special," she said.

"We love that it's in Boston now."

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