OMAHA — After their side-by-side spin went awry, Simon Shnapir stood bewildered at mid-ice for what seemed like an eternity, waiting for the split second when he could get back in sync with his still-whirling partner, Marissa Castelli.
It wasn’t the sort of glitch that only an expert judge would notice; it was a gaffe any toddler could tell was a big-time boo-boo.
But after building a commanding lead in their short program earlier in the week, Castelli and Shnapir had enough of a cushion to win their first pairs gold at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships on Saturday despite a free skate that was riddled with hiccups. Their score: 180.61.
“This has been forever for us,” said Castelli, 21, who had finished fifth in the competition, along with Shnapir, the past two years.
The United States hasn’t won an Olympic medal in pairs skating since 1988. And the 2014 Sochi Games aren’t likely to snap that quarter-century drought.
The country’s strongest team, 2012 national champions Caydee Denney and John Coughlin, is ranked ninth in the world and currently sidelined as Coughlin recovers from surgery in December on his left hip. Castelli and Schnapir are ranked 19th.
Russia, meantime, accounts for three of world’s four top-ranked pairs.
The U.S. medal prospects at Sochi are far brighter in ice dancing, which in recent years has caught the fancy of many more young American skaters, whether inspired by 2006 Olympic silver medalists Tanith Belbin and Ben Agosto or TV’s wildly popular dueling dance-related reality shows.
Saturday, 2010 Olympic silver medalists Meryl Davis and Charlie White affirmed their status as front-runners for gold in Sochi with a sterling free skate that crushed all comers. With it, they won their fifth national title with a total score of 197.44, putting more than 21 points between themselves and silver medalists Madison Chock and Evan Bates (175.91). Siblings Maia and Alex Shibutani took bronze (174.21).
Commentating for IceNetwork.com, Belbin immediately proclaimed Davis and White the best dance pair in the world.
But pairs has long been — and sadly remains — a tougher sell for gifted young skaters in the United States.
First, it demands much of the jumping ability of singles skating and adds elements of danger — overhead lifts, death spirals and throws, among them. The road to mastering such skills is often marred by head injuries and lacerations. That’s because when the men aren’t hoisting or hurling their female partners, the two are skating in perilously close proximity. When synchronized perfectly, their skate blades never touch. But when something goes awry, gashes are common.
Second, U.S. partnerships rarely last long enough to jell, much less blossom. In several other countries, the sport’s governing body essentially demands that promising pairs stay together.
In that regard, Castelli and Shnapir are an anomaly.
Natives of Cranston, R.I., and Sudbury, Mass., respectively, they were first paired as novice skaters when she was 15 and he was 18. To be competing six years later, when both have had the freedom to bail at any point, reflects a triumph akin to a 25th wedding anniversary.
It hasn’t been without its challenges, as both attested Saturday.
“Simon and I have very good patience with each other,” Castelli said. “Most of the time, we didn’t like each other before. It was very apparent. But we finally, I think, matured as people, and we grew up together. We looked at each other at the beginning of last season and decided that this is what we want to be. We really worked together, and now we finally get along.”
The truce came only after a split of about a month, in which they skated separately and reflected on whether they’d rather branch out on their own.
Said Shnapir, a native of Russia who’s studying film at Emerson College in Boston: “Marissa and I definitely butt heads. Or we did butt heads in the past. We’ve had so many ups and downs. At the beginning of this season we finally sat down and agreed we had to move forward, put the past in the past, and just look at the future.”
As 2013 U.S. pairs champions, Castelli and Schnapir have won the privilege of competing at the upcoming world championships in London, Ontario, in March. The second U.S. pairs team is unsettled, given Coughlin’s uncertain timetable for recovering from surgery.
If the top-ranked Coughlin and Denney aren’t ready to compete at worlds, the spot would likely go to 2013 U.S. silver medalists Alexa Scimeca and Christopher Knierim. They scored Saturday’s highest marks for their free skate, but it wasn’t enough to overtake Castelli and Schnapir, and they finished with 172.75 points.
Felicia Zhang and Nathan Bartholomay, paired since May 2011, took bronze (172.02).
Note: Alexandria’s Ashley Wagner, 21, a West Potomac High graduate, was expected to take the ice at 10:36 p.m. Eastern time Saturday in the women’s free skate. The defending U.S. champion led after Thursday’s short program.