What U.S. Pairs Skating Needs to Climb Back on Top

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Marissa Castelli and Simon Shnapir skate in the pairs free skate during the Prudential U.S. Figure Skating Championships at TD Garden on Jan. 11, 2014 in Boston.

Hometown favorites defend national title, but will it be enough to earn a medal at the Olympics?

Marissa Castelli and Simon Shnapir easily reclaimed their title as U.S. national pairs champions, but for nearly three decades, U.S. teams have failed to break onto the podium at the Olympic Games. Since the Vancouver Games, U.S. pairs teams have placed anywhere from sixth to thirteenth at the world championships.

Sochi will be the fifth Games in a row in which the U.S. only qualified two pairs teams; nations can send a maximum of three couples if their combined placements  (i.e. fourth, sixth) at the previous world championships total less than 13.

What’s keeping the American pairs from climbing into the top positions? “America has to do a better job of keeping our pairs teams together,” says Peter Oppegard, now a pairs coach and one half of the last U.S. pairs team to earn an Olympic medal, a bronze, in 1988. “An awful lot of switching goes on.”

That instability may be fueled by the fact that in the U.S., pairs teams are often thrown together using singles skaters who feel they aren’t making progress, and turn to pairs as a last resort. “When you keep changing partners — ‘I think I’ll do better with someone else’ — or the grass is always greener, it won’t work,” says Ken Shelley, an Olympian in pairs with JoJo Starbuck in 1972.

The most successful pairs teams in the world today have skated together for years — Germans Aliona Savchenko and Robin Szolkowy, the reigning Olympic bronze medalists and four-time world champions have been skating together for a decade, and many of the powerhouse Russian and Chinese pairs have been married — and that consistency is important to their success. It fuels a sense of unity and solidarity that translates onto the ice. The biggest weaknesses of the U.S. teams, in international judges’ eyes? “The word unison comes up, and skating skills,” says Bobby Martin, who coaches Castelli and Shnapir.

It’s not that the coaches aren’t doing their jobs, or that the skaters aren’t talented. It’s more that pairs skating is often the graveyard of skating rather than its shining jewel. To change that, skaters — and their parents — would have to start valuing pairs skating in a different way. “Every time a little girl walks in the door, she wants to be Michelle Kwan,” says Johns.

They will also have to start young. “All the good teams have mileage,” says Johnny Johns, a pairs coach at the Arctic Figure Skating Club in Canton, Michigan.

Changing that will require more than passionate pairs coaches and some eager students here and there. In gymnastics, U.S.A. Gymnastics took the unprecedented — and controversial at the time — step of creating a hybrid training system in the early 2000s in which athletes train with individual coaches but also come together once a month for a national camp to benefit from another set of experts who also ensured that the pipeline of talent remained full of up-and-comers. “I think it would be nice to do a pairs skating program, to have a couple of coaches head that, and be focused on it,” says Randy Gardner, an Olympian in pairs skating with partner Tai Babilonia.

It’s one of the ideas that the U.S. Figure Skating Association (USFSA) is considering to improve the pairs programs. The organization has created a committee of about 10 coaches and officials to come up with a plan for elevating U.S. pairs skating in the international community. For two years, says Patricia St. Peter, president of USFSA, pairs teams have come together in Colorado for a summer camp to improve on skills and teamwork. But the priority, says St. Peter, is on keeping the teams together long enough so they have time to develop the solidarity and fluidity that comes from knowing and understanding a partner. “Longevity is key because in pairs skating, it’s more than simply skating the elements, it’s the quality of the skating, the ease of movement that an only take place over time. So we’re looking at how to develop that aspect. Our skaters can do the most difficult elements. It’s the in-between that makes the difference at the very top level.”

And there’s no time to begin than the present. After every Olympics, top teams retire, and St. Peter sees a window of opportunity to train the next generation of teams from a young age so they will be capable of making a run for the Olympic podium at every Games to come. “We need to master what we are doing in order to craft it into something that is more of an art form,” says Martin.