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Wednesday, February 12, 2014
'Fantastic' crowd lifts American pair

By Jim Caple
ESPN.com

SOCHI, Russia -- With all the history, tensions and rivalry between the U.S. and the former Soviet Union during the Cold War, the choice of music in the pairs free program was somewhat ironic.

The American pair of Marissa Castelli and Simon Shnapir skated to the ultimate spy music: "Skyfall'' and the James Bond theme. Meanwhile, Russian silver medalists Ksenia Stolbova and Fedor Klimov skated to the music from the 1960s American sitcom, "The Addams Family'' and Russian gold medalists Tatiana Volosozhar and Maxim Trankov skated to "Jesus Christ Superstar,'' the rock opera that was a hit on Broadway in the early '70s and later performed at high schools around the U.S.

"I have wanted to skate to the music to 'Jesus Christ Superstar' for a long time,'' Trankov said. "It is a dream to skate it at the Olympics, and to skate it together.''

World popular culture has changed a bit since the Cold War.

"Politics and all that aside, this is about figure skating and sports and celebrating the Olympic Games and the spirit of the Games and the athletes,'' Shnapir said of the crowd support for all the figure skaters. "The people here have really embraced what the Olympic Games are all about and have really supported all the athletes regardless of where they come from.''

Marissa Castelli, Simon Shnapir
The two-time reigning U.S. champions Marissa Castelli and Simon Shnapir finished ninth in the Sochi pairs competition.

Speaking of which ... Shnapir was born in Moscow before his family immigrated to the United States and Boston when he was very young. He says he speaks the language fluently -- albeit with a thick Boston accent. When he and Castelli sat down in the kiss-and-cry zone to await their scores in the pairs free program Wednesday, Shnapir waved broadly to the applauding crowd and shouted, "Spasiba, Sochi!'' Thank you, Sochi.

"They've been fantastic. I couldn't ask for a better crowd here,'' Shnapir said. "We've had great crowds the past month or so. The national championships were in Boston with our hometown crowd and this felt like a hometown crowd as well, the way they were supporting us all the way through.''

Among those fans this week was Russian President Vladimir Putin, who congratulated the medal-winning skaters after the team finals Sunday, including the bronze medalist Americans.

"That was amazing. I actually didn't know who he was at first because he caught me off guard,'' Castelli said. "He grabbed me on the shoulder and said, 'Congratulations, it was very nice to meet you.'

"I didn't expect to see him there. Normally, you're not prepared for that. He grabbed me on the shoulder and I turned really fast and was like, 'Whoa!' It was pretty cool. And pretty interesting. I had never seen a president come down at a figure skating event and say congratulations. I was kind of speechless."

Said Shnapir: "I think if President Obama tapped me on the shoulder and I turned around it would be a shock.''

Castelli and Shnapir finished ninth while the competition was dominated by the Russians. Volosozhar and Trankov won the gold with a commanding score of 236.86 while Stolbova and Klimov took the silver with a score of 218.68. Germany's Aliona Savchenko and Robin Szolkowy narrowly edged China's Qing Pang and Jian Tong for the bronze despite two falls.

"Today was a big day for all of Russia,'' Trankov said. "Two of our couples have skated very well and I think everyone in our big country is pleased. It was the hardest job of our lives. We dealt with huge pressure today. We already have gold in the team event, but this is the realization of the goal and the dream of our lives.''

The dominance of Volosozhar and Trankov is why the allegation of a fix among the Russians and the Americans seemed rather dubious. The conspiracy supposedly was to guarantee Russia gold medals in the team event, which they won in a rout, and in the pairs, which everyone figured they would win anyway. Meanwhile, Americans Meryl Davis and Charlie White already were favored to win the dance program.

But hey, it's figure skating, and it's Russia and America. There is always room for some intrigue regardless of the soundtrack.