US Olympic pairs skater Shnapir returns to Russia
This Olympic year is a map of Simon Shnapir’s life.
The Winter Games are in Russia, where he was born. To earn a spot in Sochi, the pairs figure skater had to excel at the U.S. Championships, which took place in his adopted hometown of Boston.
Now he’ll make the reverse trip from Massachusetts back to Russia.
“I’m not really sure what to expect or what I’m going to feel until I’m going to be there,” the 26-year-old Shnapir said. “I know the connection is there.”
He and his partner, Marissa Castelli, won their second straight U.S. title on Jan. 11 to clinch their first Olympic berth. Several relatives who still live in Europe will be able to attend, and his family will spend some time in Moscow, their former home.
Shnapir, who is bilingual, will undoubtedly be doing plenty of translating for Castelli in Sochi. She conceded with a laugh: “I’m not very good with foreign languages.”
Shnapir’s mother, Inna, recalls finding it odd that the summer resort town on the Black Sea, where she and her husband once vacationed nearly 30 years ago, had won the right to host the 2014 Winter Olympics. That her son would compete there never crossed her mind.
Until just over a year ago, Shnapir and Castelli hadn’t reached the level of vivid Olympic dreams. They’d never finished better than fifth at nationals going into the 2013 event.
Then they won their first U.S. title, and suddenly a business trip to Russia was a real possibility. Shnapir hadn’t been back since a family visit 15 years ago.
He was born in Moscow in 1987, a time of greater openness in the Soviet Union under Mikhail Gorbachev, and his parents took the opportunity to leave for the United States when Simon was 16 months old.
“We wanted to raise our children in a free country,” Inna said.
And a country where they would not have to hide being Jewish.
His father had relatives in the Boston area who had immigrated generations earlier, and the family settled in the community of Brighton, which has a sizable Russian population. His parents, who both had degrees in chemical engineering but spoke little English when they arrived, were able to find jobs within about six months.
A few years later, they moved to the suburb of Sudbury, 20 miles west of Boston. Simon grew up a huge fan of New England sports teams — he donned a Boston Bruins hat and T-shirt when he spoke to reporters the day before the U.S. Championships started.
Shnapir first started skating at age 6, but not for hockey. His mother recalls watching a lot of figure skating on TV while growing up in the Soviet Union; there were only three channels, and it’s a hugely popular sport there. Kids would skate for fun in the park in the winter.
Shnapir and Castelli, who is from Rhode Island, teamed up in 2006. As his mother puts it: “It wasn’t an instant success.”
Success eventually came because they stuck together, while many other Americans pairs switched partners. They’re a distinctive sight on the ice — he’s 6-foot-4, and she’s 5-0.
A medal isn’t the goal in Sochi. They’d be proud with a top-10 showing after finishing 13th at last year’s world championships. But they could have a chance to reach the podium in the new team competition.
Cheering on from the stands will be Shnapir’s parents, aunt and 75-year-old grandmother, all making the trip back to Russia from the U.S. He talks about having a small family, but it will be a bit bigger in Sochi. A great uncle from Moscow and his parents’ cousins who live in Ukraine and London are planning to attend.
Shnapir’s earliest childhood memories took place in the United States. His images of his family’s time in Russia come from photographs and retold stories.
It’s hard for him to pinpoint exactly, but he knows he sees the world a bit differently because of his history.
“I find that I try to look at things from a different perspective, whether they’re world events or current events, looking at different cultures,” he said. “I think that having that dual upbringing and being able to speak two languages gives me more perspectives on life.”
And a special pride at competing under the American flag. At every event, when they announce that Simon Shnapir is representing the United States, his mother gets chills.