Deanna Stellato-Dudek: The figure skater who quit in her teens and is now targeting gold at 40

Canada's Deanna Stellato-Dudek and Maxime Deschamps perform in the gala exhibition during the ISU Grand Prix of Figure Skating Final in Beijing
Deanna Stellato-Dudek and Maxime Deschamps compete in Montreal at the World Championships this week - WANG ZHAO/AFP via Getty Images

Destiny put Deanna Stellato-Dudek back in the figure skating game but passion, bolstered by grit and determination, has fuelled her return to the upper echelons of the sport.

This week at the World Figure Skating Championships in Montreal, the long-ago singles competitor turned pairs skater will compete for global gold at the age of 40, with an eye on making Olympic history two years hence.

Eight years ago at a work retreat, a seemingly innocuous team-building activity rekindled Stellato-Dudek’s long-buried Olympic dream and changed the trajectory of her life.

What would you do if you knew you would not fail? the notecard she happened to draw from the pile asked.

“I would win an Olympic gold medal,” Stellato-Dudek blurted out. The response surprised even her given she was 32 years old and 16 years – or, in her words, “a lifetime” – removed from elite figure skating.

Stellato-Dudek and Deschamps
Deanna Stellato-Dudek retired because of injury at the age of 17 and spent 16 years away from the ice - Annice Lyn/Getty Images

She recognised how tall an order it would be for a woman in her thirties to return to singles competition given that discipline is dominated by the 16 to 25 age group. Still, she was curious to see if she had what it would take to defy the odds.

“I thought maybe I had some unfinished business with the sport, that it [Olympic ambition] was still something inside of me 16, 17 years later,” the now former manager of non-surgical operations at a plastic surgeon’s office in Chicago says.

In the 1999-2000 season, a teenage Stellato-Dudek won gold in the women’s event at the Junior Grand Prix final and silver at the World Junior Championships, but as she graduated to the senior ranks a nagging hip injury forced her on to the sidelines. When the Team USA athlete learnt a lengthy rehabilitation for that injury could derail her 2002 Olympic dream, she retired from the sport.

“In my 17-year-old brain, I thought this was a career-ending type of thing, that I should just move on with my life. I still watched it on television, but never thought about myself competing [again],” she says.

A week or so after that workplace retreat, Stellato-Dudek retrieved her skates from her mother’s basement and glided back on to the ice to gauge whether a comeback was in the realm of possibility.

In short order she regained mastery of the triple jumps and contemplated her next move. Stellato-Dudek’s serendipitous meeting with United States figure skating’s high performance director resulted in him suggesting she try pairs skating. She did, and loved it.

Stellato-Dudek and Deschamps
Stellato-Dudek and Deschamps have already won five Championship, Grand Prix and Challenger golds this season - WANG ZHAO/AFP via Getty Images

“I really like the daily grind. Getting up in the morning, challenging myself to see what I can do. If I’m sore, seeing if I can do it anyway; seeing how good I can be when I don’t feel my best. That’s what I realised I loved so much when I was a kid and I still love it now,” Stellato-Dudek says.

For three seasons, she skated with US Olympian Nathan Bartholomay and learnt to perform the overhead lifts, throw jumps and death spirals that are unique to pairs skating. They won two US Championship bronze medals but when doubts arose about Bartholomay’s ability to rebound from knee surgery, Stellato-Dudek made a difficult decision. With the clock ticking, she decided to look for another partner. She found a match in Montreal and moved to Canada.

This week at the World Championships, Stellato-Dudek will write the latest chapter in her remarkable comeback story alongside partner Maxime Deschamps, 32, who shares her tenacity and perseverance.

Now five seasons into their partnership, the duo have enjoyed their most successful campaign yet, pocketing gold five times. This week in Deschamps’ home town, they would like to make it six.

Stellato-Dudek points out that she and British pairs skater Zoe Jones, who retired two years ago at age 42, have been the only female figure skaters in decades to compete at an elite level into their forties. Ultimately, Stellato-Dudek hopes her story will inspire others “to dream big”.

“I had somebody tell me a long time ago that what I was doing was bigger than myself,” she says. “It’s not about me, but what I’m doing and what it represents for all adults who are maybe unhappy with their current careers and would love to be doing something else.

“I hope that seeing me reach the level I’m at right now, seeing me try whether I succeed or not, gives people outside the skating world – or sporting world – some type of comfort to know that somebody else took a leap and made a huge change in their life at an unconventional time.”

Stellato-Dudek intends to continue building momentum towards the 2026 Olympic Winter Games in Milan-Cortina, confident she will attain Canadian citizenship in time to meet eligibility requirements. (Unlike the World Championships, both partners must be citizens of the country they represent at the Games.)

Being an Olympic medal hopeful is now Stellato-Dudek’s full-time job. The Montreal-based athlete devotes six hours daily to training. Then, to help her body recuperate, she spends hours each evening on a recovery regime that includes stretching, cupping, ultrasound treatment and compression clothing.

Stellato-Dudek will be 42 come Games time. If she and Deschamps can land on the podium, she will make history as the oldest female pairs skater ever to win an Olympic medal, easily outdistancing Finland’s Ludowika Jakobsson-Eilers, who was 39 when she claimed pairs silver in 1924 at the first Olympic Winter Games.

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