SOCHI, Russia – After finishing third behind Russia and Canada with pairs partner Simon Shnapir in the inaugural team competition last Sunday, United States figure skater Marissa Castelli was approached by Russian president Vladimir Putin at the Iceberg Skating Palace.
"I actually didn't know who he was at first because I was caught off-guard," Castelli said on Wednesday night, following the Americans' long program that secured them a ninth-place finish. "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 are not prepared for that – I turned really fast, and I was like 'Whoa.' It is a bit of a shock at first. I think I was kind of speechless at that point so I was just like, 'Thank you.' "
Despite Putin's tough image and sometimes fractious relationship with American president Barack Obama, his congratulatory gesture impressed the U.S. duo.
"I didn't get the chance to shake his hand but I think it was really nice for the president to come down and greet everyone and offer his congratulations," said Shnapir, who was born in Moscow before moving to the U.S. as a one-year-old.
Perhaps due in part of his Russian heritage, Shnapir and Castelli were a big hit with the crowd, breaking through the inherent rivalry between the two nations to earn a rousing reception from the audience.
Shnapir was so moved by the ovation that he stood in the post-performance waiting area and mouthed a message of thanks when his face appeared on the stadium screen.
"I just said 'Spassiba Sochi, thank you Sochi,' " he said. "They have been fantastic. We couldn't ask for a better crowd here. This felt like a hometown crowd they were supporting us from beginning to end."
Asked about the tense relations between the U.S. and Russia, Shnapir added: "You wouldn't know, you definitely wouldn't know. Politics and all that aside, this is about figure skating and this is about sports and celebrating the Olympics and the spirit of it. People here have really embraced what the Olympic Games are all about. It doesn't matter where you come from."
Due to their involvement in the team event, Castelli and Shnapir skated four times in the space of six days during the Games and admitted to some fatigue on Wednesday, their final night of competition.
In the pairs competition, they scored a season's best in each trip to the ice with 120.38 in the long program for a combined total of 187.82. The other American pair, Felicia Zhang and Nathan Bartholomay, was the first to skate on the night and placed a respectable 12th with a total of 167.21.
Home favorites Tatiana Volosozhar and Maxim Trankov of Russia successfully defended their lead from the short program to win gold. Russia also won silver thanks to Ksenia Stolbova and Fedor Klimov. Popular German pair Aliona Savchenko and Robin Szolkowy took the bronze.