SOCHI, Russia - Marissa Castelli and Simon Shnapir share the same birthday - Aug. 20. That doesn't mean the stars always have been aligned for them to be skating together here in Olympics pairs.
"We're both Leos," Shnapir says of their astrological sign. "We're both strong-willed Leos."
This is their eighth year together, but the 6-4 Shnapir and the 5-0 Castelli have had ups and downs. They've had struggles on the ice and personality clashes off it. They considered parting ways after back-to-back fifth place finishes at U.S. nationals in 2011 and 2012.
But they earned their way here with their second consecutive U.S. title. They've already got a bronze medal in the figure skating team event at the Sochi Olympic. When pairs competition begins here Tuesday with the short program, they'll have a shot at bringing the USA its first Olympic medal in pairs since Jill Watson and Peter Oppegard in 1988 in Calgary.
"It is very rewarding, the emotion of the ups and downs, the sacrifices we have made to make this work. ... I wouldn't want to be here with anyone else except Marissa," says Schnapir, 26, a native of Moscow, who came to the USA as a toddler and grew up in Sudbury, Mass.
Castelli, 23, of Cranston, R.I., says, "That we are here shows that you don't have to be perfect to make it to the Olympics."
Russia's Tatiana Volosozhar and Maxim Trankov, 2013 world champions, are the favorites to win pairs. Russia won 12 consecutive Olympic gold medals in pairs until it failed to make the podium in the event in the 2010 Olympics.
Castelli and Shnapir, who will be joined by the U.S. pairs team of Felicia Zhang and Nathan Bartholomay, came out of the team competition figuring there was room to bolster their scores.
In their free skate in the team competition, Castelli fell during their side-by-side triple salchows. She also two-footed her landing on a potentially high-scoring throw quad salchow. But their fourth place in the free skate still brought them a personal best score of 117.94.
"We're thrilled with that final score, and we know we can score much, much higher with a clean program," says Shnapir.
Says Castelli: "I made a couple of mistakes, but I can improve my landing and I am ready for the individuals."
Shnapir was born on Aug. 20, 1987. Castelli was born on Aug. 20, 1990.
Their mutual birthday typically falls when they are in Colorado for the Champs Camp, a conference held by U.S. Figure Skating for athletes on the international Grand Prix circuit.
"A few times we've gotten cake at Champs Camp ... cake during like practice," says Castelli.
Says Shnapir: "We're always training the day of our birthday. We don't get it off. We're in the rink. But it's easy to remember each other's birthdays, that's for sure."