Marissa Castelli and Mervin Tran compete during the 2015 U.S. Figure Skating Championships at Greensboro Coliseum on Jan. 24, 2015 in Greensboro, N.C.
Partnerships can be ticklish and teetery by their very nature. And then there are partnerships on ice.
So delicate must they be that it seems risky to ask a skating team like Marissa Castelli and Mervin Tran to analyze their working personalities and reveal what each of them brings to this slippery union.
“It’s a different experience with Mervin,” Castelli said. “He approaches a workout with the idea that, ‘This is going to be fun,’ and instead of, ‘Oh, annoying elements.’ He’s very optimistic and helps me relax a little.”
“She’s very meticulous,” Tran said. “Borderline neurotic.”
The shared laugh that followed that bold needle would suggest that barely a year into their pairs partnership, Castelli and Tran have already found an elusive chemistry — and that results will follow.
Actually, they already have. In just their first ISU Grand Prix event, the duo placed fourth at Skate Canada last month — barely a point off the podium. They were sixth after the short program at Trophee Eric Bompard in France last weekend when the event was halted in the wake of terrorist attacks in Paris that left 129 people dead.
“You’re upset that you can’t continue, but it instantly puts skating in perspective,” Castelli said. “We felt so deeply for the people and for just how fragile human life is, and I think it was so emotional because so many of the skaters had their families there and you just couldn’t help but think of what the victims’ families were going through.”
The practical concerns of the canceled competition and what it means for qualification for the Grand Prix Final are still being sorted out. But it doesn’t much impact the game plan Castelli and Tran have formulated, or the big-picture view they embraced — partly out of necessity — when they decided to skate together.
Both had made their jump into senior-level skating with other partners — Tran spending five years with Narumi Takahashi of Japan that produced a bronze medal at the 2012 world championships, Castelli winning two U.S. championships and competing in the 2014 Olympic Winter Games with Simon Shnapir in an eight-year pairing that had more than its share of rocky moments.
When they auditioned with each other in their respective home bases of Montreal and Boston in 2014, Castelli admitted to resisting the possibility of teaming up. Tran’s Canadian citizenship and Castelli’s desire to compete as an American would mean bureaucratic obstacles, frustrating waits and the very real possibility that they’d never skate in an Olympic Games together. It was a year before they were eligible to skate in an international event, and Tran’s pursuit of American citizenship remains ahead.
But the fit was so natural that they didn’t so much reach a compromise as they did an ethos.
“In our conversation, I asked her if she was OK with this — that we may never make it to the Olympics,” Tran said. “I asked, ‘How do you feel about that?’”
“There are moments in life and opportunities,” she said, “and even though you might not reach what people see as the highest height, it might bring you the most happiness you’d ever expected.
“Mervin and I want to be the world’s best. We want to be on top. That’s what I want for us. I think we have the longevity and talent to take us further. I know (the Olympics) is the biggest competition, but there’s more — being a world champion, being consistently on top over time. That’s what did it for me.”
So they have taken up training in Montreal under Bruno Marcotte and Richard Gauthier, with Marcotte’s sister Julie handling the choreography — including, this year, a free skate to a Journey medley (“Not normal,” said Tran, “but not too daring”). The early adjustments were made easier by the fact that they’d been friends for several years — and by those complementary personalities, as well as a natural timing.
“She has a set order of things and is clear on what we’re going to do — which is great and allows me to be more carefree,” Tran said. “I trust that she’s going to have our best interests in mind, and I never have to worry about what she’s thinking or why.”
Which is good, because when there are snags or growing pains “sometimes you fall back on what you did with your old partner,” Tran acknowledged, “and that’s not going to work.”
Nor, in their case, will making the Olympic Winter Games a grail. Without a resolution to Tran’s citizenship issue in reasonable time, they’ll remain in Olympic limbo — a tricky circumstance.
“We just want to become an international threat,” Castelli said. “We want to put ourselves out there and have people want us to go to the Olympics. It may not happen, but we want to be the top U.S. team and keep pushing.
“We can also contribute in another way. The U.S. has only had two pairs go to the Olympics in recent years, and if we can help with another placement at worlds to get a third team there, that would be great. We might be upset if it isn’t us, but we’ll have done something.”