Deanna Stellato and Nathan Bartholomay compete in the pairs free skate at the 2018 Prudential U.S. Figure Skating Championships on Jan. 6, 2018 in San Jose, Calif.
Deanna Stellato is making up for lost time.
She’s one of two 34-year-old women competing in pairs at the World Figure Skating Championships this week, yet their paths to Milan could not be more different.
Stellato, who skates with Nathan Bartholomay, watched on television last month as Aljona Savchenko of Germany won Olympic gold in her fifth Olympic Games. Savchenko already had two bronze medals with another partner.
“She’s the same age as I, and look at what she just accomplished,” said Stellato, who is actually seven months older. “So I feel like, ‘Well, I had a 16-year vacation. I’ve got a lot of catching up to do.’”
That’s right. Stellato was out of the sport for 16 years. So, while Savchenko, whose current partner is Bruno Massot, will be seeking her 11th world medal, this is Stellato’s debut at the event.
Well, sort of. While Stellato hasn’t competed at senior worlds, she skated 18 years ago at the 2000 world junior championships, winning the silver medal in women’s singles. Within two years she was retired at the ripe old age of 17 due to four injuries in four years.
The final straw was a hip flexor problem that required rehab for six months to a year. That would mean Stellato, the 1999 U.S. novice champion, gold medalist at the 1999 Junior Grand Prix Final and a contemporary of Sarah Hughes and Sasha Cohen, would miss the qualifying event for the Olympic Winter Games Salt Lake City 2002.
“In a four-year time frame, I only skated two years,” she said. “With every injury, I was off the ice for six months. It was a string of bad luck, so by the time my fourth injury came around and I knew it was going to make me miss the trials, I was so down and out in my 17-year-old self that I couldn’t rally back.”
Stellato’s friends were graduating from high school and she decided to pursue a “normal life.”
“I wouldn’t say I ever regretted, it,” she said. “I think when you’ve only ever skated your entire life, when you stop and you remove yourself from the sport the way that I did, you’re a little lost. So I was trying to find myself outside of who I was as a figure skater.”
Stellato established a career in Chicago as the director of aesthetics for a cosmetic surgery center, which meant she handled all of the non-surgical procedures.
“That time was really invaluable and it taught me a lot,” Stellato said. “I learned a lot about business. Skating isn’t that much different. Now with the new judging system – that I’ve never skated under until I started skating pairs with Nate – it’s very much a mathematical game.”
In the back of her mind, Stellato always knew she would return to skating in some fashion, most likely as a judge.
“I didn’t necessarily know it would be in this way,” Stellato said. “I knew I would come back to it when I was ready and I just wasn’t ready until I was 32, apparently.”
The impetus came at a work retreat. For one of the exercises, each person read a question off a card.
“We’re all laughing and having a good time because the questions are really silly,” Stellato recalled, “and then someone picked up the card that was, ‘What would you do if you knew you couldn’t fail?’
“We went around the table and I blurted out that I would win an Olympic gold medal. After I said it, no one was really surprised because they all knew that I skated, but I was shocked that was still in my head in any capacity.”
Stellato thought long and hard about it for two weeks, then finally put on her skates and ventured onto a public ice rink in March of 2016. Stellato admits that her stroking on the ice wasn’t the prettiest.
“I got all my jumps back before I felt over my feet again,” she said.
Stellato could relate to Olympic bronze medalist Jeffrey Buttle of Canada, who posted on Instagram that skating for the first time in a couple of years was “emotionally fulfilling and physically embarrassing.”
She skated three days a week before work. Stellato landed her triple toe loop on her first try.
She contacted her former coach, Cindy Watson-Caprel, who had moved from the Chicago area to Florida.
“I asked Cindy if I was absolutely off my rocker, or if I could potentially do this,” Stellato said.
Watson-Caprel invited her to come down to Florida and was duly impressed. She asked Stellato to come back in another month.
The next time she could get the time off from work coincided with a pairs camp in Ellenton, Florida, conducted by Tamara Moskvina, the legendary Russian coach.
Mitch Moyer, U.S. Figure Skating’s senior director for athlete high performance was there for the camp. He watched some of the other skaters and asked pairs coach Jim Peterson, “Is that Deanna Stellato out there?”
Moyer knew that Bartholomay, a 2014 Olympian who placed 12th with Felicia Zhang, had split with his next partner, Gretchen Donlan.
Moyer asked Peterson what he thought about Stellato and Bartholomay trying out together.
Bartholomay, now 28, had despaired of finding a suitable new partner.
“At the highest level of the sport that we’re in, it’s really hard to find anybody,” he said. “I had just about given up, because I was being recommended some novice ladies that were doing OK. They had a couple of triples, but these were 14, 15, 16-year old girls, and I’m like, ‘I’m 26 – I don’t know if I want that.’ I don’t want to teach a kid how to skate pairs. I want to have somebody who’s going to progress the sport with me and that’s what I was able to find in Deanna.”
“The stars were aligned,” Stellato said. “It was crazy because Mitch has been down one time since in two years and Nate being available and needing a partner and still wanting to continue. It happened in a very serendipitous manner for sure.”
Although she had never skated pairs, Stellato reinvented herself and the change came easily.
“I landed the majority of my throw triples on the first try,” she said, “but they were small throws, so we had to increase the size of them over time.”
Of course, it also helped to start off with an Olympian. “I couldn’t have gotten luckier,” she said. “He took quite the chance on me.”
Bartholomay was also interested in coaching, so when they weren’t taking a lesson with Peterson, Amanda Evora or Lyndon Johnston, he taught Stellato the ropes.
“I’ve always had a work ethic where people need to tell me to stop, so I’ve never had to be pushed,” Stellato said. “Nate is like that as well. When I first started skating and I was trying to learn how to do death spiral or do a pairs spin, simple things that other pairs skaters do on their first try with a new partner, we were going in there six days a week and training all day for me to catch up and learn these skills.”
They would do 50 throws in a session, something other pairs skaters get out of the way when they are in their teens, not their 30s.
“I do more than every other person in that rink, including the 13-year olds,” Stellato said.
While she is not quite 5 feet tall and he is 5-10, their skating gelled. “I think it has a lot to do with our body types,” Bartholomay said. “We’re really similar – leg lengths, torso, the way we move, the way our technique is, and then the way we interpret things and learn things together is very similar in a lot of ways. It’s so natural.”
“Another reason why we’ve progressed so quickly,” Stellato added, “is we’ve been able to communicate really effectively as adults vs. pointing the finger to blame. He’s super quick to admit if it was his fault something went wrong and I’m super fast to say, ‘Oh, no, no, no, that was me,’ and we sort of work through it and fix it.”
Her expertise as a singles skater comes in handy on their side-by-side jumps. “She worries about me more than I worry about her,” Bartholomay said.
However, Stellato said she still has a lot to learn, such as that she can’t just throw in a shimmy. “He says, ‘There’s no shimmy.’ I can’t just change it on a whim. That’s something I need to get used to.”
At their first national championships in 2017, they placed fourth, winning the pewter medal. They were pleased to move up to third in 2018.
“We said we were going to go home and work harder and push the envelope technically,” Bartholomay said. “When you do what you love, it’s really easy to get through the training every day and improve.”
In what Bartholomay called “a really gutsy performance,” they went for a throw quad salchow in their free skate, but Stellato fell on the landing.
Their placement earned them an invitation to the Four Continents Championships, but they were disappointed with their fifth-place finish there.
Stellato and Bartholomay kept training in hopes they would get another chance to compete before the end of the season.
On Thursday night, they got the call that Tarah Kayne and Danny O’Shea had withdrawn, and oh, by the way, their flight was Saturday.
They’ll join Alexa Scimeca-Knierim and Chris Knierim, the lone Team USA pair at the Olympic Winter Games PyeongChang 2018. The short program is Wednesday and then the top 16 pairs advance to the free skate on Thursday.
Actually, neither Stellato nor Savchenko is the oldest in the field. That honor belongs to Zoe Jones of Great Britain, who is 38 and came back after a 12-year layoff. She began skating pairs in April 2016.
Although Stellato’s original goal is still the Olympic Winter Games, she said making the world championships is “a pretty close second.”
“The month of March is the birthday of my rebirth of skating,” Stellato said. “And then additionally, when I skated earlier in my career, I used to beg to go to an Italy international (event), because all four of my grandparents were born in Italy and I’ve always wanted to compete there. It never happened, so it’s a cherry on top that not only are we going to worlds on my birthday month of skating, but also that we’re going to Italy.”
She doesn’t know how long her second act in skating will last. Although she now lives in Florida and does some coaching for spending money, she has kept her licensing up so she could go back to the cosmetic surgery field.
She said when she told Dr. Peter D. Geldner at The Geldner Center that she was leaving, he and his wife said, “We’re terribly sad to lose you, but we tell our children every day to go after their dreams. And if this is your dream, we fully support you.”