Marissa Castelli and her skating partner Simon Shnapir arrived Sunday in Sochi, Russia, more than 5,000 miles from home. When they take the ice this week to begin competition in the 2014 Winter Olympics, it may feel even further.
Castelli’s parents, Lori and Tony, and her brother, Anthony, will be in the stands, along with members of Shnapir’s family, but it’ll be a far cry from the crowds that made last month’s U.S. Figure Skating Championships in Boston feel like home.
In Rhode Island, though, the cheers will still go out loud and clear.
Extended family and friends will be rooting hard, and they won’t be alone. From local figure skating clubs, to supportive businesses and excited schools, Rhode Island is ready to embrace its latest Olympian.
“Every parent says my kid is going to be an Olympian or a pro athlete,” said Cranston’s Mike Soscia, who coached Castelli in lacrosse at Cranston West. “For it to actually happen, it’s pretty amazing.”
Castelli, a Cranston native, and Shnapir, who grew up in Sudbury, Mass., personally felt the love last week, when they were given a hero’s send-off from the Boston Skating Club, where they train. While Castelli couldn’t make it back to Rhode Island before the Olympics, the rinks she grew up skating in have been roaring with support.
Lori Castelli is a figure skating coach who’s involved with several clubs, and those clubs have rallied. Warwick Figure Skaters, the Smithfield Figure Skating Club and the Pawtucket and Providence Figure Skating Club are all selling T-Shirts celebrating Castelli and Shnapir’s Olympic berth. Proceeds from the shirts are going directly to the Castelli family, to help defray the cost of the trip to Sochi.
Warwick’s Elite Screen Printing & Embroidery is churning the shirts out, more and more every day. Coaches from Warwick Figure Skaters approached the business about making the shirts. Elite suggested selling the shirts online and in store – in addition to figure skating functions – and demand has taken off.
“We said, it's super expensive to go to Sochi,” said Warwick Figure Skating coach Julie Hayes. “Obviously when your child is in the Olympics, you want to be there. They were going to go regardless. We felt that we had been working with this woman forever and we watched her daughter grow up in the profession that we're all in, and so we said, ‘How can we help, how we can make even a night easier for Lori and her husband Tony?’”
Shirts are selling for $15, with $6 covering printing costs and the other $9 going to the Castelli family. Elite’s Nicole Aldridge estimated Tuesday that the store alone had raised $900. The clubs have put up similar numbers, and that was before stories about the shirt hit news stations. Shirts can be purchased online at looktoelite.com.
“Since last night, we’ve had five or six calls and there are probably 50 orders online that I’m slowly going through to tally up,” Aldridge said. “It took off.”
Elite does a lot of work with the figure skating clubs and Aldridge herself took some of her first strides on the ice under Lori Castelli’s watchful eye.
“She was one of my very first coaches, when I was a little kid,” Aldridge said. “It’s just cool to know someone. Who comes out of Rhode Island and goes to the Olympics?”
Hayes – who was also coached by Lori while at WFS – remembers watching Marissa progress into the Olympian she is today.
“You didn't look at her and say ‘Olympian,’” Hayes said. “But she’s just a hard, hard worker. Over and over, I would watch her jump on that blue line. I didn't see her really turn the corner until she was like 15 years old. It’s a lot of hard work. Not everyone is gifted with the gold medal potential. Obviously she had a lot of potential, but she is nothing but a hard worker and a really good kid.”
All the local support doesn’t surprise one of Rhode Island’s most famous Olympians. Warwick native Sara DeCosta Hayes was a goalie on two U.S. women’s hockey teams. She won gold in 1998 in Nagano, Japan and silver in Salt Lake City, Utah in 2002.
On Tuesday, DeCosta was at Our Lady of Mercy School in East Greenwich, showing off those medals and talking about her Olympic experience with a class of fifth-graders. The support from her home state remains one of her lasting memories.
“In Nagano, it was the first time they had women’s hockey at the Olympics and we had no idea if anyone was even watching,” DeCosta said. “Then to see how much people were rooting for us was amazing. Rhode Island is a great place. The support I received and the support my family received, it really does mean a lot as an athlete. It meant a lot to me to see that support from home.”
DeCosta’s advice to Castelli is to cherish that support – and to embrace the Olympic experience.
“I would just say ‘Enjoy it,’” she said. “I wish I could go back and enjoy it even more. You’re an athlete and it is very serious, so you need to stay focused. But you should enjoy it. I wish her all the best.”
At Castelli’s alma mater, Cranston West, excitement abounds as well. On the school’s web site, the message “Good Luck Marissa Castelli on your journey to the Winter Olympics” is proudly displayed, and West principal Tom Barbieri says that’s just the beginning of what’s planned.
The school is having banners made up to be put in the front of the school, and it’s also looking into getting a message up on the billboard near Western Hills Middle School.
“We’re all in agreement that we think that banners should be made around this city with her name on it,” Barbieri said. “If you’re crossing Cranston, you’re going to see her name.”
Soscia, Castelli’s former high school lacrosse coach and physical education teacher, is one of her biggest supporters, and his wife and sister are already making preparations for Castelli’s time on the ice.
“On behalf of Cranston West, in support of Marissa, we’re trying to put as much support out there visibly in the city of Cranston,” Soscia said. “My sister and wife are putting up signs. We’re going to get the balloons out next week.”
While certainly excited, Soscia said he wasn’t surprised by Castelli’s accomplishments. In high school, she had never played lacrosse before but worked her way up to being a team captain by her senior year.
That, combined with the dedication she had toward figure skating during that time, made Soscia a believer in what she could accomplish.
“Was I surprised? No, more happy and proud than anything else,” Soscia said. “She gave up a lot and she dedicated herself for a goal that she set for herself.”
Barbieri has been trying to rally support around the school community since hearing the news about Castelli. Speaking at the Future Falcon Open House on Sunday Jan. 12 – the day after Castelli won the U.S. Championship for the second consecutive year and just hours after she received news that she had made the cut for Sochi – Barbieri made the announcement to the eighth graders and parents in attendance, championing the cause of one of his school’s most proud alumni.
“The very next day, we started trying to get everyone excited,” Barbieri said.
Both Soscia and Barbieri hope the support throughout the community ramps up as the Olympics begin and Castelli’s competition draws closer, with more people at West and all over Cranston getting involved.
When the games are over, Barbieri is planning on welcoming her back to Cranston with some sort of ceremony at the school.
“I really want her to wear her colors with pride and honor. Especially the Falcon Red that she’s wearing,” he said. “Let’s all come together as a community and support her.”
Around Warwick, WFS and its members are as excited as anybody, too.
“We’re beyond excited,” Hayes said. “I was looking at some of my old skaters on Facebook writing things like, ‘You're skating for every little girl’s dream.' It's so true.”
Far from Sochi, Rhode Island is ready to watch its Olympian compete on the biggest stage in the world.
“You couldn’t be happier for someone who has worked her whole life for this,” Soscia said.