Olympic star got her start in Smithfield

Olympic star got her start in Smithfield

SMITHFIELD - When figure-skater Marissa Castelli glides across Olympic ice this month in Sochi, Russia, she'll be drawing on skills she sharpened as a youngster at the Smithfield Ice Rink.

From age 9 to her mid-teens, the 23-year-old Cranston native learned and practiced at the local facility, often under the watchful eye of her coach and mother, Lori - who still coaches there for the Smithfield Figure Skating Club.

Marissa's grandparents, John and Phyllis Boitano, live on Pleasant View Circle, within a long triple jump of the rink.

A 1977 graduate of Smithfield High who grew up in town, Lori Castelli and her husband, Tony, are packing their bags for Sochi, where they'll watch Marissa and her partner, Simon Shnapir, skate for their country before a worldwide audience.

Marissa is a long way from the days when she would break from skating to sit in the music booth at the local rink, regaling Dianne LaMontagne, now the skating club's president, about her dreams for the future.

"I clearly remember it - she was a spunky, energetic young girl, and you could see there was a lot of drive there. We thought, 'This young lady is going someplace.'"

Someplace turned out to be last month's successful defense in Boston of the U.S. Figure Skating pairs title, and now, the Olympics, which opens Feb. 7.

The local club, proud of its highest-achieving learner, is teaming with skating clubs in Warwick and Providence-Pawtucket in selling $15 Olympic T-shirts online (looktoelite.com) through Feb. 8 as a fundraiser to help Lori and Tony Castelli finance their trip to Sochi.

Marissa's parents exposed her to the ice early, and by age 3 she was on plastic skates at the Warwick rink, with Mom and Dad alongside on family outings.

But with a grandfather who was the first president of the Smithfield skating club, formed in 1976, Marissa later graduated to the learners' program here.

"I didn't push her at all," says Lori. "She always had the love for it, and it was always her decision."

But Lori says she also encouraged attention to the value of all-around fitness, and over the years Marissa excelled as well in swimming, gymnastics, track, lacrosse, and cheerleading.

However, it's skating that really runs in the family: Granddad Boitano shares a last name with 1988 Olympic skating champion Brian Boitano. Lori, who says the family has spoken with Brian on more than one occasion, thinks that "We're probably very distant relatives."

Two other skating luminaries were at the local rink last Saturday when the club held a two-hour party and salute to the Olympics. They are Paul Wylie, a silver medalist in men's singles at the 1992 games in France; and Sheryl Franks, who placed seventh in pairs at the 1980 Olympics in Lake Placid. Both have done coaching in the New England area.

And an unexpected walk-on was former Olympic skater Michelle Kwan, who's married to newly announced Rhode Island gubernatorial candidate Clay Pell, grandson of the late U.S. Senator Claiborne Pell.

Marissa, who was training in Boston and unable to revisit her old skating grounds Saturday, will be competing in Sochi with her partner since 2006, Russian-born Shnapir, 26, who came to this country as an 18-month-old and grew up in Sudbury, Mass.

Club President LaMontagne says that when the group heard about Marissa's making the Olympic team, "We were just blown away. It's a goal that a good many skaters have, but almost none of them reach it."

Getting there requires a combination of talent and sacrifice, says Lori Castelli, noting that Marissa has paid some serious dues on the road to Sochi - but has always been encouraged to cultivate broad interests and to "do everything you can and enjoy what you're doing."

Like many parents of Olympians, Lori and Tony Castelli are concerned about the recent terrorist threats in Russia, but have decided that their place is with Marissa as she demonstrates her skills on a world stage.

"I try not to think about it too much," says Lori, "but it could happen anywhere. We're not going to back down - we'll be there to support our daughter and her partner."