To Russia, With Love

Feb. 24, 2014
Feb. 24, 2014

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Feb. 24, 2014

To Russia, With Love


FIGURE SKATER Simon Shnapir may have an Olympic bronze medal from Sochi, but last weekend he still couldn't find a bowl of good borscht in the athletes' village. "Nobody makes it the way my grandmother does," lamented the U.S. team's only Russian-born member. "And she doesn't really use a recipe. It comes from the heart." So did Shnapir's exhilaration at returning to his birth country. His parents, Inna and Boris, and five other family members moved from Moscow to Boston in 1988, when Simon was 16 months old. The family came back for one brief visit, in 1999.

This is an article from the Feb. 24, 2014 issue

Yet even as Shnapir, 26, embraced everything about the Games—the team skating competition that was making its debut, the T-shirt signed for him by his fellow Olympians who are members of his beloved Boston Bruins and representing five nations in Sochi, his personal-best scores with his pairs partner, 23-year-old Marissa Castelli—he couldn't overlook his ties to the host country. "Even though I was looking ahead at the biggest competition of my life," says Shnapir, "I still wanted these Olympics to help me appreciate where I came from and where I am now."

Inna and Boris, both chemical engineers, were already engaged 30 years ago when they vacationed in Sochi, a summer resort. "When I heard Sochi was getting the Olympics, I thought it had to be for summer," Inna said before watching her son compete at the Iceberg Skating Palace. "If not for the Olympics, I'm not sure we'd go back to Russia again. We didn't really belong here."

Shnapir's parents endured discrimination because of their Jewish faith. Boris had his nose broken in grade school. The nationality on their passports was listed as Jewish rather than Russian. "Times have really changed," said Boris last week. "Especially the young people here seem much more trusting and optimistic." Neither parent played sports, but Simon displayed such restlessness as a toddler that a neighbor left a note in their mailbox asking if they could find a way to keep their son from making so much noise. Inna remembered watching figure skating on one of the three state-sponsored television stations and enrolled Simon in a club at age six.

Simon and Castelli teamed up in 2006, and Sochi is their first Olympics. "I wanted to do everything here," says Shnapir, "meet athletes, see events, be a kid. I didn't want this to be so serious that I forgot to enjoy it." In the athletes' village he chased down Slovak hockey star Zdeno Chara to get a signature on that T-shirt. "Z insisted he was just another guy," Shnapir says, "but not in my eyes. He's the [Bruins'] captain." Before the U.S. athletes arrived, skating officials decorated rooms in the Olympic Village with family photos and personal effects. Above Shnapir's bed they taped a poster of Chara.

Shnapir spoke Russian to every village volunteer he could. When a volunteer would say, "It's O.K., I speak English," Shnapir would reply in the mother tongue, "It's O.K., I speak Russian. Please talk to me." He averted his eyes from English signs erected for the Games so he could immerse himself in Cyrillic characters, and even chided Castelli for not asking for his help in purchasing Disney pajamas through Russian Google.

"Sometimes he thinks more like an athlete in a team sport," says Castelli, and that came in handy during the team competition, a TV-friendly event that kicked off the Games a day before the opening ceremony. With squads sitting in minidugouts at the side of the ice, the contest felt more like a charged-up college dual meet than a traditional skating event. "Skating can be cutthroat," Shnapir says. "The team event took us out of our comfort zones." After Jeremy Abbott struggled through a rough short program, he was greeted by teammates waving flags and holding an impromptu pep rally. In Sochi there was no crying in the kiss-and-cry area. "The moment I'll remember maybe as much as our team getting the bronze medal," Shnapir says, "was our captain, Charlie White, leaning over us after we skated our free program and saying, 'You guys rocked it.' "

Four days later Castelli and Shnapir finished ninth with a personal-best score of 187.82, in the pairs event. "Usually we finish up and get off the ice," he says. "I just hugged her and said, " 'Let's stay out here a little longer.' With all due respect to the next skaters, who knows if we'll have a moment like that again. I just wanted to hug it out and savor it."

In the stands Inna and Boris did the same. "When I hear them announce my son representing the United States, I still get chills," she said. "We wanted to make a happy life for our son, and we had to leave Russia to do it." They had to come back to appreciate how well they had done.



Having already won a bronze medal in the new team event, the 2010 silver medalists from Michigan won the U.S.'s first Olympic title in ice dancing, edging longtime rivals Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir of Canada by 4.53 points.

PHOTOROBERT BECK/SPORTS ILLUSTRATEDSWAG-GERING Hockey aficionado Shnapir seemed to treasure his Bruins-autographed T-shirt nearly as much as his Olympic medal.PHOTOROBERT BECK/SPORTS ILLUSTRATEDPHOTOAL TIELEMANS/SPORTS ILLUSTRATED (CASTELLI AND SHNAPIR)HIGHER AND HIGHER Shnapir and Castelli earned personal-best scores in all four of their performances in Sochi, including the pairs short program (right).PHOTO