Castelli, Shnapir make strong start on home ice

Defending U.S. champs Simon Shnapir and Marissa Castelli lead nationals after Thursday short program. Matthew Stockman/Getty Images

BOSTON -- Marissa Castelli and Simon Shnapir began their national title defense in emphatic style Thursday afternoon, opening up a lead of over six points against the field in the pairs short program at the U.S. figure skating championships.

Skating last out of 12 teams, Castelli and Shnapir made a convincing opening statement in their case to be named to the Winter Olympic roster with a program set to the music of Santana and anchored by a big-air throw triple Salchow. The Boston-based tandem will show off the quad version in Saturday's free skate.

"As soon as we heard our names called, we felt that energy," Shnapir said.

Caydee Denney and John Coughlin, the 2012 U.S. champions who are bidding for one of the two available pairs spots, slipped to fourth with a score of 65.40. Denney put a hand down on landing a throw triple flip and was visibly upset afterwards.

"We were both probably a little overexcited today," said Coughlin, whose surgery for a torn hip labrum a little over a year ago kept the pair out of nationals and world championships last season. "I think everyone in the world knows we're coming on Saturday."

He was insistent that the Colorado Springs-based duo is capable of rebounding.

"We started this journey three years ago, not 15 minutes ago," he said.

Relative upstarts DeeDee Leng and Timothy LeDuc skated a flowing, athletic program to the music of Peter Gabriel and sit in third place at 66.40 points, a fraction behind Felicia Zhang and Nathan Bartholomay (66.50), who train in Florida.

Leng, who is from suburban Chicago, won the U.S. junior championship in 2009 but quit skating due to burnout and didn't decide to return to the sport until mid-2012.

Was she rusty after a three-year layoff? Leng nodded in answer and LeDuc shook his head vigorously, saying the quality of her jumps was impressive. The two felt a competitive spark from their first joint tryout.

"There are moments in an athlete's life where you have a theatrical chutzpah and you look at your partner and say, 'Come on, this is our time,'" said LeDuc, 23, a Cedar Rapids, Iowa native. "We've worked really hard and this is our time."