Deanna Stellato-Dudek: “Pair skating is not for the weak. It’s for very strong and brave girls.”
Interview with Deanna Stellato-Dudek for Russian media.
source: Sport 24 dd. 21 March 2023 by Anastasiia Loginova
Almost 25 years ago, Deanna Stellato-Dudek was considered one of the most promising American female skaters of her generation. In the 1998/99 season, the skater won the Junior Grand Prix Final and took the silver medal at the Junior World Championships, surpassing future Olympic medalist Sasha Cohen. However, a series of serious injuries prevented her from continuing her rise in singles skating, and Stellato-Dudek was forced to end her career.
Sixteen years later, Deanna returned to figure skating, but this time as a pair skater, teaming up with Nathan Bartholomay. Then she switched to compete for Canada and began to work with Maxime Deschamps. In the 2022/23 season, the pair made a breakthrough as the 39-year-old Stellato-Dudek became the oldest winner of a Grand Prix event. After the duo won bronze at the Four Continents Championships, Sport24 correspondent managed to talk to Deanna and find out what helped her to break into the top of pairs skating, how she returned to the sport after a long break, why figure skating is similar to business, and much more.
This season you’ve noticeably progressed. What did it take to achieve this? Did anything change in your off-season training?
Deanna Stellato-Dudek: Yes, of course. Our last season ended after the Four Continents Championships, and Max and I were not happy with the performances we showed. So after the event, we sat down and went through everything: what needed improvement, what we needed to change in order to get the scores we wanted. We worked on these things in the spring and summer, which led us to some success in the current season and set priorities in our goals.
Also, in the spring and summer of 2020, Max and I were unable to train on the ice in Canada for four months due to the initial coronavirus restrictions, as I did not have an international release from the US federation. In 2021, we again did not have ice in January, February, and March. So we couldn’t train for almost half of the “COVID” year. We didn’t have full preparation until 2022. Everything overlapped. The restrictions in Quebec, where we live, were quite strict – only international-level figure skaters were allowed to train. At the time, I was still waiting for a release from the US federation. Since I didn’t have a release, we weren’t considered contenders, so we didn’t have ice. At the National Championships, we competed with athletes who had the right to train, unlike us.
How did winning the Nebelhorn Trophy with personal best scores affect you?
Deanna Stellato-Dudek: It was our first competitions after the work we did during the off-season in 2022. We received a lot of positive feedback from the Canadian Federation and judges who watched us. But you never really believe it until you get good scores. When we arrived in Oberstdorf, I was very happy. We made a mistake in the short program, but still got decent scores. There were also some flaws in the free program, but the scores were good. Finally, we got confirmation that we are moving in the right direction. Of course, we were happy with this event.
As far as I know, the Grand Prix Final didn’t go well for your pair due to illness. How did it affect your preparation?
Deanna Stellato-Dudek: After the Grand Prix in France, a member of my family passed away, so I flew home. Actually, it happened during the event, but I only went home after the Grand Prix stage to see my family. Apparently, I caught a virus on the way back to Canada on the plane. I was sick for three months, until the beginning of February. Fever, cough, breathing difficulties – I flew to Italy in that condition. Our preparation for the Grand Prix Final was not as usual. I’ll put it this way: it was difficult, but the short program went well. Not the most energetic skate, because I didn’t have the usual strength, but the elements were executed well. Free skate. Not a complete disaster, in my opinion, just a large number of small mistakes – a step-out on a triple toeloop, a step-out on a triple loop, a step-out on a throw Lutz. I just shut down because of the illness. Certainly, everything could have been even worse (laughs). When we returned home, I tried to get better, but unfortunately, it didn’t happen. Only after the Canadian Nationals, in mid-January, was I correctly diagnosed and given the right treatment.
Why didn’t you withdraw from the Canadian Nationals?
Deanna Stellato-Dudek: My partner, Maxim, has participated in ten senior Nationals. Ten times! We were supposed to win this event. This was the championships where Max was supposed to win. I had to find a way to make it happen for my partner because he had been waiting for this moment his entire career. I couldn’t take this chance away from him just because I was sick. I felt about 70 percent out of 100, but I thought I could do it. I said, ‘I’ll do this for Max and his dream of being the Canadian champion.’ I thought my 70 percent would be enough to win.
Despite your prolonged illness, you decided to add a triple jump to your free skate at the Four Continents Championships. Why there, not at the Canadian Nationals?
Deanna Stellato-Dudek: In addition, at such a heights (laughs) (Colorado Springs is 1,827 meters above sea level. – Sport24), you know, I felt better before the competitions – about 90 percent out of 100. We wanted to try the triple Salchow before the World Championships. We knew it wouldn’t be easy, considering the height, but we thought we would still try the jump. I hope it will be easier at the World Championships because we will be performing at sea level. I landed it with a step-out, but it was not bad for the that moment, so I’m happy with my attempt. Maxim fell, but he never made a mistake like that in training! I sort of laughed when he fell, but then I thought, ‘Oh my god! Max never falls, that’s not like him.’ After the salchow, we have two or three steps and then a lift. I was worried about the lift, but everything went well. We just wanted to try the element before the World Championships. I’m not worried about Maxim, he will be fine, but I’m happy with my attempt. I’ll try to do the jump even better at the World Championships.
I read that many skaters were unhappy that the competitions were held at such a height. It is impossible to rebuild in two or three days. What do you think?
Deanna Stellato-Dudek: It’s unreal. Before any non-standard performance conditions, such as height, I read a lot to understand what my body will have to go through. I found some exercises for the cardiovascular system that figure skaters do. They affect heart rate, blood flow speed, and oxygen accumulation. Preparation takes at least 30 days. It would be difficult for any athlete to adapt just a few days before a performance. Of course, it was not easy, but I considered it a challenge, an extra difficulty before the World Championships. I hope it will be easier at the World Championships. I think it’s much harder for male pairs skaters. The conditions also affected us, but it was harder for the guys: both single and pair skaters.
I heard that there weren’t even any oxygen masks near the ice in case someone feels bad.
Deanna Stellato-Dudek: I didn’t see them. I know that each team has its own doctor. The Canadian team, of course, also had one. But there were no oxygen masks for athletes at least near the boards. I remember that the Four Continents Championships also took place in Colorado Springs more than 10 years ago. There were masks back then. I didn’t see them now.
How was the preparation for the World Championships? Have you participated in competitions in Japan before?
Deanna Stellato-Dudek: Actually, this is my first trip to Japan. I’ve heard a lot about this country. I know that many figure skaters love to perform in Japan, so I’m really looking forward to my first visit. As for the preparation, we never skated a clean free skate during the entire season, but we still received decent scores. Despite big mistakes, we definitely know that we’re competitive. Our main goal is to improve the consistency of all elements and perform both programs clean at the World Championships, at the most crucial moment. We want to leave the ice with a feeling of satisfaction from our performances. If we can improve our stability in training, I hope we’ll show it at the World Championships. That’s really what we’re focused on. The competition for the top 3 will be tough, but we’re participating in it. What we need to do is to cope with the elements.
Let’s go back to the past. You left single skating because of a serious injury, but pair skating is even more injury-prone. Weren’t you afraid that, say, your health wouldn’t hold up?
Deanna Stellato-Dudek: I got injured, I think, in 2000, and only returned to sports in 2016. So I had 16 years to recover (laughs). By the time I returned, the injury didn’t bother me. Yes, pair skating is not for the weak. It’s for very strong and brave girls. There is a famous saying that goes: every time you’re about to do something but are afraid, you should feel the fear and do it anyway. That’s what happened to me when I was working on the quadruple throw, and sometimes even doing a usual twist. If we took a small break, and then we have to do a twist again in training, I feel a little fear. But I allow myself to feel this fear, and then I still do it.
Do you have to take more care of your health compared to younger figure skaters?
Deanna Stellato-Dudek: Yes, of course. I have to work harder than an 18-year-old girl. I have to warm up and recover every day. For me, it’s not optional – I need to prepare my body to be ready every day for my partner, my coach, my team. It’s my job to be ready. Do I think my 18-year-old competitors are recovering for three hours every evening at home? I think they’re probably on social networks. But this is what I have to do, it’s part of my dedication to the sport and commitment. When I started skating again, I knew I would have to do all this and even more than everyone else, just to have the same level of energy every day as they do.
After sports, you got married, became a cosmetologist, and successfully transitioned from a sports life to a regular life. What made you come back?
Deanna Stellato-Dudek: I worked as the director of aesthetics for a plastic surgeon, I did all non-surgical procedures: Botox, laser resurfacing, and all that. I also led a team that performed these procedures, so I was responsible for all non-surgical procedures in the office. You know, the time I spent off the ice actually prepared me to return to sports. Running a business and training in figure skating aren’t that different. Instead of focusing on making money like in business, I focus on winning medals in figure skating. My currency is medals.
One day we were having lunch at work and we had a little fun game. Everyone took a card from the deck in the center of the table with a question on it, and then had to answer it no matter what it was about. So, I was just eating lunch, took a card from the deck. It said, ‘What would you do if you knew you couldn’t fail?’ I quickly answered, ‘I would win the Olympic gold medal.’ I don’t remember how I said it. I couldn’t believe I actually said it. I didn’t have enough time to think about my answer. I just blurted it out. When I got home, I called my mom and told her about the situation. I was thinking that I wasn’t done with figure skating yet. It’s been 16 years since I left the sport. For two weeks, I was thinking about it, because it had to mean something.
I decided to go for a public skating and see what I could do. I asked my mom to bring my 17-year-old skates from the basement of the house where I grew up. When I stepped on the ice, I was able to do all the double jumps right away and felt pretty comfortable. Then I decided to skate three to four days a week before work. I trained at five in the morning just to see what I could do. I tried to be as pragmatic as possible. Step by step, to make sure I was making a reasonable decision, not an irrational one. Within three months, I had regained all my triple jumps. You know, it was like what I was doing 16 years ago.
How did your family and husband react to your desire? Did they try to dissuade you?
Deanna Stellato-Dudek: No, never. I must say that most of my family members were surprised, but always supportive. They said, “If you don’t do this, you’ll regret it for the rest of your life. If this is really what you want, then we’ll support you as long as you make sensible decisions along the way.” So it was always a kind of agreement that I had to make the right decisions. When I was introduced to pair skating, I discussed it with everyone to make sure that taking up pair skating was a sensible decision. After all, I had never done it before. Everyone agreed that it was a good decision. It became the direction I went in and I never looked back.
First, you competed for the USA with Nathan Bartholomay and then switched to Canadian citizenship. What made you decide to do that? You not only had to start over with a new partner, but also lost time during the mandatory quarantine.
Deanna Stellato-Dudek: My collaboration with Nate ended on very good terms. We are still friends and we communicate quite often. He suffered an injury and was unsure if he would continue skating. It was unfair for me to wait a year to find out if he potentially would end his career. So we parted ways very amicably. However, I had given up a lot to come back to the sport and didn’t feel ready to leave. I decided to find a new partner, reaching out to everyone I had ever met. I also contacted every coach I had ever met to ask if they had any available guys. At this level, it’s very difficult to find someone who fits you. At that time, there were no available partners in the USA. I knew I had to leave the country to try and find someone because there are very few elite athletes of this level. It’s not uncommon for people to leave to find the right partner.
Bruno Marcotte offered me a tryout with Maxime. I had a few other tryouts planned, but when I came here and tried with Max, it was it. I knew right away that we had something special. I knew it would take years to build it up – we had to get used to a new timing. Also, training in Canada was significantly different from American training. It was a different style of pairs skating, a different technique. I knew it would take years to see the fruits of our work, but I was also confident from the very beginning that the potential was there. I agreed to skate with Max and represent Canada immediately after our tryouts.
Do you have a Canadian passport?
Deanna Stellato-Dudek: No. I know there are some countries that will give you a passport relatively easily if you represent them, but Canada is not one of those countries, nor is the US. In the US, it takes about seven years, and in Canada, about four or five. I don’t have a passport yet, I’m still waiting. We really hope that I’ll have it by December 2025. To qualify for the 2026 Olympics, you need to have your passport by December 25th. I hope to have it much sooner, but we remain hopeful.
How do you manage financial issues in the US and Canada? I mean, have you had to combine training and work, or has the federation provided financial assistance?
Deanna Stellato-Dudek: In the US, funding is provided to athletes of a certain level. The money comes through the United States Figure Skating Federation. When you receive it, you have to pay taxes. This is not from the government or anything like that, just from the Federation itself. So it’s no different than prize money, which is also taxed. In Canada, athletes are mostly funded by the government, so the money is provided tax-free. But I’m not receiving any funding at the moment because I’m not a citizen, just part from Skate Canada and its channels. To receive full government funding, you have to be a citizen or at least have your PR card, which is your permanent residency card, like a green card in the US before you become a citizen. I don’t have that yet.
Is this amount of money enough to live comfortably?
Deanna Stellato-Dudek: No, it’s not enough. In both countries, I had to use the money I earned over 16 years. That’s why I always joke that I had to quit skating to have the opportunity to skate because I needed to work to save money to be able to train. I have savings from my work and I also had an online business that I sold to my bosses. So, I use this money to cover extra expenses that I need when funding doesn’t cover everything.
If the partner falls on a throw – whose fault is it? The guy who threw poorly or the girl who couldn’t hold on the landing?
Deanna Stellato-Dudek: You know, it’s a funny question. The answer is both. Because the guy is a part of the takeoff on the throw. The most important part of the throw is the pattern you create on the ice executing it. And then, the takeoff itself. If the separation goes well but there’s a mistake, then it’s the girl’s fault. But if the takeoff is bad because the pattern on the ice was wrong or the separation was wrong and the girl falls, it’s the guy’s fault because he threw her incorrectly. The funny part of this answer is that at Skate America, we did a triple Lutz, and it was very, very wonky, but I still landed it. So, I give myself credit because it was wrong, but I still held on (laughs). In that case, the girl should be praised because she still succeeded despite it being bad.
Have you thought about when you plan to retire from figure skating?
Deanna Stellato-Dudek: Yes, definitely. Of course, I have a general picture in my head. When Max and I teamed up in 2019, our goal was the 2026 Olympics. So we definitely want to be the top Canadian pair at those Games. But when I look at things too broadly, it’s difficult for me. It’s much easier for me to approach it season by season. We’re already brainstorming ideas for future short and free programs. So we’re already looking forward to next season, even though this one isn’t over yet. Personally, I like to take it year by year, but have an idea of what I want in the long run. We plan to skate until 2026 and then decide if we want to go for another season or if we’ll have had enough by then. Right now, it’s just year by year until 2026, until the Olympics are over.
Who would you like to become after finishing your career?
Deanna Stellato-Dudek: I have already talked about it with some people. I really would like to become a technical specialist. I know that there is a shortage of specialists in pair skating, so I would gladly go into this field when I finish my career. If you work on the technical panel at competitions, you are still allowed to coach. So this is a path where I could collaborate with ISU and help advance the discipline, but still be able to coach if I wanted to.
I’ve also thought about becoming a judge. Actually, I considered this option even when I left the sport. I feel like I would be a good judge and a good technical specialist, since I’ve been through all of this myself. I really would like to work in this direction – I have experience on both sides of the board. But if you judge, you can’t coach. Most likely, I will go through the technical panel and judging. After finishing my career, I plan to see if I like coaching. If I do, then I will continue in that direction and become a technical specialist. If coaching is not for me, then I will become a judge. I won’t be able to judge competitions as ISU specialist, but perhaps I can work at small local competitions.
I can’t help but ask about international competition. Some experts believe that without top Russian and Chinese pairs, the average level has dropped. What do you think, is this true?
Deanna Stellato-Dudek: I think it’s not just about that. This year, Chen Pan and Yang Jin are not competing, but they have reached the Grand Prix Finals before, they are a high-level pair. Obviously, there are no Russians this season, who often make it to the Final, and the Russian national team has a very strong level of pair skating. But in previous years, if we don’t count these pairs, the level was still higher. There were several Canadian and American pairs in the top, a pair from Japan, and other countries. The reason why there is a slight decline this year is that over the past four years, all the skaters who competed between the ages of 20 and 30 have retired. Italian figure skater Nicole Della Monica participated in four Olympics, she was the best figure skater in her country for over ten years. Now she has retired from her sporting career. From the top pairs, Meagan Duhamel and Eric Radford retired, also Aliona Savchenko and Bruno Massot, and then Vanessa James and Eric Radford. That’s life.
In 2010, you could score 62 points for a short program and be in the top six in the world. In 2018, with that score, we didn’t make it to the free program at the World Championships. The level of figure skating has improved so much over eight years that it was impossible to continue improving at the same pace. Again, this is similar to business. You don’t go from earning $10,000 a year to $1 million a year, then $10 million a year, and then continue at the same pace – $20 million, $30 million. It stops at a certain point, you reach a peak, and then stay there. That’s why there is the word “peak”. So for me, this is a small decline due to retirements and the rapid increase in the number of pairs. The level will continue to rise, like everything else.
Did you know that the stock market fell this year? It will bounce back next year. That’s life, everything goes in waves. It’s normal. I think if we take all the same pairs that competed this year, the level of competition will be higher next year. Thus, the situation will return to an upward, slow rising wave until 2026, most likely, if nothing changes in the lineup of competitors. For me, this is not that important. People say that in life everything goes up and down. Now the level has dropped a bit, but in March it will rise again. I am sure that the World Championships will be great competitions and the competition between pairs will rise next year.
Are you planning to continue learning ultra-c elements?
Deanna Stellato-Dudek: Max and I are interested in quads, but at the moment their base value is so low that we’re not quite sure if it’s worth working on them. Ultra-c elements are dangerous. Plus, the amount of time you have to spend working on them takes away from other elements, and of course, the possibility of injury, etc. So we’re definitely interested, but let’s see what happens with the base value this year, whether it increases at all.
Less than a year ago, ISU introduced two very important reforms – raising the age minimum to 17 and reducing the number of components from 5 to 3. In your opinion, how did this affect figure skating?
Deanna Stellato-Dudek: It’s hard to understand whether there was any benefit from this or not, because only one season has passed since the age increase was introduced. Regarding the components – I have heard from many people that they are really happy with it. I think that’s good. I know that some of the components that were there were a bit repetitive. Now everything has been clarified a bit. But I like this change. ISU is implementing even more upcoming changes, and I look forward to the opportunity to see them. They also changed the requirements for the choreographic sequence for pair skating this year. Like all the changes they make, I think it helps the sport develop in the right direction.
What improvements or additions would you like to see in pairs skating in the future?
Deanna Stellato-Dudek: I would love to see an increase in the base value of quads. Personally, I enjoy watching single skaters perform quads, and I think it would be a draw for audiences to see quads in pairs skating as well. Not every pair will be able to attempt a quad twist because they may not have the necessary height for four rotations, but some pairs have good high triple twist, so if they can add a quad, I hope the base value will be high enough to make it worth the effort. However, this is not up to me to decide. The ISU needs to determine what is best for all athletes, what is safe, and what will be better for the sport and discipline of pairs skating in the future. Max and I have talked about wanting to try a quad someday, but it has to be worth it.
In addition, I would possibly like to increase the length of the free program to have more time for artistry and artistic integrity. When they reduced the free skate from 4:30 to 4 minutes, they only removed the parallel spin, which obviously doesn’t take up 30 seconds. This greatly reduced the potential choreography in the program. I love watching pairs with great programs, and I would like to have a little more time to develop this creatively. But you know, that’s just me (laughs). As for elements, as I mentioned, we have talked about attempting a quad twist, and I have some ideas for some cool things for next year. Of course, we are doing something unique in our forward-outside death spiral, and we’ll work on it to add complexity in the next season.
What style of skating do you prefer: academic and classical or something more modern?
Deanna Stellato-Dudek: I like everything (laughs). I love the classics, I love modern choreography, like in Adam Siao Him Fa’s free program. It’s so unique, unlike anything else, and very modern. I love watching classical programs. I like programs with themes – this year I’m portraying Cleopatra in my free skate.
I think what’s best for me is that I’m versatile. I feel like I can show all styles. Probably because I enjoy watching everyone and I want to look up to them.
Are there any pairs that inspire you? Maybe from the past?
Deanna Stellato-Dudek: Definitely. I’ve been following figure skating for a long time. I enjoyed watching Shen Xue and Zhao Hongbo. They were always one of my favorites. I remember the 2002 Olympics. I liked both pairs. I love Elena and Anton (Bereznaia/Sikharulidze – Sport24) and Jamie and David (Sale/Pelletier – Sport24). These are two pairs with very different styles, but they are beautiful in their own way. From recent performances, I was impressed by Tatiana Volosozhar and Maxim Trankov – they are a technical team with huge powerful elements. I watched many of their elements in slow motion to try to learn something from them.
Related topics: Deanna Stellato-Dudek Maxime Deschamps
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Great interview! I love Deanna’s passion, commitment, and determination to climb to the top. She and Max are a dream team. I’m rooting for them!