After a 16-year retirement, Deanna Stellato returns to national figure skating stage in Ellenton

Nathan Bartholomay and Deanna Stellato are competing at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships after only six months together.
Nathan Bartholomay and Deanna Stellato are competing at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships after only six months together.

Cindy Watson-Caprel watched the 2016 U.S. Figure Skating Championships with the critical eye of a coach. As the ladies singles division skated, the Southwest Florida Figure Skating Club coach thought back to her old students. She’d had decades and decades of them to pull from.

Watson-Caprel pulled out her phone and drafted up a text message to one of those memories. Deanna Stellato had once been one of her most promising pupils when the two worked together at Wagon Wheel Figure Skating Club in Crystal Lake, Ill. They hadn’t spoken in years.

“You were every bit as good as these girls,” she wrote. Something along those lines. Stellato was watching, too. She responded and then their conversation went quiet again.

It had been nearly 16 years since Stellato retired from her promising figure skating career for one in cosmetics and plastic surgery. Her new professional career had treated her well. She had become the director of aesthetics at the Geldner Center in Chicago, handling all the non-medical procedures such as Botox injections and facials. For most of her decade and a half away from the ice, Stellato didn’t think much about what could have been.

The first couple months of 2016, though, reinvigorated her. It felt like everywhere she went she was thinking about figure skating or hearing about figure skating. It even came up in her work life, when she went on a retreat with some generic team-building questions.

What would you do if you knew you couldn’t fail?

“I would go back and compete,” Stellato said and later relayed the story to Watson-Caprel. “And try to go to the Olympics.”

It seemed like a pipe dream at the time, a particularly optimistic and improbable goal to set during a game of hypotheticals. Quietly, though, she started attending public sessions to recapture some of what turned her into a junior national champion. An hour here after work. Another hour there during the weekend. By the start of the summer, she was almost ready. She reached out to Watson-Caprel, who had relocated to Ellenton, to have her old coach give an evaluation.

It’s now been six months since Stellato has returned to the ice full time at Ellenton Ice and Sports Complex, and already she’s back competing at a national level. Stellato is skating in pairs for the first time with former Olympian Nathan Bartholomay, and the duo will take the ice Thursday at the 2017 U.S. Figure Skating Championships in Kansas City.

“Maybe,” Stellato said, “the dream is still alive.”

Stellato is familiar with the level of competition she’ll see this weekend, but it’s been a long time. She’s won gold at the International Skating Union Junior Grand Prix Final and silver at the World Junior Figure Skating Championships. In 2001, Stellato qualified for the U.S. Figure Skating Championships in singles, only to have her career derailed by a hip flexor injury.

The hip injury nagged Stellato. She sustained four different injuries to the hip, she said, and estimates that during the final four years of her first skating career she was only on the ice for a total of 24 months. Eventually, it drove the 17-year-old to retirement.

I think you always miss skating. Even if you weren't that good of a skater, I think you'll be driving and hear a certain song on the radio and you'll be like, Ohhh. You'll imagine yourself skating to it. I feel like it always stays with you.

Deanna Stellato, former junior national champion

She was burnt out physically and mentally, and Watson-Caprel could see the struggle. She didn’t want to let her walk away from a promising career, though. Stellato still had at least a decade of high-level skating ahead of her, even if she was too young to put her brief career in proper perspective.

“I always felt like she wasn’t finished,” Watson-Caprel said, “but I never expected her to wait 16 years.”

Her alliance with Bartholomay may be the most unlikely wrinkle in her return.

Bartholomay had been away from the ice for six months when Stellato arrived. His last partnership had fizzled and none of his tryouts were quite working out. The 27-year-old from Newtown, Pa., was preparing to move on to coaching.

Stellato came to Ellenton with the intention of reigniting a singles career. A tryout with Bartholomay was simply part of her new why-not mentality. The 33-year-old from Park Ridge, Ill., became an unlikely fit alongside the 2014 Olympian.

SOUTHWEST FLORIDA FIGURE SKATING CLUB AT THE U.S. FIGURE SKATING CHAMPIONSHIPS SENIOR PAIRS Deanna Stellato and Nathan Bartholomay Joy Weinberg and Maximiliano Fernandez Cali Fujimoto and Nicholas Barsi-Rhyne Tarah Kayne and Daniel O’Shea Jessica Pfund and Joshua Santillan JUNIOR MEN William Hubbart JUNIOR PAIRS Elli Kopmar and Jonah Barrett NOVICE PAIRS Joanna Hubbart and William Hubbart

Stellato’s partnership with a wannabe coach gives her a different insight to her return. She’s never skated pairs at a competitive level and Bartholomay gives her a consistent mentor on the ice, even if Bartholomay has faced a unique circumstance.

Bartholomay has typically skated with younger partners, so teaming with one six years older has been an adjustment. There are times, he says, when he’ll command Stellato like he would’ve his less experienced partners, only to catch himself and ask, “Is that OK?”

“This is more of like a cohesive, ‘Let’s go do this together,’” Bartholomay said.

In some ways, Stellato is the perfect test case for this unprecedented layoff and return. Watson-Caprel could never predict anything like this, but it strangely fits Stellato’s persona. Her success was never orthodox.

One of her top accomplishments came as a novice at the 1999 U.S. Figure Skating Championships. Stellato spent the eve of her long program in the bathroom, battling a stomach ache. She never got a final practice session for her routine and won gold anyway.

Even her strange triumphs are nothing compared to this, though. Her age is a hurdle itself — there has never been a 33-year-old female Olympic medalist in pairs figure skating and none in singles since 1924 — and the layoff makes it unprecedented.

And, somehow, it’s exactly the way Stellato would do it.

“It’s crazy,” Watson-Caprel said. “I’ve absolutely seen skaters be gone a couple of years, take a two-year hiatus, and go and do shows. Or coach for a while, and then come back and skate, but to be gone a decade and a half is crazy, crazy, crazy. And to come back and try to do it at this level, it’s just a testament to her strength and her will and her commitment. It’s very Deanna.”

David Wilson: 941-745-7057, @DBWilson2

Locals at nationals

The competitors representing the Southwest Florida Figure Skating Club, based at the Ellenton Ice and Sports Complex, at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships which continue through Jan. 22:

Senior pairs

Cali Fujimoto and Nicholas Barsi-Rhyne

Deanna Stellato and Nathan Bartholomay

Jessica Pfund and Joshua Santillan

Joy Weinberg and Maximiliano Fernandez

Tarah Kayne and Daniel O’Shea

Junior men

William Hubbart

Junior pairs

Elli Kopmar and Jonah Barrett

Novice pairs

Joanna Hubbart and William Hubbart