Sports

Joshua Santillan and Jessica Pfund try to take a leap at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships

Joshua Santillan and Jessica Pfund couldn’t have projected everything that derailed them during their long program at the 2016 U.S. Figure Skating Championships and sent them tumbling to a seventh-place finish during their biggest competition together, even if it all made sense in hindsight.

Until Santillan and Pfund took the ice together for the last time during the 2015-16 season in Saint Paul, Minn., their debut season as a pair had exceeded all expectations. They progressed quickly, and even when lack of experience as a team held them back, they still showed themselves well during international competitions.

Through one skate at the U.S. Championships, Santillan and Pfund had positioned themselves for a breakthrough to end last season and vault them into the 2016-17 campaign.

“We had a great short program,” Pfund said, “and then we bombed our long. It was one of those moments where you just wanted to go back and do it all over.”

The collapse started with a small mistake — a botched transition out of a throw — and compounded until Santillan and Pfund left the ice with regret. The next few months were spent diagnosing what went wrong and how they could prevent it from happening again. The road hasn’t been smooth this past year, but Santillan and Pfund are back for the 2017 U.S. Figure Skating Championships and poised to improve on last year’s disappointment. They’ll take the ice Thursday in Kansas City for the start of the senior pairs competition.

The first few months of 2016 were spent fixing the pair’s one glaring technical folly. Santillan had spent the whole season with improper technique on his lifts, forcing him to rely on his strength and hampering the pair’s efficiency.

It became their sole technical focus early during the season and eventually gave way to the more sweeping changes which have let the Southwest Florida Figure Skating Club skaters become a dark horse medal contender at the Sprint Center.

“We haven’t made big technical changes,” Santillan said. “It’s been more about our program components.”

Santillan and Pfund’s first year together — they each came to Ellenton Ice and Sports Complex before the 2015-16 season — was typical for most new partnerships. They spent time learning the other’s habits on and off the ice. They practiced patience when it came to filling out an elaborate routine. They centered their training around reaching the U.S. Championships and performing as well as possible there, even without setting a specific placement goal.

All of that went well. They finished third in the 2015 Challenger Series Autumn Classic International, took eighth at 2015 Skate America and capped the year with a win at the Eastern Sectional Figure Skating Championships. Even their disappointing finish at the U.S. Championships became a learning experience.

“What works for him might not work for me, so he knows how to shape to my needs and I know how to shape to his,” Pfund said, “and it works really well on the ice.”

The problem became climbing over the hump, which began early during the season when Pfund was diagnosed with a pair of torn ligaments in her right foot. The ensuing surgery took her off the ice for three months, and when she returned the pain was still lingering. After an eighth-place finish at the 2016 Cup of China, she went back in for a pair of MRIs.

There were still problems with the foot. Her anterior tendon was diagnosed with tendinitis and her talus bone was suffering from a chronic bruise. She needed an amniotic stem cell injection for the tendon and a bone cement injection for the bruise. Santillan and Pfund were only able to take part in two major competitions this season.

During their limited action, though, they’ve seen the results respond to their growing chemistry.

“Our second mark, our presentation mark, is a lot higher than last year,” Santillan said. “Even when we make mistakes in our program, our presentation mark is higher because we’re more of a team rather than two skaters skating together but separately.”

This alone should let Santillan and Pfund at least match their performance from last year’s U.S. Championships. But injuries kept them from taking the next step they needed to reach the plateau.

When Santillan and Pfund compare themselves to the rest of the field, there’s one gaping hole in their routine: a triple twist. It was something they were only able to practice about twice a week while Pfund battled her injuries. Now they’re doing them 10 times a day.

Of course, that came with a cost, too. Santillan is now dealing with a strained rotator cuff in his right shoulder from the sudden ramp up in their training.

“Every time we get momentum, something seems to be getting in the way,” Santillan said, “but nonetheless right now we’re training the best we have all year and we feel really comfortable going into nationals that we can do well.”

David Wilson: 941-745-7057, @DBWilson2

  Comments