Athlete Profiles: Deanna Stellato, Competitive Pairs Skater
By Colette A. Harris
After 16 years away from competitive figure skating, Deanna Stellato, 35, stepped back onto the ice. She began quietly training at rinks in her native Chicago to see if she could make a comeback. She then traveled to Florida to be evaluated by her old coach, Cindy Watson-Caprel. While there, the former singles skater and World junior silver medalist was asked if she’d ever consider skating pairs. Intrigued, Stellato had a tryout with 2014 Olympian Nathan Bartholomay, and her competitive pairs skating career began.
Now in their third season together, Stellato and Bartholomay are poised to take their careers to next level. They made their 2018-2019 season debut at the Ondrej Nepela Trophy in Bratislava where they placed second. In November, they head to Helsinki, Finland to compete in the Helsinki Grand Prix of Figure Skating and Moscow, Russia for the Rostelecom Cup, also part of the Grand Prix of Figure Skating series. GOLD sat down with the pair ahead of the season to learn about their goals, how their perspective on competition has changed after decades in the sport, and what drives them every day.
GOLD: You stopped competing at the age of 17 due to suffering multiple injuries several seasons in a row. What made you decide to return to competition more than 15 years later?
DS: Before competing again, I worked for a wonderful plastic surgeon in Chicago doing all his non-surgical procedures. We were at a fun little retreat at their home and we had some questions in front of us while we were eating lunch. All the notecards had different questions on them and the notecard that I got had the question, What would you do if you knew you couldn’t fail? I just kind of looked up and said, ‘I’d win an Olympic gold medal,’ and then I passed the cards to the next person. I remember thinking to myself as everyone was answering their cards that I couldn't believe I said that because that was so long ago….it just kind of came out without me thinking. So, I thought about that for a couple of weeks before I called my mom and asked her to get my skates out of the basement and go to a public session because I was just so taken aback by how knee-jerk reaction that response was.
GOLD: You said that you skills came back quickly, despite being off the ice for so long. Once you realized you could make a comeback how did you decide to pursue pairs instead of singles skating?
DS: It was very serendipitous how Nate and I ended up pairing up together, so it was truly meant to be, I feel. One of the directors of US Figure Skating, Mitch Moyer, happened to be in Florida when I was coming down to visit Cindy [Stellato’s former coach] and asked me if I had ever considered doing pairs. I had been asked to do pairs when I was younger, but I was doing so well in singles it was never a thought in my mind. This time I thought, I’m not going to say no; I’m gonna try. So I had a tryout with an Olympian, Nate, after skating again for four months. I was so excited about it and I really liked it. I couldn’t believe how much I liked it, actually. I was like, 'I’m gonna do this if he wants to partner with me.’ Luckily, he did and that’s kind of how everything came to be.
GOLD: What was it like going back into competition for the first time?
DS: When we first started skating, it was more like I had to learn all these new pair elements and learn how to do them tired during a run through of a program. I hadn't done a long program [4.5 minutes long] in probably 18 years, so that was its own separate hurdle. Then doing it in competition, I think it all seems like a blur. During our first couple competitions I was thinking so hard about these elements because they were still so new to me that it was almost a blur that I was even competing. It wasn’t until a little bit later that I realized I have to perform a little bit also.
GOLD: How do you mentally prepare to compete?
DS: I’ve tried a lot of different things. I think I’ve almost found the secret sauce that works for me. I like to pump myself up before I compete. Some people stay loose, some people like to be quiet and be by themselves. I like to listen to music and get myself pumped and ready to go, but it’s taken me awhile to kind of remember how to do that piece.
GOLD: You’re heading into your third season together. What are your goals for the 2018-2019 season?
DS: Our goal at competition is always to have a skate where we and get off the ice and feel good about what we put out there. We just want to get off the ice and feel good. You’re not gonna be perfect every time - that’s not possible - but we want to be able to feel good and still give the audience a show, have them watch our program, and say they still enjoyed it even if there was an error. We feel like we did that a little bit at the end of last season. It took us awhile to get there, so we would like to get there earlier this year. If we feel good about what we did, our technical is so hard and so heavy and our components are so much stronger this season, that’s gonna be enough to get us those medals. We’re more focused on what we need to do to get off the ice and feel good about ourselves and not feel like we didn’t leave everything out on the ice.
GOLD: You’ve both spent decades as competitors. How has your perspective on sports changed over the years?
DS: It’s hard to fool an older competitor. I think that works to my advantage. I’m not going to foolishly think that I if go out there and skate a clean program, that I’m going to be perfect and win everything. I know I’m going to have to fight for every single mark that I get, fight for components, and really sell the program - mistakes or no mistakes. I think my competitive prowess is still developing for sure, but it’s a little bit more up-to-date in terms of taking elements one at a time and when one element is done, forgetting about it regardless of how it went, and moving on to the next one.
NB: Making the Olympic team and getting to that high stage of competing at Grand Prixs and Worlds for the first time was so much more humbling for me more than anything. There’s always pressure at competition. I’ve always felt like I want to be my best, make no mistakes, and have that dream performance every single time. That’s what I used to focus on, but just making it to those events over the last couple years, I’ve learned if you can get out on the ice and do your job the way you do it every day in training, that you can show a handful of people that you love it, and here’s what you’re doing and why, it’s going to boost you to that next level. People are going to remember that and they’re going to want to see you skate again.
GOLD: What keeps you motivated to train day after day?
DS: I enjoyed my job in Chicago, but I used to dread Monday morning just because it was back to the grind. Now, I literally can’t wait for Monday. On Sunday, I’m so excited for Monday because I can't wait to go skate. I think what drives me is, first and foremost, love for the sport. Secondly, I want to be the best. The best to me automatically means you’re going to win, you’re going to be the best competitor, you’re going to do the hardest things. When you walk into a room people are going to be like, "‘Oh my god there she is.’ That’s what I want. That’s what motivates me every single day.
NB: Love and passion for sport always needs to be there because there's not a night that I go to sleep that I’m not aching, sore, and tired. The thing that keeps me going is that I haven't found that I’ve given it everything. I still have more to offer the sport as an athlete - singular and as a team. If we can keep pushing the boundaries of the sport and develop pairs so it becomes more popular, that’s what drives me to keep going and push it every day.
Deanna and Nate’s Favorites
Food: Chocolate (Deanna) sandwiches (Nate)
TV show: Scandal and Real Housewives (Deanna) The Office and Parks and Recreation (Nate)
Travel spot: Tanzania (Deanna) Brussels, Belgium (Nate)
*This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Photo at top: (Stellato and Bartholomay competing during the 2017-2018 season/photo courtesy of US Figure Skating)