By Hiro Yoshida
Of all the incredible comebacks in figure skating, Deanna Stellato-Dudek’s ranks highly on the scale of defying the odds and conventional wisdom. As she and partner Maxime Deschamps make their first ever Grand Prix Final appearance in Turin, Italy, the pair believe that the best is still yet to come.
Twenty-three years ago this month, Stellato-Dudek won the 1999-2000 Junior Grand Prix Final title as a single skater and subsequently took a silver medal at the 2000 Junior World Championships later that season. It seemed that a promising career lay ahead of her. However, things did not work out that way and, after a series of catastrophic injuries, she took the decision to hang up her skates at the age of 17 amidst a golden era in women’s figure skating in the United States.
“I was going to miss the 2002 Olympic trials,” Stellato-Dudek recalled. “My 17-year-old self thought, ‘I’ll just go to school and be a normal person because I can’t go to the Olympics’, even though in hindsight, that wasn’t necessarily the one that was going to be my Olympics anyway. I think 2006 was probably the one that was more realistic for me. But Sasha Cohen, who I was rivals with, did get that third spot for 2002. I think in my brain, I thought that that could have been me.
“After Sasha retired and Michelle Kwan stopped the same year in 2006, the quality of skating in America for a short period of time really went down.
“So, I thought, ‘Oh, maybe I should have stuck with it.’ The competition always ebbs and flows. It’s normal. But I think that everything happens for a reason and I was meant to stop at that time. I was meant to come back at the time that I came back and I get constant kind of little reminders that I’m sort of where I’m supposed to be and doing what I’m supposed to be doing. This is definitely the path less travelled, but I think it was the one that my life was supposed to be on.”
Stellato-Dudek’s hiatus from skating ended in 2016 when she teamed up with Nathan Bartholomay. She took to pairs skating quickly, although there were some things that she discovered were not quite as she imagined.
“You can’t do this if you’re afraid,” Stellato-Dudek said. “You have to really go for it every time even if you do have a little bit of fear. But I think that that fear is healthy. It keeps you very focused and aware of what you’re doing.
“I would say probably the most foreign thing for me to learn was the twist.”
“The hardest to learn, I’ll say is the twist,” Deschamps explained. “It’s a timing element. That only comes with experience of skating together and time. There is no shortcut to become consistent with the twist. It just needs time.”
“One of the other hardest things was the death spiral,” Stellato-Dudek added. “It was really difficult for me. I used to watch pair skating as a child when it was (Ekaterina) Gordeeva and (Sergei) Grinkov and Lloyd (Eisler) and Isabelle (Brasseur). I’ve watched all those pair teams and I used to think that the death spiral was like a break for the girl that you just hold on and get whipped around, like it was no big deal. Then I did the first one myself, and I thought, ‘Oh my God! it’s so hard.’ I didn’t think there was any work. I could do it right away, but one revolution, not competitively. That was an eye opener for me.”
After three seasons, Stellato-Dudek and Bartholomay dissolved their partnership in April 2019 due to Bartholomay needing surgery and uncertainty on his part over whether he would continue competing afterwards.
“We decided that it wasn’t fair for me to wait around on a maybe because he wasn’t sure what he was going to do and by the time he would heal from that I would have missed the opportunity to get a new partner,” Stellato-Dudek explained. “We very amicably split. We still talk. We’re friends.
“Then my partner search was on and I contacted every single human being that I knew.”
Deschamps was recommended to Stellato-Dudek by Canadian pairs coach Bruno Marcotte and she travelled to Canada for a try out. Immediately, something clicked between the two of them.
“We did a death spiral together. It was the first element we did, and he pulled me off my feet. I thought, ‘Okay, that was weird.’ Then we did a pair spin, and he pulled me off my feet again and I thought, ‘This guy has a lot of power.’ Not just strength, because strength and power are different. He had a lot of power. I thought, ‘How do I not really know who he is?’ I hadn’t really heard of him.”
In her previous partnership, Stellato-Dudek had competed against Deschamps and his previous partner Sydney Kolodziej at the 2018 Four Continents Championships. However, she had no recollection of them having participated in the same event.
“I didn’t really notice him,” Stellato-Dudek confessed. But I thought, ‘Why don’t I know who this person is? He’s got a lot of potential.’ We just kept on going and I got used to his power during the try out. I felt it was a really good match and I cancelled all my other try outs. We just went on from there.”
In June 2019, Stellato-Dudek packed her bags and moved from Florida to Montréal where Deschamps was based. With an eye on potentially competing at the 2026 Olympics, they decided that they would represent Canada internationally as it would be easier for Stellato-Dudek to get Canadian citizenship than vice versa.
“It seemed like an obvious choice,” Stellato-Dudek said. “Also, we were going to Max’s coaches, and they were all in Canada, but the decision was made very pragmatically and made from reason as to what country to represent.
“When we partnered, we knew that 2026 was the goal because 2022 was too soon.”
Stellato Dudek and Deschamps gelled as a team from the start and feel that they are a good combination not just in their skating, but also in their temperaments.
“Max is the goofy joking happy one and I bring the business to the rink every day,” Stellato-Dudek said. “We’re a good match because if we were both business or we were both goofy, we’d get nothing done.”
“At the same time, like, I make sure to plan what we’re going to do,” Deschamps said. “We discuss, but I bring the pieces of the plan on a daily basis and what we want to do together. I’ve done it for a long time already with my previous partners, so it’s something I am used to doing. I’m also coaching a lot, so I do for also a lot of athletes.”
As Stellato-Dudek had not received a release from United States Figure Skating to skate with Deschamps, the pair were restricted to competing in domestic events in Canada. They finished sixth at the Canadian Championships in January 2020.
Two months later the Covid-19 pandemic shut down ice rinks in Quebec and cross-border travel was hindered. Stellato-Dudek faced a dilemma in that she could not practice her sport, but also could not exit and enter Canada freely.
“Covid was one of the most difficult times in my adult life, I would say, because I couldn’t leave Canada because I didn’t have my PR (Permanent Resident) card or a work visa, so I wouldn’t have been allowed back in,” Stellato-Dudek said. “If I wanted to skate, I had to stay in Canada, but then none of my family or friends could come into Canada because they didn’t have a passport or citizenship. I was very much there alone and all that I had was skating. Then that was taken away from me because the rinks were closed in Quebec for four months during the original pandemic in 2020. Unfortunately, because I still did not have my release from the States, we were not international competitors and Quebec shut down for every athlete except international competitive athletes in January, February and March of 2021. So, we were off the ice again. That part hurt because there were teams that we had placed in front of at our challenge event that were allowed to skate and we weren’t. It was a real gut-wrenching time. Finally, we were allowed back on the ice in I think late March or April, and then we were playing catch up again. Every year we had to play catch up. We never got an off-season. This is the first year we finally had a proper off-season with no interruptions and I always joke the off-season is where I shine. There’s no pressure of a run through every day. You can be creative, and it’s a little bit more chill than during the season, and so we made a ton of improvements. I knew that we would. We just needed that time and it was the first year we got it.”
Being unable to skate indoors in early 2021 meant Stellato-Dudek and Deschamps trained on outdoor rinks and used it as an opportunity to experiment with new elements.
“We wanted to add the throw Lutz that year, but now we weren’t skating so that wasn’t going to be possible,” Stellato-Dudek said. “Maxime thought of ways we could add value to our points without a big-ticket element. Something that’s not dangerous and something that we can do outside because there’s tons of small rinks all over Montreal that are open outside, and that’s where we could skate during that time.”
The element they chose to learn was the rarely seen forward outside death spiral. Stellato-Dudek at first was not convinced but came around to the idea.
“We would look at videos of Shen and Zhao,” Stellato-Dudek said. “There weren’t that many people that did it so there weren’t that many videos to go off of because the angle had to be good too for us to see how they were doing it. We would watch these videos and then we would go out on the small ice and do the death spiral until our hands got numb and we would go back in the car and watch more videos. I said, ‘I don’t think I’m going to get this.’ He said, ‘You’re going to get it.’ He was sold way before I was sold.
Stellato-Dudek and Deschamps finally got to compete internationally for Canada in the 2021/2022 season. They finished fourth and sixth at two ISU Challenger Series events in Canada and Poland respectively. A third-place finish at the 2022 Canadian Championships culminated in them being selected for the Four Continents Championships in Tallinn, Estonia in January this year where they wound up just off the podium in fourth place.
“After Four Continents, we were really unhappy with both our skates and we sat down at that event, because we were so fired up,” Stellato-Dudek said. “We made a list of everything that we need to fix and improve. By March/April, we were starting to cross things off that list. We felt like we were really going in the right direction and we were getting great feedback from the federations and from our coaches, but you don’t really believe it until you see how you are received when you compete.”
They opened their season at Nebelhorn Trophy in Oberstdorf, Germany in September and set new personal bests to win their first title as a pair much to their own surprise.
“At Nebelhorn, you could see my reaction in the kiss and cry in the short, because I made a small mistake and we still got a 68 and I couldn’t believe it,” Stellato-Dudek said. “I was to trying not to cry.”
The following month they backed that up with a silver medal and another set of personal bests at Skate America and were just under four points off 2022 World champions Alexa Knierim and Brandon Frazier.
“For me I need to see it to believe it,” Stellato-Dudek said. “It needs to happen. Even with the forward outside death spiral which he said I would do on the first one, until I’ve done it, I’m not going to believe that I can do it.”
“We have scored 70 something at Skate America and she’ll still think she’s in a 55 to 58 team,” Deschamps said.
“I’ve always been that way though,” Stellato-Dudek said. “I don’t want to think that I’m something that I’m not or better than I am. I just want to try to best myself every time.”
Their second Grand Prix assignment of the season was in Angers, France where they went in as favourites for the title. It was an unusual position that they found themselves in and they struggled in the short programme where Stellato-Dudek fell on a throw triple loop.
“I guess we wanted to repeat what we did before and try to make even more improvements and so it was a different kind of pressure,” Stellato-Dudek said. “It didn’t go our way, but it’s a learning experience and you certainly can’t be perfect all the time.”
“This is the hardest part,” Deschamps added. “It’s a little bit of a different mindset. It’s weird because it gave us some confidence. It’s more fun to go out there. It’s a little bit less stressful, but at the same time we want to do well. It’s hard to always stay at the top. It is always going to be more of a challenge, but we just learn more from each other.”
“Competition was a different challenge when I came back, being older and being smarter and knowing what things mean and knowing what you need to do and what you need to do to get that score,” Stellato-Dudek said. I always say you have to skate stupid when you’re older because the intelligence actually does not help you in competition, but it does help you in practice.
“I know what medalling at this competition (in France) meant and knowing we wanted to go to the final and then knowing that we were only a point above in the short because we didn’t skate well. That kind of stuff doesn’t help you at all. I really feel at this age that I’m in my prime, and I’m doing what I’m supposed to be doing, but there are pluses and minuses. And of course, your greatest strengths are always your greatest weaknesses and I feel like being a little bit more mature and a little bit more intelligent can work for and against me. It took me some time to figure out where to use it and where not to use it.”
They performed better in the free skating in France and secured the gold medal to qualify themselves for this week’s Grand Prix Final. At the age of 39, Stellato-Dudek also became the oldest skater to ever win a Grand Prix title.
“It’s been a whirlwind, for sure,” Stellato-Dudek reflected. “If you would have told me in 2016 when I put on my 16-year-old boots and blades from my mom’s basement and was having a panic attack about doing my first single Axel that in 2022 I was going to win a Grand Prix medal, I wouldn’t have believed you.”
It was also Deschamp’s first Grand Prix title and this week in Turin will be his first trip to the Grand Prix Final after taking up pairs skating a decade and a half ago.
“I’m really happy for Maxime as he has been skating pairs for 15 years, and I’m his ninth partner,” Stellato-Dudek said. That’s how long he’s been in the game. He always had girls that were new to pairs except for one. I’m his second girl that’s ever skated pairs before, so everything was very girl focused to try to teach her pairs. Now that we had some experience, and we can work together, he can actually work on himself, instead of always just focusing on teaching the girl an element or how to just skate pairs in general. I’m also really happy that I could be his partner and bring him that a possibility to be his best self.”
With the retirement of most of the top Canadian pairs after last season, a door of opportunity has opened for Stellato-Dudek and Deschamps and now people are looking to them to keep on winning medals and titles for Canada right up to 2026.
“We didn’t know about Vanessa (James) and Eric (Radford) and I don’t think anyone had an idea about Evelyn (Walsh) and Trennt (Michaud), so those were shocks,” Stellato-Dudek said. “But when we made that plan at Four Continents that I told you about earlier, we made it assuming they would be there. So, when each of them slowly announced that they were retiring, nothing really changed for us because we had already put in all that work to try to be the best regardless of who we’re competing against.
“At Skate America, I said I had a lot of respect for Alexa and Brandon because they were favourites when they were going into Worlds,” Stellato-Dudek said. “It’s one thing to be the favourite and it’s another thing to actually do it.”
“For this season, our approach was only to improve our score every single time, just to get better every time and not looking at the results overall,” Deschamps said.
“We’d love to score over 200 in a combined score,” Stellato-Dudek said. “We’ve gotten close, so that’s a goal that we have for this season. For the other seasons, it’s to take it year by year. I have ideas for programmes, and we have ideas for elements to take them up a notch, but it’s just step by step.”
“Next season, we also have those worlds that will be in Montreal so that will be something super exciting,” Deschamps said. “We’ll have to stay focused on ourselves, especially being at home. All our family and friends will be there. It’s a good thing this year, like in France, the learning curve that we had of being first after the short. It will be good to be ready to be in Montreal. Not for winning, but just to be home and have everybody around because we’ll have to stay concentrated on ourselves. It’s all good experience for preparing for next season.”
This week they are one of six teams in Turin vying for a place on the Grand Prix Final podium. For Stellato-Dudek, it has confirmed that coming out of retirement and take up pairs was the correct decision even though it may have seemed far-fetched at the time.
“I took a really huge leap, coming back to the sport and coming back in this way, trying to be competitive with people half my age,” she said. “I knew I was going to have to make up for lost time and what that would take, but I always had a really strong belief in myself. I think that you can do whatever you think you can do.”
Good luck and success team!
Good luck and more success team! Many of us are rooting for you!