Early in the season, Deanna Stellato-Dudek and Maxime Deschamps seemed to have the world in their grip.
After finishing second at Skate America and winning their first Grand Prix gold, in France, and thus qualifying for the Grand Prix Final for the first time, they appeared a lock to win their first national title in Oshawa, Ont. next week.
But the world had other ideas to test their resolve; Stellato-Dudek contracted a powerful virus that has hobbled her for two months. And the team, together since 2019, has had to dig deep for the event next week.
They are not letting it go without a fight.
Stellato-Dudek, 39, and the oldest winner of a Grand Prix event, fell ill after returning from the win in France with a powerful virus. She was ill when she went to the Grand Prix Final a few weeks later, and was in survival mode. She said she did not know how they would make it through the long program.
In the short, they had finished less than half a point away from second-placed Japanese team Riku Miura and Ryuichi Kihara, but the Canadians faltered to finish fourth after the free.
Stellato-Dudek is still ill. On the verge of blossoming, the team has found utmost challenges to slow them.
“We’ve had a bit of a rough road since Grand Prix France,” Stellato-Dudek said Thursday during a conference call. “I’m still sick and it’s not going away. I don’t know why and what’s wrong. I’ve never been sick for this long in my life before.
“This is a new place for us to be in, where one of us is not well.”
Doctors have not told her what virus she has. They say only that she has a “really bad viral infection’ that is concentrated in her throat, and which causes inflammation.
Stellato-Dudek said there were two other skaters at her rink in Montreal who suffered from RSV (respiratory syncytial virus), which most children get by the time they are two years old. Adults get it, too. But it’s not a mild virus for any of them. Stellato-Dudek said the other two skaters are still ill with it.
A 102-degree F fever staggered Stellato-Dudek first, along with coughing. “I was really quite sick,” she said. Just before the Grand Prix Final, the illness morphed into Stellato-Dudek losing her voice altogether. Now, after treatment with antibiotics, she now speaks in a voice she doesn’t recognize as her own. “It’s like a high-octane version of my voice,” she said.
But her voice is the least of her problems. She suffers from a throat so swollen, she can’t inhale. Her throat feels blocked, not ideal for an athlete of any sort. If she drinks a lot of water at one time, she chokes on it. “I’ve had a lot of difficulties just trying to function normally and drink water, and also to be able to breathe through our run-throughs,” she said.
If they want to be able to compete, they are extremely limited by what drug treatment they can take. The antibiotics have only improved her condition. They have not stopped the symptoms. She says she’s just been drinking as much water as she can to flush the virus out of her body. “There’s not a lot else I can do,” she said.
Together, she and Deschamps thought that if they want this title badly enough, they would find a way to do it. They are trying to navigate through these difficulties by having Stellato-Dudek do a lot of exercises to get more oxygen through her nose. It’s very difficult for them to get through run-throughs.
“Before the final, it was just about surviving,” she said. “We were adapting because I didn’t have the strength that I normally have. So I was just kind of adapting to make things happen.
“Now I’m just adapting to this because this is my eighth week for being sick in a row. I don’t remember what it is like to have a voice and to train at full capacity. We’ve just adjusted to this as our new normal.”
Deschamps said that when his partner originally got sick, they did everything to make things work. But after a certain period of time, it just got harder. Since the Grand Prix Final, he said, they’ve been trying to adjust everything back to normal.
Stellato-Dudek said they are trying to get back to where they were before the Grand Prix Final with patterns and speed. The only kind of adjusting they do now is with run-throughs. “One will take a lot out of me because I can’t breathe,” she said. So they try to do one run-through a day and then work in sections.
Stellato-Dudek and Deschamps are staying true to themselves in one important area: they are not watering down their content. They go for the gusto, always, with singularly difficult elements.
Deschamps said they have a plan in place to be most ready for next week and he trusts the process. “That’s the only thing we can work on, on a daily basis,” he said. “It’s the best we can do.”
Stellato-Dudek hopes that perhaps with another weekend of rest, she will feel better next week. They contest the pair short program at nationals on Friday, January 13, the long the following day. They make it a point to remember that they do not need to peak for nationals, because three more events in their longest season ever await them. The goal is to start building.
They hope the illness is over by the time of Four Continents Championships at the Broadmoor World Arena in Colorado Springs – at high altitude. It runs Feb. 7 to 12.
“It’s a big learning for us,” Deschamps said. “We learn a lot from each other.”
He says he doesn’t even remember what her normal voice sounds like.
“If this were the Olympics, I would be skating whether I could breathe or not,” Stellato-Dudek said. So she goes into every event, thinking it is the Olympics.
“Hopefully all these things will be experience that we can draw upon in the future,” she added.