Deanna Stellato-Dudek was attending a business retreat in 2016 and as part of a team-building exercise was asked: What would you do if you knew you couldn't fail?
With no hesitation she said: Win an Olympic gold medal.
Stellato-Dudek was a world junior silver medallist for the U.S. in singles figure skating in 2000, but a strained hip flexor suffered later that year was the latest in a long line of injuries, and she retired.
Sixteen years later, that team-building exercise hit a nerve. She wondered what might have been. Maybe she'd called it a career too soon.
"I couldn't believe that I said (Olympic gold), because it just kind of came out without thought," Stellato-Dudek said. "I really thought that that part of my life had been parked, and I had moved on from it. So, I was in shock that I gave that answer.
"I thought about it for two weeks, the fact that was something so clearly inside of me that I desired."
So she asked her mom to dig out her old skates from the basement, and she headed to a public skating rink in her hometown of Chicago.
It was the beginning of a remarkable comeback. She calls it "Career 2.0." Last weekend, Stellato-Dudek and pairs partner Maxime Deschamps won the ISU Grand Prix event in Angers, France, making her the oldest skater, at age 39, to win a Grand Prix title.
Her dream is to compete for Canada at the 2026 Olympics in Milan. She's American, and has been released to compete for Canada at ISU events, including the 2023 world championships in Saitama, Japan. She needs to be a Canadian citizen to compete at the Olympics, but is confident
"(Olympics) has been the goal with Maxim since the day that we partnered, which was in June of 2019," Stellato-Dudek said. "And I have high confidence along with my citizenship attorney that I will have (citizenship) in time for the 2026 Olympics."
Stellato-Dudek remained fit in her 16-year layoff doing Pilates, yoga, weightlifting and cardio work. And despite those long years between, she was landing all her double jumps her first day back on the ice.
"I was very nervous to pull in on all of them, but muscle memory can be an amazing thing," she said.
Working 12-hour days as an esthetician, she would head to the rink at 4:30 a.m. to squeeze in some skating time. She eventually felt confident enough to travel to Florida to meet with her former coach Cindy Watson-Caprel.
"I wanted her opinion … either she would tell me that I was just absolutely crazy for thinking I could do this. Or if she would say, 'No, you actually look like you can do that,'" Stellato-Dudek said.
It was serendipitous, she said, that Mitch Moyer, the high-performance director for U.S. Figure Skating, was at the rink and instantly recognized her.
"He said, 'If you want to come back to skating, I highly recommend you try pairs,'" Stellato-Dudek said. "So, this second time around, I'm not going to pass up any opportunities that are given to me. This is the recommendation somebody's making, I'm going to try it on. That's what I did."
Pairs posed numerous new challenges. She had to learn lifts and throws, including the triple twist in which, like human pizza dough, the man throws his partner upwards, she spins three times, and he catches her.
"I actually really love lifts, and I'm lucky to love lifts, because I know there are a lot of girls that carry a lot of fear with lifts, and I never have, and I give all that credit to both my partners," she said. "And I also just really wanted to get it. Everyone says, 'Oh the twist, it's so hard, it’s so hard,' and I wanted to prove everyone wrong, and I wanted to get it."
Stellato-Dudek originally competed with American Nathan Bartholomay. The two captured bronze at the U.S. championships, but they split in 2019 due to his injuries.
She teamed up with Deschamps a few weeks later after travelling to Montreal for a tryout with him. They won bronze at last season's Canadian championships, despite Deschamps' COVID-19 diagnosis keeping them off the ice until a week before the event.
They opened this season with a silver at Skate America behind reigning world champions Alexa Knierim and Brandon Frazier of the U.S.
"I'll be honest, when they started, you're never sure where that's gonna go, definitely everyone's aware of what her age is at the time," said Skate Canada's high performance director Mike Slipchuk. "But, the improvement they've shown this year, with both of them, is pretty remarkable."
Stellato-Dudek spends three hours every day after practice doing recovery, including yoga, stretching, cupping, wearing NormaTec compression pants, and sometimes ultrasound to nip any niggling pain in the bud.
"When you watch her out there you wouldn't guess her age," Slipchuck said. "And Max is a very solid pairs guy, always has been. He's one of the best pair lifters we've had, and that goes a long way too. It's a good partnership that just kind of came together that we're kind of seeing the fruits now of what they can do."
Stellato-Dudek said while her comeback had nothing to do with being a role model, or setting an example, she does see her story as relatable for anyone feeling unfulfilled.
"I am really lucky to be able to wake up every day and do what I am so deeply passionate about, and not everybody gets that in life," she said. "Your life really does change when you're actively going after your passion every day, it doesn't feel like work at all.
"And it's not just sports. You can go back to school to be an attorney or a doctor in your 30s if you want, you can change and start a new career in your 30s. Life now is such that those things are possible, where perhaps 20 years ago, that wasn't the case."
With their two Grand Prix medals, Stellato-Dudek and Deschamps clinched a berth among the six-team field for the Grand Prix Final, Dec. 8-11 in Turin, Italy. The Canadian championships, which will determine the world championship team, are Jan. 9-15 in Oshawa, Ont.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 10, 2022.
Lori Ewing, The Canadian Press