Deanna Stellato-Dudek hopes to capture her first Canadian figure skating title – at the age of 39, and more than 20 years after she initially retired from the sport.

But a viral infection that’s been bothering her for nine weeks could get in the way.

“It’s not going away. I don’t know what’s wrong but I’ve never been sick for this long in my life before,” Stellato-Dudek said. “[But] we kind of said if we want this bad enough, we’ll find a way.”

Stellato-Dudek became the oldest skater to capture an ISU Grand Prix title when she and pairs partner Maxime Deschamps won in Angers, France, in early November. She’s been sick ever since.

“I had a 102-degree fever and coughing and really quite sick. And then it morphed into this … obviously, as you can hear, my voice is not my voice, it’s like a high-octane version of my voice,” she said through a high, raspy voice. “But that’s the least of my problems.”

Her throat is swollen so she can’t inhale through her mouth. She’s been practising breathing exercises, to be able to get through the four-minute long program breathing through her nose.

“Obviously for cardiovascular training, that’s extremely difficult. And then on top of that, if I try to drink a lot of water at one time, I choke on it,” she said. “So I’ve had a lot of difficulties with just being able to function normally and drink water and also being able to breathe through in our run-throughs.”

The story of how Stellato-Dudek is even competing at the national championships reads like a Hollywood movie script. She was a singles skater for the United States, winning a world junior silver medal in 2000, but retired later that year with an injury. Or so she thought.

A team-building exercise at a business retreat 16 years later started her wondering if she’d retired too soon. Mitch Moyer, the high-performance director for U.S. Figure Skating, said if she was considering a comeback, she should try pairs.

She was a quick study. And she and her partner make a great team.

“Max … has an engineer brain, so he’s very technical. I always defer to him on elements and things like that, if something’s maybe a little bit off,” Stellato-Dudek said. “But then musicality and interpretation is more my strength. So, we’re a good match, we have different strengths and weaknesses and can kind of help each other out.”

Deschamps is 31, but says there’s no noticeable age gap between them.

“She’s so young, and we’re past a certain age where age matters,” he said.

Stellato-Dudek and Deschamps are favourites to win gold at the Canadian championships, from which the team for the world championships in Saitama, Japan, will be selected. Canada’s top teams last season – Kirsten Moore-Towers and Michael Marinaro and Vanessa James and Eric Radford – retired last off-season.

At the Grand Prix Final in France, pairs bronze medalist Annika Hocke of Germany, who’s 22, laughed with Stellato-Dudek about having seen old video of her competing in 2000, and using a cellphone that she’d never seen because it was so old.

“We were laughing about the phone,” Stellato-Dudek said. “That was Generation 1 of the cellphone.”

Stellato-Dudek, who received a release from the U.S. federation last year in order to compete for Canada with Deschamps, has received mostly support from other skaters in her comeback, which she hopes continues to the 2026 Olympics.

“There’s always going to be naysayers, of course. But for the most part I’ve very well embraced and believed in and that means a lot to me. I didn’t know what it would be like for me when I came back,” she said. “I love it.

“I hope all of them see that they can go on for another decade or so. I think the whole thing is really wonderful. There’s a big camaraderie in pairs in general because what we do is so dangerous. So it’s a very friendly environment. The Italian skater at the Grand Prix, Niccolo [Macii], he said, ‘I don’t know how you do this at your age.’ He was grabbing his back. I was like, ‘I’ve got 13 years on you, you’re fine. Stop complaining.’”

These national championships are the first being held in front of fans since 2020 because of COVID-19. The short programs are Friday, while the free programs are Saturday.

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