USA Ice Skaters Reflect on Their ‘Kind of Neat’ Encounter with President Putin

Putin (left) shakes hands with Meryl Davis

David J. Phillip/AP

updated 08/25/2015 AT 8:16 PM ET

originally published 02/14/2014 AT 2:35 PM ET

Johnny Dodd is a reporter and writer for PEOPLE, currently in Sochi covering the 2014 Winter Olympics. You can follow him on Twitter @Johnny_Dodd.

Life is funny. Just when you think you’ve got certain people figured out, it beans you with a curve ball.

Like today, after speaking with Team USA pairs ice skaters Simon Shnapir and Marissa Castelli, I realized I had Russian President Vladimir Putin all wrong.

For starters, I certainly never pegged the guy as a good-natured figure skating fanboy. Yet there he was at Sochi’s Iceberg Skating Palace, watching the competition Sunday. Russia eventually took silver and gold in the finals a few days later, while Shnapir and Castelli finished ninth.

But it’s what happened after their pairs free program that I wanted to hear about. So I went looking for them, eager to hear about their unlikely encounter with the Russian leader. When I finally found them, Shnapir explained how it went down.

“I was looking up at the [scoring] board, when I turned around and there he was,” he told me. “It happened so fast.”

A few feet away, Putin had walked up behind his longtime skating partner.

“He grabbed me on my shoulder, and I turned around really fast,” Castelli recalled. “I didn’t recognize him at first. I’d never really seen a president come down at a skating event.”

Added Shnapir: “You definitely don’t expect the Russian leader to be down there congratulating everyone.”