David J. Phillip/AP
Johnny Dodd
February 14, 2014 02:35 PM

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.”

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The next thing Castelli knew, Putin put out his hand and she grabbed hold and shook it.

“He said, ‘Congratulations on a job well done,’ ” she remembered. “He was so gracious. The whole thing was kind of neat.”

I’ll say. And bizarre.

Tune into NBC tonight for more Olympic action, and check back with PEOPLE.com throughout the day for spoiler-free coverage and more of Johnny’s dispatches from the Games.

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