The season before the Olympics, Matteo was a thinnish young man making his World debut in Helsinki – and visiting, on the last day of the event, the cathedrals of the city without having to worry about being recognized by figure skating fans. You could barely notice him in a group of teammates featuring the more prominent Ondrej Hotarek, let alone being familiar with his name, or results.
And what a difference a season makes.
The 19-year-old Matteo Rizzo has been the revelation of this year’s Europeans, took it all in and embraced the air, the atmosphere of his first Olympics, became the first Italian man to win a medal (bronze) at the Junior Worlds – and, at the end of a “tough, but good” season, with no less than 10 international events, he entertained the crowd at home ground (senior) Worlds in Milan. He had nothing to lose, but everything to gain – and so he capitalized on every opportunity he was offered.
And people watching figure skating clearly remember his name now.
by Florentina Tone
Take one. At the end of men’s short program in Moscow, at 2018 Europeans, Matteo Rizzo was sitting in 6th place – and alongside with Dmitri Aliev’s 2nd place and Deniss Vasiljevs’ 3rd, this youngsters’ performance really made the talk of the town.
The Italian in particular – set to perform his long program in the final group of competitors two days later – has been quite a revelation. Absent at previous Europeans, not making the cut for the free skate at 2017 Worlds, the 19-year-old came flying to Moscow, and skated with a nonchalance worthy of a champion.
What might have given him the will, the guts, the confidence?
Above all, a personal triumph four months earlier: having finished 4th in Nebelhorn Trophy, Matteo Rizzo had qualified Italy a spot in the men’s discipline at 2018 Winter Olympics. And by January in Moscow, he knew the spot was his.
And he was ready to make the most of it in the event that most mattered to Italy. And so, in Moscow already, you’d hear him saying: “For me, European Championships is a transition toward the second part of the season. The first part of it was very good, but the most important [one] starts now. My focus will be the team event of the Olympic Games”.
“We are very proud of him”
And though Matteo seemed in a hurry to see the rings in PyeongChang, let’s just wait a second here and focus on the now. The young Italian will finish the second Europeans of his career on the 9th place – after being 13th in his debut, in 2016 – ticking a box in a long list of boxes for this season: “It means two spots next year for my country – it was my goal and I am happy with this”.
He’d be stunned by something else though.
And his friend and teammate, Ondrej Hotarek, will describe with a laughter, in an interview for Inside Skating in Moscow, Matteo’s first reaction when finding out he’d been invited to skate in the exhibition gala of the Europeans.
“He basically went to buy his costume into H&M here at the mall, because he wasn’t expecting he would be invited to the exhibition. The day after the long, he was like: «Oh, my God! But why? I’m 9th, there are 6 places…». For the whole day he was trying to understand why he was picked out for the exhibition. And we were like: «Well, people probably liked your programs!». And we wanted to do something fun, something that really suited him, and I remembered that he did this show a couple of years ago, and it was really cute – but he didn’t have any costume, so we bought a black tie and some pants and a white shirt. And I think he did a great job, and the arena loved it, and I think he earned a spot for the next show as well!”
And while Ondrej is recounting how Matteo showed true dedication, building the program for the gala, preparing the music, rehearsing in the hotel room “till one o’clock in the night”, Valentina Marchei shares with a smile: “We are very proud of him”.
Ondrej nods, and instantly becomes the best chronicler of his friend’s season – the youngest male member of the Italian team: “He took his spot, and he’s been amazing in stepping up and trying to be on the same level as other three disciplines. Which is hard! Skating next to Carolina, and Luca… And he’s just trying to get as high as he can. And here, skating in the last group, that was a big surprise! …and he wants to do everything! He’s gonna do two competitions at Olympics, and he’s gonna go for Junior Worlds as well as Senior Worlds”.
But before everything else, there’s that: the two of them diving into sparkling, golden confetti at the end of Europeans. Now they’re ready for the rings.
Take two. It’s early in the morning, on February 9, in Gangneung Ice Arena – early by the standards of any other figure skating event except Olympics – and Matteo starts his Olympic journey with a wonderful short program to „Torna a Surriento”. A confident performance, on a morning marred with mistakes from almost everyone else.
“Iniziamo bene!”, coach Franca Bianconi exudes, and you can sense the enthusiasm in Italy’s mauve box.
No better debut for Matteo, no better way of taking it all in in his first Olympics. And by all we really mean all – because Matteo is set to skate in both the team and individual event, four skates in total.
Is he ready for that?
Clearly so. And he’ll be filling the rink during his Beatles free skate two days later – collecting a total of 13 precious points for Italy; with 56 points, team Italy will be 4th in PyeongChang, only 6 points short of a medal. And Matteo’s contribution to this excellent overall result is undeniable.
He’ll tick another box right here, the one that says: Be a reliable member of the team.
A week later, he’ll do it again, but this time on his own, finishing his first ever Olympics on the 21th place. And his generous presence on the ice, him opening up and sharing with the audience, music flowing through the fingertips, while also being technically steady are all proofs he does have what it takes to build a great future. For himself, for Italy, for Europe.
Take three. Milan was the destination point of a long road for Matteo, who entered in no less than 10 international competitions this season, both junior and senior. But when he set foot to Mediolanum Forum, the arena hosting post-Olympic Worlds, his confidence level must have been up in the sky: ten days earlier he had made history for Italy by winning its first ever medal in the men’s event at an ISU World Junior Championships.
A bronze medal with a special meaning attached to it, he’d confess in Sofia: “It is my last junior competition, it is my last junior year. I competed in the Olympic Games, and it was amazing, but this medal is a big step to be at a good level in seniors”.
Asked about his first Junior Worlds, in 2014, he’ll answer quickly: “I remember that competition, I think I got 30th. And I think this means that everybody can do it – you just have to believe in yourself and keep working. I think my work was very good this season, I did a lot of competitions, my team has been working well, and I’ve been working well, and this was the result. I think I’m not lucky, I just worked. I worked hard for the Olympic Games, that was my first goal, and winning a medal here was my second goal”.
And he wants to emphasize a particular detail once again: “All achieved – but it was work, not luck”.
Take four. You’d hear him say that in Milan as well, as if “hard work” were really the leitmotif of his entire skating career so far, his statement of belief: “Surely, without hard work, talent serves nothing. I think I have potential, but I also work really hard for that: I work hard all throughout the season – and I always do that in order to reach every time the goal that I set for myself. And if I reach it, I am happy, and when I don’t, I obviously try to find ways to do it better next time”.
Facing the journalists in the mixed zone right after his short program at 2018 Worlds, Matteo looks so young, and yet so very serious.
And he is young – and not only by the age, but also by experience: that was the first full season of his career, Europeans and Worlds included, Olympics atop of everything.
But his mindset is that of a champion already.
And not only because he added the Toe to the triple Lutz in his short program, when the landing of the Flip wasn’t good enough to secure a second jump – you need to be able to that at all times – but you also see that in the way he’s handling the questions of the journalists. With care, responsibility, matureness.
And so, when asked if he doesn’t feel disadvantaged by the fact he trains in Italy, or by the fact he doesn’t have a renowned coach by his side, he utters simply: “I would much rather start with this: I am happy with how everything turned out. And to answer your question, I’ll say that everyone tries to show the best version of himself every time he takes the ice. As for me, I always try to give 100 percent, or even more, 110 percent, and the results are those, and I will accept them, and I always try to contribute to the advancement of the Italian skating in my discipline”.
And not only he is contained, and level-headed – but he’s also very aware already of his task, his mission. Remember Ondrej talking about him, earlier on? “He took his spot, and he’s been amazing in stepping up and trying to be on the same level as other three disciplines….”
“Quindi… sono felice”. Simple as that
Tiredness is the next topic on the table – a marathon, a tour de force this season has been for Matteo, with Olympics surely taking its toll. And so, coming to home ground Worlds, how would he describe himself?
A smile follows: “Yes, I am definitely tired…”. And there’s that sense of duty prevailing again: “…but it’s somehow useless to talk if I am tired or not – I had known since the beginning of the season that I needed to be able to skate through March 25”.
And competing on home ice, in the most prestigious annual figure skating competition, surely proved itself a motivator. “After OIympics, Worlds on home ground have been one of the most important events for me this season, and the atmosphere in the rink was really crazy”. He’d shown his amazement just a couple of minutes before: “I told my dad and Franca [Bianconi] in the Kiss and Cry that when I landed the Axel I couldn’t even hear the music anymore because the crowd was crazy”.
“I have never skated in an arena like that, with so much support, and it gave me a lot of strength to fight until the very end… and it went well. Quindi… sono felice [Hence, I am happy]”.
As for the work on the quads – hot topic, with Italy having such high hopes about Matteo – “it’s going well”. He knows the level of interest in the media is high, so he puts things into context, also pointing out to what his strategy had been this season: “I believe that, as in so many situations in life, if you work on a particular thing, you can’t work on other things as well. Hence I focused more on the programs as a whole throughout the season, on maintaining the quality, the steadiness of every element – and the quad jumps are elements that are new, and that are usually worked, individually, during off-season. So throughout this season, I focused on showing good, quality programs – I will work on the quads during summer that is in front of me”.
Asked to get into specifics, he’ll only say: “The easiest [quad] I think it’s Toe, but I’m working on all the quads, because you have to do all them”.
And then there’s that: Do you think this explosion of quads has taken away something from skating, that something is lost out of its richness?, someone asks Matteo, as he’s as candid as ever – but also decided to be playing by the rules: “I will tell you that yes, it does. But the first four skaters in the World [hinting at the top 4 at the Olympics] will disapprove of me because they manage to integrate quality quadruple jumps and, at the same time, maintain programs that are very neat. This is the path of our sport – we need to get used to it, and respond to the demands of it”.
And just because this is the path to follow, Matteo Rizzo would attempt a quad Toe at the beginning of his Beatles free skate in Milan, two days later. It was not ready yet, he’d said it on more than one occasion, but he felt the moment was good to test the waters, throw one on competition ice, see how it feels.
“It’s the last program of the season and it is here, in Italy, so I thought I had nothing to lose, I’m not competing for a medal. Of course, you will see more of it next season”.
This particular season has been “tough, but good”, he’ll summarize. Finishing on the 17th place overall, he’s taken a great leap forward; 13 World places to be exact. And people screaming his name in the arena is both an indicator of his progress, and a wonderful personal souvenir from Worlds.
SEE MORE: glimpses of Matteo’s journey at 2018 Worlds
[story by Florentina Tone; with excerpts from the interview with Valentina Marchei and Ondrej Hotarek done in Moscow by Nadia Vasilyeva; photos by Natasha Ponarina, Andriana Andreeva and Getty Images]