21-year-old Matteo Rizzo enters this season as a European bronze medalist, Winter Universiade champion, first Italian male skater to win a medal in the senior Grand Prix circuit (2018 NHK Trophy). And so the expectations are high, but he is ready to work hard, as always, to achieve his goals. He says it loud and clear, in an interview for Inside Skating – more like a motto, a statement of belief: “I want to work – and I work to get better”.
Hence, his off-season has been quite busy, with Matteo diving into unknown territory for choreography – he spent a week in Charleston, South Carolina, working with Shae-Lynn Bourne for his short program (you’ll love this part, them knowing each other for a while now, the admiration to Shae-Lynn); and then another fruitful three weeks at Toronto Cricket Club, working on the technique with Brian Orser and his team.
You’ll notice the enthusiasm, “the good, new feeling” that he had while training in Toronto, the emotions brought by being in a space that was such a good home to his role model, Javier Fernández: “I hope to have the same career, at the end of mine”.
Speaking of that, Matteo’s eyes are surely on the Europeans – and, just like Javier, he’s using the plural, “we work for it”, “my team and I work really hard” – but, actually, he wants a medal of every competition he enters this season. He explains it with a smile: high goals are meant to make him grow, event after event.
You look at him – so young, yet so mature.
And our conversation takes place in Bergamo, at the end of Lombardia Trophy, his first competition this season. He won the bronze here – and finding the best time to interview him proved quite a challenge: with IceLab being his home rink (he trains here with Franca Bianconi and hid dad, Valter Rizzo), Matteo was always surrounded by familiar faces, always greeted, asked little things, congratulated. Plus: he also wanted to follow the event and cheer for the Italians, his friends, his teammates.
A window of opportunity presents itself after the medal ceremony, we take it with open arms – and, for the next 20 minutes or so, we’ll travel into Matteo’s plans this season, with small accolades made of memories.
interview by Florentina Tone/Bergamo
Matteo, I’ve been planning to talk to you about last season as well, so it might be a long list of questions ahead – but let’s start with the present: you just won the bronze medal here in Bergamo, at 2019 Lombardia Trophy. It’s the first time that you showed your programs for this season in a competition, right?
Yes, and that was a test for me. It’s good to have a competition at home, where I practice – we can use it to get scores, points, and as well to try all the new programs, all new choreography, new elements. So it was good [from this point of view].
At the end, I’m not so happy with the result, but I know I’m not in my best shape yet. I need maybe a month more – for the Grand Prix-s it will be better.
But for now… we’re ok. My team and I worked really hard to put the [quad] Loop in the program. It didn’t really work [in competition], but I have it in practice – that’s the main thing for the next couple of months.
It’s actually Ok that you weren’t in your top shape right now – you need to be later on.
When you look back at your successful last season, what do you see? What’s the first thing that comes to your mind, your strongest memory?
The day that I changed my free program.
That’s unexpected… [Matteo is smiling]
Yes, because it’s a big change during the season to change music, choreography.
So that day was really important – we made the decision with my team. And the first competition was after 13 days – Europeans – with the new program. So it was kind of difficult, but it went great after all.
We really worked hard on that program and I really enjoyed skating to Queen.
So the strongest memory from last season is not a medal, as one would expect…
No, the strongest memory is the change. Of course, the medals, from Europeans and also Universiade, were huge moments for me, but it’s thanks to that day that I got those medals.
Because you weren’t feeling comfortable with your previous free skate to a Rolling Stones medley?
It was really hard to get in shape with my old free program, old-old free program. We tried a couple of competitions, it didn’t really work. I mean, I got a medal at the Grand Prix in Japan, but the feeling was not good, so we decided to change it. 13 days before Europeans, we said: Let’s do this, let’s try.
“I LOVE TO WORK WITH SHAE-LYNN, SHE HAS SOMETHING SPECIAL”
This decision of yours to work with Shae-Lynn Bourne for the short program this season – where did it come from?
Matteo smiles – he has plenty of things to say: Let’s start by saying that I know Shae-Lynn since I was a kid. Because my dad was working with her – my dad was working as a coach with Nikolai Morozov and Shae-Lynn was skating at that time… So she knows me since I was a kid, really, since I was like 5.
And my dad was always saying: One day we’re gonna do a program with Shae-Lynn. And that day has arrived [laughing], so we just asked her when she was free to do a program for me.
And it was all great! We worked really hard, I love to work with her, she has something special, I have to say.
[you can definitely feel the enthusiasm in Matteo’s voice]
And who chose the music, who come up with “Start a Fire” from “La La Land”?
I suggested some music, it was not really working… and Shae-Lynn suggested this music that I have now in the short program. And I said: Let’s try it. And we worked a couple of days with this music on the ice, and then we said: Ok, this is the short program music!
And it’s just a special feeling to work with her.
Right now, I feel a little bit sorry because I cannot give 100% [to the program], because I’m not 100% in shape. But when I’m in shape, I know this program will be great! Because I love it, I enjoy doing it, and I worked so hard with her, and she worked so hard for me!
It was just a special week in Charleston, South Carolina.
But was it difficult to dive into unknown territory when it comes to choreography? You usually have your programs done at home, here, in Bergamo…
I usually work with Massimo Scali as a choreographer, and it’s always hard when you go for something different, especially for the choreography. It’s such a particular thing – you have to create a feeling, you have to know each other, the choreographer has to know you, what movements can you do and everything.
And Shae-Lynn had her homework done…
Yes, and it was great – I think it’s the best program I had so far! And when I’m going to be in a good physical shape, the program will also be better.
And then you got to spend some time at Toronto Cricket Club… How did that happen?
Yes, I’ve been for three weeks in Toronto, just after we did the choreography for the short. It was a good time there, first of all. The decision was made with all the staff during  Worlds and World Team Trophy – also my federation said that it’s a good idea to try to go to Toronto and work with Brian Orser.
And I really enjoyed it there. Because I felt good during practice since the first day, which is unusual for a new place, and we worked so hard. I hope to come back there, but during the season is really difficult to go on the other side of the world…
Brian worked exclusively with you or…?
No, no, I was in his group. And to work in his group is a great thing already, I was honored, really.
And I hope to come back, because the feeling that I had there was new and good. So we can do that again, I hope [emphasizing it], maybe next year.
That’s a good hope [Matteo is smiling] – and what areas have you particularly worked on during this time? Jumps-wise, skating skills-wise?
We really worked on the technique and especially on the quad Loop. And the quad Loop, I have it – unfortunately, not in competition, but in practice I have it. But it’s a new element, and in competition is always weird for me to do it. I just need a few more competitions and I think it’s gonna be fine.
So you think you improved while you stayed in Toronto…
I knew it was going to be a good experience for me because there are good champions there. Javi was not there [smiling]... but I knew something good will come, and I am so grateful to Brian, to his team, because they just took me and said: Ok, let’s practice together. To be there was a great thing already.
Because you mentioned Javi and him being, we know that, your role model… At a certain point in his career, he made the decision to leave Spain and go to Nikolai Morozov in Russia and then to Brian Orser, in Canada, to train. Has something like that occurred to you? A change so drastic in the coaching environment?
Everyone knows that Javi is my idol, my goal in my career. But… [trying to find the best words here] we are in two different ways and, also, I don’t think I’m gonna go to Toronto to live there, to practice always there.
But, you know, it’s always a good thing to be where he was. Because it was good for him, so I hope it’s good for me as well. Really, it’s just a special thing that he was there just before I went there. And sometimes Brian, when I was talking to him, he said: Also Javi was doing this, and this… And I was like: Ok… [smiling to the ears – you can sense Javier is such an important example to Matteo].
I mean, it’s not a secret that he’s my idol – I know him, he’s also my good friend. And I hope to have the same career, at the end of mine.
What about your free program for this season?
Massimo Scali did the choreography. He comes here in May and, usually, it works like that: I have an idea, we talk about it… but in the end he chooses the music [laughing].
But you had flamenco in your mind…?
I had the flamenco-style, he had the music [Galicia Flamenca by Gino D’Auri].
And the choreography is just great, everybody said it’s a good program. And, also, that one, I’m sorry I couldn’t perform it 100%. Right now it’s probably 70% because I’m not in shape, but for sure, during the Grand Prix season and the Europeans, it will be better. I’m working on my programs every day, so it’s always improving.
Talking about thoughts and plans and goals for this season, surely many skaters will try to fill the spot that Javi left, at the Europeans. Do you aspire to do that as well?
Yes – we are also working for it.
As you said, everybody is trying to, but I think the goal for this season is to take a medal at each competition that I’m doing. That’s my goal.
Of course, if I’m competing in one event with Hanyu, Shoma and maybe Boyang it will be more complicated [smiling]. But, besides Worlds, I think it will never happen with all these guys together…
As Grand Prix events you have…
Skate Canada and Cup of China. The entries are quite strong, it’s gonna be hard, but the goal has to be high – if not, you’re not going to improve. I always try to put high goals, even if I cannot reach them.
But how is Matteo at this point compared to Matteo a year ago? In what areas you feel you improved?
I think I improved in the technique and, also, I can do a better approach to competitions. Because with every year that comes I know myself better. So it’s always easier. But this is life [in general]: when you grow, it’s easier.
And comparing now with the last Lombardia Trophy, it’s a huge difference – and I think it’s good, because different means that you’re working. Better, good, you’re working, and that’s the point. I want to work – and I work to get better. And that’s it. Next week, another competition, and we’ll see.
FROM PLUSHENKO TO FERNÁNDEZ – THE SWITCH
The road to Beijing – how do you see yourself in those years that set you apart from the Games? What do you plan to do, how do you envision the journey?
[smiling] I think I’m gonna do exactly the same thing that I’m doing right now. Working.
I don’t have such a thing as a big plan. I mean, I don’t want to set goals for two years from now, I think it’s a little bit too far away. But the goal is to be there, and to be one of the good skaters there. That’s it.
There’s still so much time and I think you never have to rush. I don’t want to say things like I’m not thinking, but I’m not thinking about Beijing Olympics right now.
And we reached my final question – and that’s a journey into memories. When you took up skating, did you aspire to be like someone? Was there any particular skater in the history of the sport that you admired back then?
When I was a kid, Plushenko was the best skater in the world.
[both smiling] Everyone knows Plushenko…
Of course, he’s Plushenko! [on a warm, candid, proud voice even] And I started skating in that period.
But then, when I started competing at high level, I started understanding everything, the competitions, which national team was better than the other – and, of course, you could see the Russian national team was better than the Italian…
And when I understood that Javi was from Spain, and he reached all those results!, I was so impressed! So that was my change, from Plushenko to Javi.
[interview by Florentina Tone, Bergamo/photos by Natasha Ponarina at 2019 Europeans in Minsk; photos by Giacomello Foto and Florentina Tone at 2019 Lombardia Trophy in Bergamo]