By Hiro Yoshida
A newfound stability in their lives has seen Nicole Della Monica (29) and Matteo Guarise (30) reap the rewards on the ice. Having already achieved their main objective for this season, the Italian pair are looking forward to competing again next week at the World Championships in Saitama, Japan.
Their season got under way on home ice in September 2018 at the Lombardia Trophy in Bergamo, Italy where they took bronze. Six weeks later they travelled to Helsinki, Finland for their first Grand Prix assignment of the season and came away with a silver medal, their highest finish in seven seasons of competing on the Grand Prix circuit. As if to prove that was no fluke, two weeks later they also picked up a silver at the Rostelecom Cup in Moscow, Russia. These results booked them a place at the Grand Prix Final in Vancouver, Canada and it was the first time a pair from Italy qualified for the event.
Before the season had begun, Della Monica and Guarise had set their sights on accomplishing qualification for the Grand Prix Final as their primary mission.
“For us it was important because we made history for Italian skating,” Della Monica said. “This was our main goal for this season.”
In December, they placed fifth in their Grand Prix Final debut and the following week won their fourth Italian national title in a row.
At their seventh consecutive European Championships in Minsk, Belarus in January of this year, Della Monica and Guarise got off to the best possible start by skating a clean short programme and found themselves in third place ahead of the free skating. A couple of small errors during the free cost them dearly and saw them drop down to fourth overall and miss out on a bronze medal by 0.14 points.
Despite coming so close, the Italians were philosophical about losing a place on the podium by such a slight margin. Their main takeaway from Europeans was that they had skated two relatively clean performances and could be satisfied with that no matter what results followed.
“Everything happens for a reason,” Guarise said. “I said to Nicole this morning maybe if we got the medal we would not be thinking about our next competition. I think it is good motivation for us.”
“I always say that the best moment for a skater is the bow because you don’t think about the result yet,” Guarise continued. “It’s not the kiss and cry. It’s the bow. When you see a skater happy at the bow, it means they are happy with their performance.”
The improvement in their results began in the 2017-2018 season when they won their first Grand Prix medal (a bronze at Internationaux de France) and finished fifth at the World Championships in Milan, Italy.
“I think it was the first season that we were more consistent,” Della Monica said. “We’ve been more consistent and always there with the points and the results were not so bad and finally you saw at the World Championships. We knew it was possible, but we didn’t expect so much.”
For the Italians, a change in the financial support that they have received over the last two seasons has enabled them to improve their performance in competition.
“Because we did not have so much money there were things we could and could not do,” Guarise explained. “We had to share an apartment because of money. She has a boyfriend and I have a girlfriend, but we were living in the same apartment.
“We were sharing 24 hours together and sometimes not even wife and husband share so much time together,” Della Monica said.
In June of last year, they signed up with the Gruppo Sportivo Fiamme Oro, the sports section of the Italian State Police, and now receive a salary to help with their training.
“It’s a real job, but we are not going there to be policemen yet,” Della Monica said. “When we finish skating we can choose. If we stay with the police, we will have a job for life.”
Soon after they joined, there was an initial period of study that had to be undertaken that meant adjustments to their on-ice training had to be made.
“For six months it’s school – an academy,” Guarise said. “We did exams on the 9th and 10th of January. We had to do everything that policemen do. We had to learn how to shoot.”
“It was not for the entire six months because of course we had to practice,” Della Monica said. “It was one week here, one week there. During the summer it was not so easy to practice because sometimes we had to go there.
“It’s a good thing for us. Right now we have more stability, money and it’s actually like a club. It’s a club, but it’s also a job.”
When they enrolled in the State Police, they found themselves working with Federica Faiella, a former World and European medallist in ice dance with Massimo Scali, who has worked in the force since her retirement.
“Our big, big boss said to her, ‘Oh, you were skating. You were a good skater. Just be the boss of Nicole and Matteo.’”
“They don’t know anything about figure skating so for her it’s a good thing,” Della Monica added.
“She came with us to nationals,” Guarise said. “It was almost ten years out of figure skating for her and people were saying, ‘What are you doing here?’
“We are the first national champions in our sport from the State Police,” Guarise said. “We are working to make figure skating bigger in the police.”
Another big shift from last season for the Italians is that they are now the undisputed top team in their country after having had a close and friendly rivalry with Valentina Marchei and Ondrej Hotarek for the last Olympic cycle. They believe the key to success is having healthy competition to spur you on to greater heights.
“I have this mind-set that without them we would not be here,” Guarise said. “They helped us and we helped them to grow because at first we were only looking at them. We were going to competitions and for the results we didn’t care about anybody else. It was just us and them. Who is first? Who is best?”
“That is what motivated both of the pairs to be better and better and finally we had two pairs in the top 10 at Olympics and two pairs in the top 10 at Worlds,” Della Monica concurred.
“What I said to Matteo Rizzo and Daniel Grassl was that I’m very happy you are just fighting with each other because you will see in a couple of years if you are both strong and you want to be first, you will be first in Europe,” Guarise said. “I told them that because for me it was the same.”
This will be the Italians’ eighth World Championship appearance as a pair. While the pressure of competing at the highest level in the sport and the nerves that accompany that have not changed, they have become better at handling themselves in those situations. The realisation that there is more to life than skating has been an essential part of their maturing as athletes.
“It’s like people who go to the office,” Guarise said. “For me it’s the same, but I do what I love. It is the best thing. For me it’s not heavy.
“I don’t feel I am old. I feel I am old when I see a 13 or 14 year old.”
“Every year we see new faces and I say I don’t know why,” Della Monica laughed. “Am I too old?”
“Figure skating has always been my life because I started when I was six and he started with roller skating when he was four and we’ve been doing this for all our lives,” Della Monica explained. “When you realise there is something more important I think you are more relaxed. You enjoy even more what you do.”
“The tension is there all the time for sure,” Guarise said. “Nineteen years of international competitions and still before going on the ice, I am sorry for saying, I poop myself.”
“When you accept this, I think you can survive,” Della Monica said. “You can go through this because when you are tense and you don’t want to meet it then it’s the worst thing you can do. But when you say yes I am tense, but I need to find a way through this anyway then it’s fine.”
This season has also seen them make a name for themselves with their “Rocky” exhibition number that has entertained figure skating fans across the world.
“You don’t usually put so much attention to exhibitions because it’s the last thing you think about,” Della Monica said. “This season we decided to do something that people can remember. We did this with Luca Lanotte and he is so proud of this exhibition because every competition they ask us to do it, even at the Grand Prix Final.”
Five years after competing at the 2014 World Championships in Saitama, Della Monica and Guarise are excited to be heading back to Japan and appreciate the support they get from Japanese skating fans. They believe the sporting behaviour of Japanese fans has had an influence on fans from other countries, including Italy.
“Actually I love Japan,” Della Monica said. There is a Japanese fan and she brought me this matcha latte because I love matcha.”
“I like fishing,” Guarise said. “Japan is number one in the fishing world – Shimano and Daiwa. I would like to have a factory tour.”
“You don’t find in any other sport where people go with seven or eight flags,” Guarise said. “I think the Japanese teach a lot to other countries, at least to Italians. There are Italians fans who cheer for us, but they cheer for our friends and they cheer for Japan. They have different flags, but they learn from somebody. Who? I think from the Japanese.”
While many pairs retired following the PyeongChang Olympics, Della Monica and Guarise are looking ahead to Beijing in just under three years’ time. They believe they have the potential to move up the rankings over the next few seasons.
“What I think in general what we need is to skate good competitions from now on because the judges when they see us they are not sure,” Guarise said. “When you are sure one hundred percent that it will be good, judges already start with a different mind-set.
“In skating you can always improve.”
“We still have a lot to improve,” Della Monica agreed. “What I think the main thing that everybody is saying to us it’s the speed. With speed we look surer and more confident about what we do.
“I think we need to find something that is only ours. Like the French, they do the last lift in the free programme and that’s the French lift. We need to find something that says this is Della Monica and Guarise.”