By Hiro Yoshida
Last season was a ground-breaking one for Italy’s Matteo Rizzo, but this season he wants more.
In November 2018, Rizzo became the first male Italian skater to medal at a Grand Prix event when he took bronze at the NHK Trophy in Hiroshima, Japan. He backed that up by becoming the first Italian man in a decade to stand on the podium at a European Championships when he earned bronze in Minsk, Belarus in January 2019. He then went on to be crowned the 2019 Winter Universiade champion in Krasnoyarsk, Russia in March, landing quadruple toe loops in both the short programme and free skating for the first time in his career.
At the World Championships in Saitama, Japan, Rizzo got off to a flying start by coming fifth in the short. Although he dropped to tenth in the free after falling on a quad toe, he came seventh overall and guaranteed Italy two spots for the 2020 edition of Worlds in Montreal, Canada.
“I was a little upset by my mistake, but at the end it was a great result and I have to be proud of it,” Rizzo said. “I had a great season and I will work harder for next year to fight for the medal.”
For the Italian, last season went beyond his initial expectations and he adjusted his goals as he started to progress closer and closer towards the higher echelons of the sport.
“At the beginning I was not thinking about the medal at Europeans,” he recalled “I was not thinking about the top ten at Worlds, but during the season I changed my mind and I knew I could do it.”
His mentality was not the only thing that he altered. For the first half of the season, he skated his free to a Rolling Stones medley. However, something did not quite click. Early in the New Year, a visit to the cinema to see “Bohemian Rhapsody” inspired him to make a bold decision to put together a new routine of Queen songs.
“On the 4th of January, I was in the cinema to watch the movie with my girlfriend and then I went back home and said, ‘Mum, I’m going to change the music.’
“Two weeks later I went to Europeans with a new programme and it was great,” he said. “The audience loved it so I decided to keep it until the end of the season.”
His short last season was a version of the classic Italian hit “Volare” which was arranged by Luca Longobardi, a friend of Rizzo’s choreographer Corrado Giordano.
Following a stint working with Brian Orser over the summer in Toronto, Canada, Rizzo will debut two new programmes at this week’s Lombardia Trophy at his home rink in Bergamo, Italy. He will skate his short to “Start a Fire” performed by John Legend from the “La La Land” film soundtrack which has been choreographed by Shae Lynn Bourne. His free will be to “Galicia Flamenca” by Gino D’Auri.
Skating is in Rizzo’s blood. His father Valter Rizzo, who is part of his coaching team, and his mother Brunilde Bianchi represented Italy together in ice dance during the 1980s. With figure skating a constant presence in his life, it was only natural that he would follow in the footsteps of his parents from an early age.
“I started when I was four just because I wanted to stay with my mum on the ice,” Rizzo said. “I was not practicing, but then I realised I wanted to skate when I was around eight years old. I did my first competition.
“Around 13 years old I decided that this would be my life.”
While Italy has enjoyed success in figure skating in ice dance, ladies singles and even pairs, there have been very few Italian men who reached the pinnacles of the sport globally. Rizzo has looked to Spanish skater Javier Fernandez as his role model for trailblazing and boosting skating’s popularity in Italy.
“I know him for many years and he was always my idol,” Rizzo said. “We are friends and I was really honoured to compete with him at the last European Championships, his last competition. To be on the podium with him was such a great moment in my career. I will always remember that.
“On the podium he spoke to me and said ‘I know you can be in my spot next year, so work hard for this. I believe in you.’ I said to him, ‘You are my goal.’
“He came from a not so strong country like me, Italy. We are not Russia or Japan which have a great history in figure skating. But he got to be two times World champion, seven times European title. I want to be like him coming from nothing to be a top skater.”
While there has been a dearth of male skating talent in Italy until recently, as fate would have it Rizzo has not had it all his own way of late domestically. At last year’s Italian Nationals, teenager Daniel Grassl pipped him for the title. At Europeans, their combined placements gave Italy three spots in the men’s category for 2020. Rizzo sees it as a positive development for Italian skating.
“We don’t really push each other because we don’t practice together and for many other reasons, but I think it’s good for all the movement in Italy to have two top skaters in junior and senior,” Rizzo said. I don’t know if it’s good or bad for me, but I think it’s the most important thing for the movement in Italy in men’s figure skating. I am really happy for this because it means a bright future with more competitors in men’s event under the Italian flag.”
Like most elite Italian skaters, Rizzo funds his training through affiliation with one of the sport sections of the Italian military sports bodies.
“I’m in the police, the penitentiary police, so we have a salary and everything,” Rizzo said. “The federation is giving to us top skaters a big support to practice because we have to bring them results from every competition. It’s really important to work hard and to work hard you of course spend money because our sport needs ice also in summer.”
Rizzo has a couple of objectives in his sights set for the coming season. After skating this weekend at Lombardia Trophy, he is slated to compete at Skate Canada and Cup of China where he will be gunning to qualify for the Grand Prix Final which this season will be held in Italy.
“For sure the goal is to be present in Torino for the Grand Prix Final, not only because it’s in Italy, but because it’s a really important event and it will be great to be part of it.” Rizzo said.
He will also be eyeing to raise the difficulty of his technical content and to potentially fill the throne vacated by his friend Fernandez at the European Championships. It will be the first time a new champion will be crowned in the men’s event since the Spaniard won for the first time in 2013.
“We talked a little bit with my coaches and we all agreed that we have to be in top shape for Europeans because there is a possibility to win,” Rizzo said. “It will be the first time for everyone because Javier is not there anymore. We are all going to fight and we are all going to work hard so it depends on the competition.
“Usually for me it takes a while to get new jumps, but I don’t care. You just have to do it. I’m going to work really hard for at least one more quad.
“The goal is always to win every competition. Even if the first place is not coming, you have to be ready for it and work for it anyway.”