By Hiro Yoshida
Four years after his last appearance on the European Championship podium Matteo Rizzo made it back in January when he bagged a silver medal in Espoo, Finland. Competing in his sixth World Championships this week he now has set his sights even higher.
Following a difficult few seasons, Rizzo was satisfied with how he skated at Europeans this time round, particularly with his free skating which gave him first place in that segment.
“After the free programme, I was super happy because it didn’t matter if I was going to win or get second. I was happy about my performance.”
Rizzo came into the Europeans as the leading Italian skater after having regained his national after a gap of five years.
“It was a very special moment,” Rizzo said. “I didn’t go to the competition to win the title because I knew it was a little step into Europeans and after into Worlds. I went to do the best programmes I could do in that moment.
“When I saw that I won the competition, of course I was happy. But I was happier because I knew that I was practicing good at home and I knew that following the same path, I was going to have a good European Championship.
“I have a big team behind me. I really want to thank all of them.”
In the autumn of 2020, Rizzo had parted way with his long-time coach Franca Bianconi and moved from Bergamo to Egna to train. A year later he decided to move back to Bergamo. Although he does not go into specific details, it is clear that the year in Egna was a tough one for him mentally.
“The period was very hard for me already because I was away from my family and my friends. And then something happened in Egna, so I decided to go back home because I needed my family with me in that moment. I needed support. There was a lot of going on inside me. That’s why I’m so grateful to my team right now because they are giving me their best. We are a very solid team. Since I got back to Bergamo, we started to build a new project, going through to the Milano-Cortina Olympics, and we are working all in one direction. This makes me feel very peaceful inside and strong enough in practice to compete in at a high level.
“Figure skating and life in general is all about feelings. When you don’t have the feeling anymore, with the place or with the club, or with whatever is there, you don’t feel well. You need to change something. That’s why I decided to go back to Bergamo and stay close to my family and my friends.”
His return to Bergamo has reaped rewards for Rizzo earlier than he expected as he builds towards a home Olympics in 2026.
“We are working really for the Milano-Cortina Olympics and what comes in between this period, it’s all a lot already,” he said. “It wasn’t really a goal to take the medal (at Europeans). Of course, it’s good to have a medal, but the final destination is the Milano-Cortina Olympics. The goal there is to be a competitive skater for a medal. It’s not that I want to win or I want to win a medal. It’s to be competitive so I can have possibilities to get a medal.”
Rizzo has already had two contrasting Olympic experiences and he is aiming to make his third his most successful.
“They were two different Olympics for me,” Rizzo reflected. “In South Korea, I was the youngest in the Italian team. It was a very solid Italian team because Carolina (Kostner), Anna (Cappellini) and Luca (Lanotte), Marco (Fabbri) and Charlène (Guignard), Valentina (Marchei) and Ondrej (Hotarek) and Matteo (Guarise) and Nicole (Della Monica) were already big names in figure skating and I was the youngest one. I skated the best Olympics I could do. The Beijing Olympics was not so good for me, I was finishing the period of sadness that I had, but my team was there with me. It was already a big achievement to be at the Olympics and I couldn’t expect better than to be there. I was sure already that talking with my team all together we can go to the next Olympic and be competitive.
“The third one I hope will be the best one.”
There will be plenty of competition for however many spots in the men’s event Italy will have at the Milano-Cortina Olympics with unprecedented strength and depth. Rizzo relishes domestic rivalry as an incentive to improve and hone his own skills.
“I think it’s very good because Italy needed a very strong team in men’s figure skating for many years,” he said. “This year we are, I can say, four competitive men singles skaters.
“If you want to compete, for example, with Japan, they have 20 good skaters, so we need to be a lot. At Nationals Nikolaj Memola got second place right behind me, but it was very close and I was super happy for him. For me, that means one more guy is competitive in my country and Italy is getting bigger and bigger and bigger in figure skating. This is also one of my goals, to bring to Italy a big achievement in our sport.”
For the past number of seasons, his principal domestic rival has been Daniel Grassl. Rizzo believes Grassl has pushed him to add more difficult technical content and that each of them has qualities that the other can learn from to become more well-rounded skaters.
“It’s good for every person to see what you can take from another person. Daniel is and was very strong in jumps. Of course, he’s better than me. He can do more quads, so I had to do another step introducing a new quad for me, the quad loop, and putting even more quads in the free. I tried already three quads configuration. I took from him that I need to jump a little bit more. I would be grateful to him if he can take something from me also.”
Rizzo grew up in an ice dance household. Both his parents and his elder sister were all ice dancers. Since he first laced up his skates, he has always worked hard on his skating skills which has stood to him later in his career. It is an aspect of his skating in which he has confidence.
“I grew up in ice dance and my first steps on the ice were with the ice dancers. It’s not just with Daniel, but I think with other skaters because they tell me that I skate very well. For me, skating is not difficult. Doing for example a good step sequence or a good crosscut even is the normality for me. I think this is kind of my strength. I don’t have to think when I skate and it’s all natural for me.”
Rizzo has a modern theme running through his programmes this season. For his free, he is skating to a Bruno Mars medley, while he has kept his short from last season featuring music by 2021 Eurovision winning Italian rock group Måneskin. The latter routine is one that Rizzo clearly enjoys skating to in front of an audience.
“I feel that the public like this programme,” he said. “Every time I do the step sequence, they are there with me. That means a lot. Unfortunately, I will not keep the same short programme next year, but for sure I will have something that everyone likes. That’s my goal in my programmes.”
Versatility is key for Rizzo and he firmly believes that as a skater he needs to evolve and challenge himself. However, next season he will be returning to his roots.
“In the beginning of my career, I was always doing more classical and opera music. I was thinking I need to try something else. I need to try pop. I need to try rock. I need to try jazz. Right now, I almost tried all I can. I already decided the music next year. It’s funny, because the next year for sure, I will have a classical song.
“I want to go back where I began and see what I can bring to new Matteo with all the pop music and the rock music that I did. I want to see what I can bring to the public with the classical music.
“If you do only one style your whole career, I think you don’t get to know yourself everywhere. If I was doing classical music for all my career, my personality wouldn’t be as good as it can be with doing also pop music, rock music and jazz music. I think it’s crucial for an athlete to change and to discover more types of music.”
Rizzo has also added to the technical difficulty of his programmes, although he played his free at Europeans strategically on the advice of his coaching team.
“It was planned to do three (quads) already in the free programme,” he said. “It’s another toe loop in the second half. But during competition, there is another important part which is the strategy. My coach saw the other skaters and she told me before to going on the ice, ‘We don’t need the third one. We don’t need you to do a mistake. You need to go for the triple.’ So, I did a triple. That’s why there were just two quads, but my plan is to do three. My plan for the World Championships will be to bring those three quads in a free programme as best as I can. Maybe next year I will introduce a new quad. I don’t know yet because I need to work in the summer. But already I feel that three quads in a programme can bring you a good placement. If you do too many quads, then it will take away the presentation.
“My goal is to have technique and presentation. Not too much technique and not too much presentation, but equalise them.”
Rizzo’s favourite jump is the Axel, but he has no ambitions to try a quadruple Axel like Ilia Malinin who has landed the element this season.
“I tried doing quad Axel, but I don’t think it will be in my future before Milano-Cortina,” he said. “It takes a lot of energy. He’s very young and he still has a lot of energy. I’m already twenty-four right now. I am still young, but I can feel the difference between when I was 18. There is a big difference, not in competition, but in the practices. You need to do a lot of physiotherapy, a lot more already when you’re 24. My goal is not to do quad Axel right now.”
Right now, Rizzo is just focused on performing his best for the Japanese audience at Worlds this week in Saitama.
“Japanese fans are special because they know a lot about figure skating. You can feel that they enjoy watching you. Last time (2019) in Saitama for me was special because in the short programme I did a clean short and all the people were standing up. I was almost crying. This year, as always, I want to be a competitive skater and I want to perform a clean skate for the audience. That’s one of the main goals for Saitama Worlds.”