She was one of the best short track speed skaters never to have won a gold medal at the Olympic Games. So the 500m in PyeongChang was an emotional end to a long, hard journey for Italy’s Arianna Fontana… and now she’s inspiring more Italians to take up the sport.
Italian short track star didn’t know she was going to win the 500m at the Olympic Winter Games PyeongChang 2018 – but her husband and coach, Anthony Lobello, somehow did.
“I think he must have a crystal ball,” said Fontana, 28. “Before the Games he wrote down on a piece of paper that I would get 500m gold, and get on the podium in the other distances. He was wrong about the 1,500m – that just wasn’t my day – but he was right about the rest. I was amazed.”
Fontana’s victory was her first ever at the Olympic Winter Games. She had been consistently among the world’s best short track speed skaters for more than a decade, dashing to World Championship and European titles, but the ultimate prize had somehow eluded her. She picked up a bronze at Torino 2006, another at Vancouver 2010, and silver at Sochi 2014. But it just didn’t seem like the top prize was coming.
“I kept skating after Sochi for that reason. I felt I wasn’t done yet, and I really wanted to get that gold,” Fontana said. “It was hard, and I wasn’t sure if I was going to be able to arrive at the Olympics competitive enough to get into the finals. Leading up to PyeongChang, I was getting older and competing with skaters eight or 10 years younger than me. It was getting complicated. But everything I did that season was building towards that one moment, at the Olympics. I didn’t care whether I was getting medals at the World Cups, but I started to get sharper as we got closer, and did well at the European Championships [one month before the Games]. So it was building towards those two weeks in February.
“I worked really well with my coach, which is a pretty big challenge for us because he is also my husband. I wasn’t targeting any particular distance; the first goal was to try to get to all four finals – the three individuals and the relay. I missed [out on winning] the 1,000m in Sochi, and 1,000m has always been my hardest race. It was my husband’s favourite distance when he skated, and he promised me I’d be able to fight for a medal in all three distances.
“So I looked forward to all three when I got there – because of him, because of all the work we put in, and because I wanted to prove to myself that I was able to compete at a high level at that distance.”
Fontana picked up bronze in the 1,000m and silver in the 3,000m relay, but it was in the 500m that she finally broke her hoodoo. “That day, I had a weird feeling that I’d not had for a lot of years,” she said. “I was excited, the adrenaline was coming up, and I felt scared a little bit. I don’t remember the last time before that when I was scared to get on the ice. I told my husband and he just smiled. Later, after the last race, he just said that when I told him that this morning, he knew I was going to win.”
According to Fontana, the Games themselves were a superb experience. “The crowd was great in Korea, because short track is really popular, so it’s always fun to race there,” she said. “They cheer for their own skaters, but we have a lot of fans too. They still make a noise if there isn’t a Korean in the final. I loved that we were close to the sea – I went down to the beach a lot to recharge my batteries – and I loved the venue, the people, the volunteers. The whole Games were very well organised.”
The aftermath was also enjoyable. Fontana has single-handedly helped build her sport’s profile back in Italy – and there are at least two little girls called Arianna in her honour toddling around, too.
“When I got back to Italy it was a bit crazy, I was recognised all the time,” she said. “But it was really great because lots of people got in touch on social media or wrote letters, saying they had previously had no clue what short track was, but then they saw me skating and now they love the sport. Little kids asking where they could start skating. That made me feel good.
“There were also two couples who named their daughters after me. One had been thinking about two different names and Arianna was one of them, and they went for that after I won. My God. That was an honour, and made my day.”
Fontana has been enjoying a year out from the sport, having achieved her ultimate goal. But don’t bet against her returning for another shot at glory. “For the last year I’ve been enjoying life, spending time with family, our nieces, nephews and friends. We’ve been in Florida, enjoying the warm weather and fishing. I don’t know if I’ll come back to skating for sure, but I feel like I can still do something. There have been some problems with our federation, but if they get fixed, I’ll probably keep going. If not, I’ll figure something out.
“I feel like it is time to give something back, maybe, for the Italy team and young skaters. I could coach little kids, but I don’t know if I have the patience for the drama of teenagers.”