Meet Sara Conti and Niccolò Macii

January 25, 2023
By Davide Sanneris
Photos © Anna Bertoloni, Davide Sanneris

Sara and Niccolò had a striking first half of the season: they won the Lombardia Trophy, placed 3rd at the Grand Prix in Canada and 2nd in Sheffield, and qualified for the Final in Torino.¬†
We talked with them the morning after their historic bronze medal - the first Grand Prix Final medal ever for an Italian pair.

How did you feel when you realized you were on the podium?

Sara: I think we haven't really realized yet. The result didn't arrive immediately after our performance, we had to wait for six minutes [warm-up of the second group], and for another pair [to skate their program], but it was for sure an incredible, huge emotion - especially knowing that we brought this historic result for Italy, as I'm quite patriotic! 
We celebrated a bit last night with Laura [Barquero] and Marco [Zandron], to whom we dedicated a piece of our medal, and some other friends, but we still need some time to fully understand what happened.

Niccolò: This season, without the Russian pairs and some Chinese pairs who have retired, we knew that if things went well, we could have a chance to medal at one Grand Prix... one! (laughs) But to bring home two medals, the qualification to the Final and the bronze in Torino... We couldn't be happier for our results. Of course, we aim for clean performances, as athletes we always want to be satisfied with doing everything we could, but if you get a result even with some mistakes it's still a good thing, it means that everything else - besides the errors - was of great quality.

Yesterday you actually looked a bit upset at the end of your performance.

Sara: Yes, at the press conference he told in my ear: "I don't know if I deserved this medal, because I made a mistake on the Salchow..." And I answered: "Shut up and bring it home!" (laughs)

Niccolò: And the Salchow never gives me problems...

Sara: Exactly, it's the jump that we have in our short program - we had another one before that I liked more, but it was more difficult for him. So, we decided to go for something that was better for him, a jump that he adores. We saw the video and it didn't even start bad. Sometimes in practice I pray that he doesn't fall when I see how he jumps, but here there was no reason...

Niccolò: I do it without warming up with no problems, so yesterday I have no idea how I managed to fall! And I skated the rest of the program thinking - about the other elements, of course - but also: "... but why did I fall?!" I still don't understand what happened.
At the end of the program, during the spiral I told myself: "Keep it longer, make sure to get level 4 and regain 0,50 points". It may look silly, but those 0,50 could make the difference - in Canada we were third for 0,30.

It looks like you think a lot during the program...

Niccolò: I do! Sometimes I wish there was a software that showed on the screen everything we think during the program. It would probably be at least a ten minutes' read; you have no idea how many things we think...
Before coming here, we did three clean free skates, with good quality elements, so we were really confident. In competition anything can happen: we made some mistakes, the Canadians did too, and even if at the moment they are technically stronger than us, you can never know. We know that we still have much potential, as we got our season's best despite the errors, but we are happy that we were able to show who we are. We are also happy for the twist: this is the first season that we make the triple, last year it was only a double.

Sara: It took us some time - other pairs already do it during their second or third season together - but we needed more time because we always had problems with our proportions. We need to be very precise, he can't just catch me on the fly, I'm not short enough... I think it's better to take more time and create a solid element, instead of rushing it and then, after a few years, having to start again from the beginning because it doesn't work.

Niccolò: Exactly. When we started together in June 2019 we thought: "Let's try to do what we can and see where we can get." But above all, we knew that we didn't want to rush. Because from a technical point of view, the more you rush it, the more you have to go back later. If you try to learn in the correct way, in the end things come naturally. Now the twist is starting to work better and we are able to execute it in competitions as we do in practice; yesterday it even got a +3 GOE, it was a good element even if it was not the highest - it was rather the lowest... (laughs)

What plans do you have after Torino?

Niccolò: We have Italian Nationals next week, and then the European Championships. Who knows, maybe there is a chance to catch a medal even at Europeans...

Sara: Our goal there is to execute both our programs clean, as this season it hasn't happened yet, we always made big mistakes so far: a fall, or a missed lift, that cost a lot of points...

How do you go on with the program after this kind of error?

Sara: In Sheffield we were lucky because it was the last lift, we only had the spiral and the spin after that, which for us are not difficult elements. But when it happens with the first lift you stay in shock... It's really horrible. At Lombardia Trophy, for example... We hate that competition!

Niccolò: Next year we won't go, we tell you in advance! We never want to skate at Lombardia Trophy again, every year we suck there! (laughs)

Let's go a bit back. Where do you come from, how did you start skating?

Sara: I was born in Alzano, a small village in the Bergamo province, and I always lived there, in the same home. When I was four-and-a-half, maybe five years old, I went to France for a holiday with my mother and some friends. There was a small rink there where I tried to skate, and only later we found out that there was also a rink in Zanica, very close to our home - so since then I wanted to go skating every day.

Niccolò: I was trying different sports. One of my classmates already did figure skating, so I asked my mother if I could go too. Of course, she answered: "No way". (laughs) I started anyways, and since then I never stopped - I skated every single day, Saturdays, Sundays, holidays included, I just couldn't wait to be on the ice.¬†
Then skating became my job, and there were also moments when I struggled and asked myself whether it's really worth it, but I never lost my determination and I'm really happy now that I see where the journey brought me.

I bet your mother changed her mind later?

Niccolò: She did, she is my biggest fan now. (laughs)

Where do you train now?

Niccolò: In Bergamo, at the Ice Lab Center of Excellence.

...and you don't want to skate at Lombardia Trophy?

Sara: Actually, he wasn't even sure about skating here in Torino!

Niccolò: It's really difficult for me: in Bergamo the rink is small and while we skate, we can see literally everyone. The line of people behind the boards looking at us, the federation, the president of our club, our parents - so many people that we know... this gives me a lot of¬†anxiety, I'd rather perform in front of fifty thousand people that don't know me.

Sara: You think they don't know you.

Niccolò: Maybe they do, but at least I don't see them! (laughs)¬†

How is your average training day going?

Sara: We start training around 8:30 or 9:00 with one hour of warm-up, then we go on the ice for about three hours. After 13:30 we stretch for another hour, then we have ballet lessons and gymnastics.

Niccolò: And then we work with children.

Do you have other interests besides figure skating?

Niccolò: If only we had the time! (laughs)

Sara: At the moment we can't really pursue other interests, even finding some time to spend with our friends is quite complicated. But in our life there is our new puppy, we recently adopted a dog, Tyson. He came with us here in Torino - if it was allowed, I would have brought him inside the rink too, he's such a good boy!

Niccolò: He'll always have to travel with us from now on, he brought us luck!¬†

Tell us more about your programs.

Sara: We decided to keep our short program for the third season, which is quite unusual, because in the first year almost no one could see it - we only did national competitions because of the pandemic.

Niccolò: Then we had a competition in the Netherlands, in which I fell during the double twist. I threw her in the air, and I just dropped down...

[To Sara] What did you think when you saw he wasn't there to catch you?

Sara: I was really lucky because I didn't realize. It happened to our Spanish friends too, it was on a triple twist for them and not only was she really badly hurt, but she also understood everything that was going to happen, so for her it was really difficult to start again. I don't know if it's because I trust him so much that he could even throw me with closed eyes, but I didn't understand [what was happening].

Niccolò: I thought: "Oh my God, I killed her. She's dead, and it's my fault!" Luckily, she was able to get on her knees and get up. But since there was a three-minute interruption, we felt that no one could really see the program, so we decided to keep it for a third season.¬†You know, the more you go on, the more the program improves, the transitions glide better, everything becomes richer.

Sara: When Raffaella [Cazzaniga] and Barbara [Luoni] proposed Oblivion to us we were a bit skeptical but I must admit that they chose well. And in the end, it was us who didn't want to change it, even if our coaches asked us to do it - we feel it's ours, we still aren't tired to hear it.
And for the free skate we just wanted something Italian, and when they proposed this music we immediately fell in love with it.

Name a quality and a flaw of your partner.

Niccolò: I have one word for both: stubborn.

Sara: No, you have to tell me a quality, I want two!

Niccolò: OK, let me think... Her determination. Even when I'm too tired, for example, when in the early morning I feel not ready to work, to start lifting 50 kilos as if it's nothing, she always comes to me with a smile - and her joy and passion for figure skating are always there. Her flaw is... she's sometimes sulky. If only the weather is bad, she's so meteopathic!

Sara: But you just described me as a sunny, smiling person...

Niccolò: Sure, just not always! (laughs)

Sara: Talking about him, his generosity. He's so wholehearted, not only with me but with everyone, sometimes even too much. He's always there to help, even when he doesn't have enough for himself, he always finds a way to give to others. The flaw, he's stubborn too.

Niccolò: I thought you would've said that I snore...

Sara: (laughs) We actually have to sleep in different rooms before competitions. I know this may sound exaggerated, but he's so loud!

Niccolò: At the end of the season, I will try to get a surgery to breathe better, because I have one nostril that is 80% closed. I hope that this will also help me to make less effort on the ice.

Sara: I found another of your qualities!

Niccolò: Oh my God, do I even have two?

Sara: Yes, you have good taste... because I am sure that you will buy me such a beautiful engagement ring!

Niccolò: No wait... what? (To us:) Cut! (laughs)

OK, let's talk about something else. I couldn't help but notice many empty seats during the competition... The world situation doesn't help, but this is an old problem in our country. Do you think we will ever manage to give the sport more visibility? What could we do?

Niccolò: It's complicated. Figure skating is an amazing sport - but there are also several issues.¬†
First of all, here in Italy it's considered a "women's sport" - which is not true, of course. Second, I think it's too difficult to understand. When someone asks me why are we in the third place, if I try to explain the judging system, they don't get it. There are too many rules and they're too complicated: a jump can miss one turn, half turn, a quarter, even less than a quarter - that's too much. People love to follow sports where everything is clear. In football or basketball, for example, it's a one-on-one match, it's easier to understand who won, if the ball was inside or not. In figure skating people see a series of performances, and after watching 3 or 4 they change the channel: if they don't know the sport and don't understand the rules, all performances seem the same and they are not drawn to watch till the end. 
The other big problem is that [here] it's not sponsored. 

Sara: Why aren't we allowed to wear sponsors' logos when we get on the ice?

Niccolò: This would make a big difference. I understand it's not possible on the costume, but we have the skaters' introduction, the six minutes warm-up, why can't we wear a jacket there with many sponsors, why are we so limited with size, number, prestige? I know it may sound not nice to talk about this, but money has to be involved, we need it, to improve and gain visibility.¬†

And with less sponsors, the prices for the audience rise.

Sara: Exactly, the tickets here are crazy expensive...

Niccolò: My mother had to buy a ticket for the third sector, the most distant seat from the ice, and still the price was too high.

Which also excludes the possibility of bringing friends and introduce them to this world - not many could afford to pay for more than one seat.

Niccolò: I think we should find a way to move more money, so that we can fund the competitions and make them more accessible. Or maybe we should learn from the Americans, create more entertaining events, battles... People love these kinds of things.
Another issue is the lack of advertising. I think such a big event as the Grand Prix Final has to be promoted a lot more: for example, why didn't they put up some posters in the Lingotto Mall, a few weeks before the event? A lot of people go there, they would have seen them...

Sara: Yes, but even if I see the poster and I am interested, if the ticket is so expensive, I still won't go.

Niccolò: The country should also help. In Russia, the ice is paid for by the country, and coaches by the federation. In Northern Italy, even if we are professional skaters, we still have to pay for everything, and we'll keep doing it till the end of our careers. If we decide to go to a competition, we have to finance ourselves and our coach. In some other countries it's even worse, because you also have to pay the coach for every working day that he misses to come with you.¬†
It's clear that there are a lot of shortcomings, but it doesn't look like anyone is working to fix them. Everyone always complains that there is no money: let's find it, let's do something!  If you always keep doing the same things, you can't complain if the result doesn't change.

A few days later, Sara and Niccolò won their first National title with another season's best of 202.75. We wish them a successful European Championships and all the best for the rest of their career.

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