An atypical figure skating season through the eyes of Rebecca Ghilardi and Filippo Ambrosini
March 23, 2021
By Maria Bagdarasova
Photos © Judith Dombrowski, Rebecca Ghilardi, Polymnia
2020 was a year like no other. We all struggled with lifestyle changes provoked by the Covid-19 pandemic. Plans have been put on hold, social lives disrupted, numerous international competitions cancelled. For young aspiring athletes, what should be the most decisive time of their careers has been a time of confusion and adjustment. We entered 2021 with hopes that the rollout of the vaccination process would bring us back to normality, but it is clear this will be a long road.
Absolute Skating would like to look back at 2020 and bring up prospects of 2021 and beyond through the eyes of the Italian pair skaters Rebecca Ghilardi and Filippo Ambrosini.
Back in February 2020, when we first met with Rebecca Ghilardi and Filippo Ambrosini at the Challenge Cup in The Hague, these two pair skaters from Italy were looking forward to culminating the 2019/2020 season on a high note at the ISU World Figure Skating Championships in Montreal, Canada. Shortly after meeting, the novel coronavirus infection dramatically evolved into a pandemic that demanded cancellation of events and drastic measures by nations across the globe.
Right after the Сhallenge Cup where they finished on the podium, Rebecca and Filippo travelled to Moscow to take part in an invitational pairs skating competition hosted by Nina Mozer. Upon their return to Italy, the situation in the country started tightening up due to Covid-19, with spreading reports about possible airport closings, so the team decided to leave for Canada ahead of time.
"During our time in Montreal we followed the situation in Italy with shops closing and talks about the lockdown. It seemed incredible, because in Canada the situation at that time was completely different," Filippo says. "As we were training in Canada, there was that question mark about Worlds in the air, but until the official announcement, there was a possibility of the competition going ahead," Rebecca adds.
On March 11, 2020, the day the World Health Organization characterized the Covid-19 outbreak as a pandemic, the Quebec government announced the cancellation of 2020 World Figure Skating Championships. The Italian Ice Sport Federation had to arrange the return of the whole Italian team back home. Rebecca and Filippo were the last ones able to leave and arrived in Italy after the national lockdown had been imposed.
"When we arrived at the Malpensa airport in Milan, there were two people in the arrivals area – my mother and Rebecca's father. The day after our arrival the airport was shut down. There was no one outside and in the streets," Filippo recalls. "That was the moment when we realized the seriousness of the whole situation in Italy," Rebecca says.
"At first it was odd to come back home and actually stay home for such a long time with this situation out of your control. It was tough but being at home with the family helped. We did not spend enough time being all together before. Some moments were more difficult than others, but all in all the experience was not that bad. What bothered and annoyed us was the uncertainty, we didn't know for how long we would be in the lockdown. It started with two weeks, but in the end, it was two months. After that, going back on the ice was a big step back to normal," Rebecca sums up her lockdown experience.
"I went back to my hometown of Asiago to spend the lockdown with my mother's family. At first it was difficult, mostly because I hadn't lived at home for many years and it took some time to align rhythms and routines with other members of the family as we had to stay inside the house. We were simply not used to this kind of situation. But I have to say that I found bright sides of it. I found time to do things that I had not done for a long time. I spent quality time at home with my family, did activities with my grandmother. They did a birthday party for me, it was a long time since I had celebrated my birthday with my family," Filippo recounts.
Together with their coaching team, Rebecca and Filippo had to adapt to the situation. They stayed in touch and worked on fitness and jumps through numerous online classes. This helped maintain a certain level of shape even without ice under their feet.
Based in Italian provinces of Lombardy and Veneto, Rebecca and Filippo found themselves in the worst-hit region of Europe. "It was difficult to keep spirits high when traditional and social media talked only about Covid-19 around the clock. When you see so many tragedies going on, it affects you and your mind. It seemed like a war time when even the economy had to stop. We had to change our habits and routines. It was tough," Filippo explains.
"Even our sport which is a very small environment was punished. Rebecca and I were on the wave to attack last year's Worlds which would have probably given us the necessary attention to face the current season. Instead, it was a pause before taking off again for the goals we are pursuing. Right now, we have to go ahead, take everything that we have till now and build on it. We have lasted till now; it is already a success. We also need to put ourselves in other people's shoes after all that happened, how lifestyles have changed. There are people who might not have families and we should be grateful for what we have," Filippo says.
Coming back on the ice after the lockdown was not an easy task for Rebecca and Filippo and happened in stages. On May 11, 2020, they started with an hour and a half on the ice, skating separately, of course, with all safety measures in place - masks, hand sanitizer - while they still had to work on fitness via Zoom. The skaters had never taken so much time off and first weeks back were hard physically. “I was exhausted after one hour," recalls Filippo.
After a while pair skating was allowed and they could do their off-ice training in the gym at the rink. With training and efforts accumulating they managed gradually to get all the elements back. By autumn they were back in the daily life they led before the lockdown - spending the whole day at the ice rink.
When they resumed training on May 11 it was not clear whether the 2020/2021 season would take place and whether Rebecca and Filippo would be able to compete or not.
"That was the hardest part. At the beginning, after two months of the lockdown you don't think too much about preparing for a certain competition. You just need to come back on the ice, bring back the feeling of the ice under your skates and skate with your partner again. But after a few weeks you start thinking what you are doing all this for. There was no precise info about the feasibility of the season until early August. We were training, trying to improve, but in our mind, we realized that the competitions were still very far away. When the ISU released its communication and we understood ISU's plan, it was easier to assess the situation. At our level, we don't want to just train, we want to do our best and hopefully compete," Rebecca explains.
The only international competition that Rebecca Ghilardi and Filippo Ambrosini managed to take part in this season before the second round of lockdowns across Europe was the Nebelhorn Trophy in Germany in September. The team tested their new programs in front of international judges and finished at the top of the podium.
Rebecca and Filippo were also on the roster of the ISU Grand Prix in France which was eventually cancelled because of the difficult epidemiologic situation in the country. Due to the lack of international competitions this season the Italian figure skating federation decided to offer its skaters an alternative opportunity to compete by launching Gran Premio Italia - the Italian Grand Prix - a circuit of four domestic competitions from October to December and a final that took place on February 13-14, 2021. Rebecca and Filippo won the first event at their home rink in Bergamo in October and finished third at the competition in Egna in November. They finished the year 2020 with a third consecutive silver medal at the Italian National Championships on December 12-13 and opened 2021 with a silver medal at the Final of the Italian Grand Prix.
Because of the lockdown, the team could not work with an outside choreographer for their programs this season like they did in the previous year with Massimo Scali, so they constructed the routines themselves, together with their coach Franca Bianconi and her team.
In a modern-styled short program Rebecca and Filippo chose to skate to an arrangement of "Bring Me to Life" by Evanescence where they seek to portray the story told in this song on the ice.
"I am the dark evil soul of Rebecca who feels herself incarcerated being mistreated by a man. She wants to leave her body and free herself from this person. She then meets someone who she feels at ease to confide her story in. He then manages to help and free her." Filippo sums up the storyline of the program.
For the free skating the team opted for "Grande Amore" - an Italian ballad performed by an operatic pop trio Il Volo. The song won the Sanremo Music Festival 2015 and represented Italy in the Eurovision Song Contest in the same year. Rebecca and Filippo liked the song for some time and skated to it already at an exhibition show.
"We were not sure if we were going to change our free because we didn't know how much time we had left before competitions. So, we first changed our short program and when we realized that we had enough time ahead of us we changed also the free. We always had a soft spot for this song and fancied skating to it," Rebecca says.
"Sometimes when we skate, we sing it. You don't get tired hearing songs like this one and it's a pleasure to skate to it. It was completely our choice which we suggested to our coaching team, tried and it worked," Filippo adds.
Rebecca started skating at the age of six and pursued a career in singles before teaming up with Filippo Ambrosini in 2016. "My dad took me to skating by chance. Then I caught the attention of a coach, started training regularly, started enjoying and got into it. I never thought of doing pairs, the idea of skating with a partner made me angry when I was younger," Rebecca recalls.
Filippo took the ice when he was eight years old at his own initiative. "I started with skiing because my dad was a ski coach. Then I heard about figure skating classes from my classmates in the elementary school. Having had a passion for dance from a very early age I asked my parents to take me to the rink. They were sceptic about it but took me there. In the first year, I didn't take it too seriously - I went to the rink and played, but gradually it captivated me. I caught the attention of coach Anita who saw something in me and taught me up until the double Axel. When I reached the age and level of seniors and needed more facilities I had to move to Milan where the national team was based," Filippo reminisces.
Filippo skated in singles until 2012 when he teamed up with his first partner Alessandra Cernuschi, with whom he took part in two European Championships, placing 10th in 2015. When Cernuschi unexpectedly decided to retire Filippo spent six months in the United States with Robert Martin where he had a try-out with a potential partner which eventually did not work out. When he came back to Italy, he was almost ready to quit. Franca Bianconi suggested trying out with Rebecca whom she coached together with Tiziana Rosaspina. Filippo and Rebecca skated together for a week and decided to start the partnership.
Rebecca Ghilardi and Filippo Ambrosini are proud skaters of IceLab, a figure skating club located in Bergamo in the Lombardy region of Italy. The club, with its recently built rink, was selected to the ISU Centers of Excellence program which currently comprises only five figure skating clubs around the globe. Franca Bianconi is the pairs head coach, assisted by Rosanna Murante. Walter Rizzo occasionally aids with skating skills. As for off-ice training, the team works with Corrado Giordani on polishing choreography and with various other specialists on functional training and specific aspects of fitness as well as classical and modern dance. "We are very attached and grateful to our club. The team here gives us a lot; wherever the club can, they help and support us," Rebecca and Filippo say.
Before the pandemic, they had a chance to benefit from the outside expertise of the renowed Russian pair skating coach Nina Mozer's team. At the very start of the partnership Rebecca and Filippo participated in a seminar in Sochi with Dmitry Savin who consulted the pair ever since and sometimes even accompanied them to competitions. Rebecca and Filippo participated also in the pair skating camp in Baselga di Piné in 2019 where they had the opportunity to work with Nina Mozer directly and with other coaches from her team. With the pandemic and its travel restictions, most of such international coaching collaborations, which are instrumental to the development of figure skating in countries with less established traditions of this sport, had to be indefinitely suspended.
"Not everyone understand the sacrificies an athlete makes, especially in Italy. The education system in Italy is designed with a focus on studies and with no proper place for sport. There are some private schools, but only few families can afford expensive tuition fees. And in general, except for football, sport is not in the Italian mentality. In the recent years, the movement of Italian figure skating has risen, but we still remain a very small family," Filippo says.
Pair skating is arguably the most demanding discipline of figure skating. On top of mastering jumps and spins, timing, precision and unison from both partners are crucial for the success. It takes time, patience and hard work. And some elements present bigger struggle than the others. "Twist is an element that requires a lot of time. Those pairs who have been skating together for many years have a clear advantage. In the first year, we were in a rush to put all elements together in order to be able to compete. Being in the fifth year of our partnership, we are not there yet with the twist, but we are working hard on it," Rebecca and Filippo explain.
The duo took part in three European Championships to date, placing in the top ten in 2019 and 2020. However when asked which Europeans stood out for them, they name their first one as a pair in Ostrava in 2017 which was also the first competition of that level for Rebecca. "Every competition gives you something. But being our first Europeans together, Ostrava was a perfect start for our path. We felt really well there both on and off-ice," Rebecca and Filippo recollect.
The pair also joined the Italian team at the 2019 World Championships in Saitama, Japan. "It was our first time in Japan and our first competition on the really big stage. You cannot compare Europeans to Worlds, especially with the ones in Japan with its wonderfully invested audience. It was an important experience that will hopefully help us face future competitions of similar caliber," Filippo says.
The next big competition on the horizon for Rebecca Ghilardi and Filippo Ambrosini is set to be ISU Figure Skating World Championships in Stockholm, with a competition bubble in place and hence no audience, this week. With no proper international season leading into it, this will be certainly no regular World Championships.
The World Championships in Stockholm are supposed to serve also as a qualifying event ahead of the 2022 Winter Olympic Games in Beijing. With 2020 Tokyo Summer Olympic Games still to take place later this year, the possibility of postponement looms also over the Beijing Games. All this uncertainty will require further adjustments from athletes keeping their Olympic dreams alive, like Rebecca and Filippo.
When you see big sports with resources like football, tennis and Formula One being able to find formats and solutions to hold large-scale tournaments and events already for some time, the realization comes how a small niche sports like figure skating, without big sponsor help, suffer from the consequences of the ongoing pandemic. International competitions also serve as a dialogue platform while international training camps invaluably contribute to capacity building and nurturing coaches and talents in smaller countries and federations. How damaging will be the combined impact of absence of all of this on our beautiful and challenging sport?