The last time Arianna Fontana took to the ice in anger it was the final of the Ladies’ 1000m at the PyeongChang 2018 Olympic Games.
She finished third, capping off a superb competition in which she also achieved her lifelong aim of winning Olympic gold, in the Ladies’ 500m, and picked up a silver in the 3000m relay.
A dream realised: Arianna Fontana celebrates winning the 500m at the PyeongChang 2018 Olympic Winter Games ©Getty Images
The 29-year-old Italian returned to the circuit at the season-opening ISU World Cup Short Track Speed Skating in Salt Lake City over the weekend and showed no sign of rustiness as she raced a controlled 1500m quarterfinal, finishing second behind China’s Han Yutong to qualify for Saturday’s semifinals.
She finished seventh in that final and also reached the final of Sunday's 500m, although recorded a ‘DNS’ after crashing out hard in the semi-final following a tangle with Poland’s Natalia Maliszewska.
“Before I got on the ice, I had no idea what to expect,” she says. “It doesn’t mean that if I’m skating good in practice, I’m going to skate good in a race. It was a mix of excitement and nerves because I wasn’t sure what I was going to do, how I was going to react to the other skaters.
“There were things I could probably have done better. I’m taking the two first World Cups to see what point I’m at with my preparation and finding myself.”
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Ciao ciao Salt Lake City! Direi un rientro più che positivo, due finali su due anche se non ho corso la finale dei 500m... (le mie caviglie avevano bisogno di una pausa dopo la caduta). Ora si va a Montreal ⚜️ Bye bye Salt Lake, time to move on to Montreal! Happy with my skating & racing... 6th & 5th place is not too bad for my return competition. Banged up but all smiles. 🤘😝 • • • #TeamA #ItaliaTeam 🇮🇹 #DAOAthlete #DAOInTheWorld #FiammeGialle 🔰 #shorttrack #speedskating #шорттрек #쇼트트랙 #短道速滑 #schaatsen #patinaje 💪 #herbalifenutrition #TOYOTATEAM #startyourimpossible #teamyoungitalyunipolsai #nikewomen #justdoit ✔️
Since PyeongChang - when she carried the flag for Italy at the Olympic Opening Ceremony - Fontana has been taking an extended break from her sport. Together with husband and coach Anthony Lobello she headed to Florida and, for a year, lived a more or less normal life – spending time with family and going to the beach.
“I was tanned and healthy, I could eat whenever I wanted to eat,” she says. “It was nice to just enjoy life. I really needed that time to just be a normal person.”
To soon to say goodbye
Despite the eight Olympic and 13 world championships medals already jostling for space on her mantlepiece, there remained a nagging feeling that her career had more to deliver.
Alongside Russia’s Victor An and the USA’s Apolo Anton Ohno, Fontana’s haul makes her jointly the most decorated skater at the Olympic Games - although An leads the rankings with six golds.
“Winning the Olympic gold was my main goal and dream since I was a little kid,” she says. “Once I got that medal, I felt some sort of relief – I did it.”
Arianna Fontana (ITA) at the Olympic Winter Games 2018©AFP
Spirit revived, she returned to training in April, slowly building back her fitness with cross-training on bikes and inline skates, before heading back to Italy and stepping on to the ice.
“I felt like I can do more still,” Fontana explains. “I wanted to try again, to see what I could get from Short Track. I love skating, it will always be hard for me to say goodbye and the day that I have to will be hard.”
Fontana in familiar form, leading the way at a World Cup event in 2017 ©International Skating Union (ISU)
Plenty left to learn
Yet the Italian is also conscious that, at the age of 29, she is now one of the older skaters on the Short Track Speed Skating circuit. Only two of the other female athletes competing at the Utah Olympic Oval over the weekend are older – France’s Véronique Pierron (30) and Poland’s Patrycja Maliszewska (31) – with a new breed of talented young skaters still in their teens.
“It’s good to see new faces, new ways of skating, new ways to race,” Fontana says, welcoming the arrival of the younger athletes.
“I’ll have to learn a lot from these younger skaters, as I’m more old-school. I’ll have to watch them race and see if I understand what they do. It’ll be fun for me to learn from them.”