Fontana makes sentimental return

Updated: February 24, 2006, 7:40 AM ET
By Amy Rosewater | Special to ESPN.com

HACKENSACK, N.J. -- Silvia Fontana had no plans of skating competitively anymore.

She was busy performing in Broadway-style skating exhibitions with easy practices and lucrative deals. Instead of struggling with difficult triple jumps and having to please judges, her biggest challenges were wearing the right amount of makeup and "not messing up the group numbers for the stars."

She married her longtime sweetheart, U.S. Olympic pairs skater John Zimmerman, and was coaching young skaters.

All of that changed when Fontana tuned into the European Championships a little more than a year ago. The competition was held in late January, 2005, in Torino, as a test event for the Winter Olympics. Shortly afterward, Fontana watched a commercial, noting the one-year countdown to the Olympics in Italy.

Fontana, who was 28 at the time, dusted off the skates she used during the 2002 Olympics in Salt Lake City and began to wonder what it would be like to represent Italy in an Italian Olympics.

Although she was born on Staten Island (her Italian father, was a construction engineer who was working in the United States for a two-year project), she lived in Italy from the time she was six months old until she turned 18. She has dual citizenship in the United States and Italy, but she bleeds red, white and green.

She started showing up at the Hackensack Ice House and attempting triples again. She dieted and began off-ice training. She didn't let anyone in on her secret. Not even Zimmerman, who was often away touring with Stars on Ice, knew what his wife was up to.

Finally, in the early spring, she called her mother, Maria, who lives in Rome, with the news.

"She thought I was crazy," Fontana said with a laugh. " 'The Olympics?' my mom asked me. 'I thought you were calling me to tell me you were going to have a baby. When am I going to have grandchildren?' "

Motherhood was going to have to wait. Fontana, who placed 10th in the 2002 Olympics, was going to attempt a comeback to skate in the Games in Italy.

Zimmerman was equally surprised, recalling his wife's phone call well.

"It was 11:30 a.m., and I was in Little Rock, Arkansas, sitting in my hotel room when she dropped the bomb on me," Zimmerman said. "At first, I thought, 'Really? Are you serious?' But then I thought, 'OK, it's the Olympics. I understand.' "

If anyone could understand what drives an athlete to pursue the Olympic dream it was Zimmerman, who was fifth with partner Kyoko Ina in the 2002 Games. Once on board with his wife's plans, Zimmerman became the ultimate "skating husband." Even though he was busy touring, he offered his full support. On brief breaks from the tour, he would pop into the rink and watch her practices. He stands at the side of the rink and applauds when she lands a jump. He consoles her when she falls.

If you're around him for a few minutes, chances are, he'll hand you a homemade "Go Silvia! Go for the Gold!" pin.

Fontana started getting back into shape and was getting some coaching help from friends at the rink, Olympic ice dancer Peter Tchernyshev among them.

"All of the coaches at the rink helped me, and I think it was a painful process for them to watch, probably," Fontana said with a laugh. "Oh, there she goes again. Oh. Oh."

Ultimately, she realized she was going to need a full-time coach, someone who could be honest with her and motivate her.

As Zimmerman advised her, "You're going to need a general to run this thing."

Among Fontana's previous coaches were Galina Zmievskaya, who guided Oksana Baiul to gold in 1994, and Frank Carroll, Michelle Kwan's former coach and Marina D'Agata. Zmievskaya was in Simsbury, Conn. Carroll was in Los Angeles. D'Agata was in Italy. Fontana's home was in New Jersey.

Little did Fontana know at the time but the coach she needed was working in Hackensack the whole time. In May, Fontana approached Robin Wagner to take on the challenge.

You might remember Wagner as the woman who coached Sarah Hughes to the gold medal in Salt Lake City. You probably know her as the woman who fell down on the floor screaming with joy when the results flashed that Hughes indeed pulled off one of skating's biggest Olympic upsets.

Wagner was available to work with Fontana because she didn't have any elite-level skaters at the time. She had been working with Sasha Cohen, but she returned home to California and work with John Nicks. Wagner knew Fontana, since the two had worked together coaching young skaters, and was inspired enough to take on the job.

"I had seen Robin coach all the time and always thought it would've been great to have been coached by her," Fontana said. "When I coached with her, I realized, she is so in tune with her skaters."

Wagner was the general Fontana needed.

"Just call me Patton," Wagner said with a laugh.

But in order for the comeback plan to work, they had to hustle. Fontana had not been in solid training shape for three years.

In her professional performances, she had grown more accustomed to doing leg kicks than triples and had been skating on small ice surfaces, rinks that were about 30 feet by 60 feet --- much smaller than competitive facilities.

"I learned a lot from professional skating, working with skaters like Yuka Sato, Dorothy Hamill and Kristi Yamaguchi and working with new choreographers," Fontana said. "But it's such a different world. You have pianos and live singles and you wear pretty costumes and lots of makeup.

"I had a great time for three years, but it definitely brought me further away from competitive skating. It was probably the worst shape to come from to try to do this."

In addition, she had to play catch-up with a new and intricate scoring system that had been created in an attempt to rid the sport of the corruption that was made so public in Salt Lake City. Gone were the days of 6.0s. Now Fontana had to learn about level four spins and intricate footwork sequences in addition to re-learning triples.

Fontana had been invited to appear in several TV skating shows on NBC, but opted to skip those to focus on her training. As big of a challenge it was for Fontana to return to training shape, it perhaps was an even bigger challenge to get her back into mental shape for competition.

Her first big test came in September, when the Italian federation asked Fontana to come to Italy for a technical test of her skating ability, a monitoring session similar to what Michelle Kwan was asked to do last month to be named to the American Olympic team. But unlike Kwan, who didn't have to skate in any competitions to make the Olympic squad, Fontana had to enter three events to prove she was worthy of an Olympic bid.

For Fontana, there were some politics she had to deal with as well. Italy would be able to send two women skaters to the Games in Torino. One of those spots almost assuredly was going to go to Carolina Kostner, the 2005 World bronze medalist. The other spot probably was going to go to Valentina Marchei, a teenager about a decade younger than Fontana.

"I wasn't expecting to just waltz in," Fontana said. "The federation put a lot of effort and time into another skater and there had been no intentions of me being reinstated. As much as they loved me for the past, they couldn't just give me anything. I had to earn it."

Although Fontana passed her initial test with the Italian federation, she said her progression back to the Olympics was "never really steady upwards." She suffered a setback early on when she tore her hamstring. Still, she placed third in her first competition, the Golden Spin of Zagreb. Marchei was sixth in that event, but beat Fontana in the free skate.

But Fontana's next competition marked a major setback. She had to skate in Italy for the first time since she retired in 2002. Even though Fontana was in better physical shape, she was rattled by the nerves.

"Mentally, I wasn't able to handle the pressure very well," Fontana said. "I think it left both of us stunned. I realized how much the mind can get in the way. I was never as nervous as I was at that time. It was as if I was at my first nationals."

When Fontana and Wagner returned to Hackensack, Wagner made significant changes. There would be days when Wagner would give Fontana a six-minute warm-up and then have her do her program. Instead of focusing on bringing out Fontana's emotion to the ice --- that was pretty much a given considering Fontana's style --- Wagner made practices much stricter.

"Her mental capabilities didn't match her physical capability," Wagner said. "My goal was to take some emotion out of this, and make it more of a job. I knew her emotionality would come out when she needed it to."

By the time the Italian nationals in Milan came around in January, Fontana felt she was much more prepared for the pressure. She wound up placing second, behind Kostner and ahead of Marchei. Forty minutes after the competition ended, the Italian federation named Kostner and Fontana to the Olympic team.

A five-time Italian champion, Fontana said that her 2006 national silver medal is probably the one she's proudest of because she had to work the hardest to earn it.

At 29, she proved she still had what it takes. (She won't be the oldest in Torino. Ukraine's Elena Liashenko beats Fontana by about four months, and Russian gold-medal favorite Irina Slutskaya turns 27 the day before the Opening Ceremonies.)

When you ask Fontana about the Italian nationals, she overflows with pride.

"Oh my gosh," Fontana said. "It was really one of the most memorable skating performances of my life. I put a lot out on the line there, and there were plenty of other girls who were young and strong.

"There was a lot of adrenaline flowing throughout the event. The fans have seen my whole career, and I think they appreciated the effort it took me to be there."

Every movement of her long program will be forever imprinted in her mind.

"I remember it was very quiet for the first part of my program, but as soon as more jumps came along, it got louder," Fontana said. "Once I hit the last jump, I was just in the zone. I started looking around the crowd and seeing faces. Everyone was standing while I did my last spin. It was like a movie. I didn't even bow at the end, I just had to go over and hug Robin for everything."

Said Wagner: "Silvia is a very, very hard worker. I just didn't realize how hard it was going to be to get the mental game back. I thought this was all going to me much easier than it turned out to be, to be honest."

Fontana said she didn't even see the scores at first.

"It just felt so good to see the reaction of the people," Fontana said. "Some people came up to me afterward and told me that I made them cry."

That was exactly what Wagner was hoping to achieve. When she selected Nessun Dorma, a commonly used piece of opera music in skating, Wagner knew Fontana's emotional presence on the ice would take over. And it's no coincidence that it's composed by Italian great Puccini.

"It's the type of music that I knew would take people out of their seats," Wagner said. "I think it will be a big hit at the Olympics."

As joyous as Fontana was, there was a part of her that felt bad for Marchei. Oddly enough, Fontana could relate to Marchei missing the Olympic team. In 1997, Fontana had qualified Italy for a spot in the 1998 Olympics in Nagano. But Fontana wound up second at the Italian nationals and didn't earn a trip to Japan.

"Maybe this is not her time yet," Fontana said.

Fontana returned to the United States with newfound confidence. She was training knowing she would go to the Games. Then came a bad fall in practice in January. She was finishing a spin and when she put her toe pick in the ice to stop, she fell and nearly cracked her hip. For skaters, sometimes it's the silly falls, the ones made on the easier maneuvers, which often result in more pain than the falls on triple and quadruple jumps.

Over the last few weeks, Fontana has been riding a bike 30 miles a day and swimming as part of her physical therapy. She resumed jumping this past week, having a thrilling first day back by landing triples off the bat only to struggle the next day on double axels. It's been a roller-coaster ride since.

"It's hard because these jumps were really confident and comfortable and now they're a bit shaky," Fontana said. "I worked so hard to get these jumps back."

As frustrating as this latest setback has been, she can't wait to get to Torino. She plans to fully immerse herself in the Olympic experience. She wants to march in the Opening Ceremonies, stay in the athletes' village and enjoy herself. Zimmerman will be there, too, as a proud husband and as a contributor for Yahoo sports.

Perhaps most importantly for Fontana is that her mother will be able to experience the Olympics, too. Fontana didn't make the team in 1998, and just as she was planning on making the trip to Salt Lake City with her mother in 2002, they received word that Fontana's maternal grandmother died. Maria Fontana returned to Italy and never got the chance to see her compete.

Fontana's mother and her brother, Mario, will be in Torino, which is about an eight-hour drive from where they live in Rome. Fontana's father died in 1995.

"My mother is excited but she doesn't even know the triples," Fontana said.

The triples aren't important for Fontana now. Neither is her placement.

"Honestly, what I want is really just a good skate that the audience will feel proud of me representing their country," Fontana said and then laughed. "And I hope they won't be saying, 'Oh, she's the oldest one in the competition.'"

Amy Rosewater is a freelance writer based in Baltimore.

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