Giacomo Bertagnolli’s leap of faith

Paralympic champion puts trust in guide to reach new heights 03 Jan 2019
By Amp Media | For World Para Alpine Skiing

“I cannot wait to race. This year I think I am skiing better than last year, faster. My racing position is better this year. I am lower, closer to the snow. But I have to test it all. I want to know how much I have improved.”

Vision impaired Para alpine skier Giacomo Bertagnolli has been battling a major conundrum since winning two golds, a silver and a bronze medal at the PyeongChang 2018 Paralympic Winter Games. Desperate to keep improving and stay ahead of the pack, the 19-year-old trained hard throughout the summer but frustratingly found the faster he skied down the slope the less he could see, making the gates almost impossible to navigate – until, that is, he radically changed his entire approach.

“I realised the solution was to not worry about the gates,” Bertagnolli explained. “Instead the solution is just to worry about Fabrizio (Casal – his guide) and stay much nearer to him. If I stay just behind him – say, 1.5 metres or something – then I can see the line he is taking and just follow it.

“So I know where the gates are without worrying about them. That is what we have changed and now I can go much faster.”

Courage to the limit

Like many smart ideas, it sounds simple, but it takes a huge additional leap of courage from a man already pushing himself to the limit. The B3 racer is used to travelling down the mountain at speeds of more than 100km/hr without being able to see much of the slope but now he is having to let go of what had been one of the few reassuring signposts.

It helps that the Italian is a self-confessed speed addict and has been friends with Casal since early childhood.

“I never get scared,” Bertagnolli laughed. “Me and Fabrizio ski really well together, it’s good.”

Although the pair, who together won gold in the men’s vision impaired slalom and giant slalom, silver in super-G and bronze in downhill in PyeongChang back in March, are fiercely competitive with each other.

“We finished school after PyeongChang and the exams were good. I passed with 82/100, so that was great but unfortunately Fabrizio passed with 90,” Bertagnolli said, before he quickly added, “But that’s just because he studied all day every day and I just did one hour per day.”

Gap year beckons for adrenaline addict

Now free from the shackles of studying for the first time in his memory, the skier is not keen to return to his books too soon. Instead, he is embracing the idea of at least a year off before he heads to university.

“I want to travel,” the teenager explained. “After the (2019) World Championships I will go to England to work and to study English, probably in Chester. It’s a project through my province – they send me to England and then I do the work they give me. I hope it will be in a bar or something so I can be always speaking to people.

“Then after England I want to travel to South America, to Chile or Peru, because I like the sound of those countries and I have never been.

“Also, I met Manolo (legendary Italian climber Maurizio Zanolla) and he told me that whenever I want, I can go climbing with him. So we will do it after the world championships because I don’t want to break my leg before.”

But not before the 2019 Worlds…

These major life experiences sound incredible but, crucially for this innate competitor, they will all come after the 2019 World Para Alpine Skiing Championships in Sella Nevea, Italy and Kranjska Gora, Slovenia later this month. He is, after all, a racer first and foremost.

“I cannot wait to race,” he said. “This year I think I am skiing better than last year, faster. My racing position is better this year. I am lower, closer to the snow. But I have to test it all. I want to know how much I have improved.”

The man who hails from the Italian Dolomites is desperate to add to the world title he won in super combined in Tarvisio, Italy, in 2017 and he cannot wait for the thrill of competing against the very best.

“Mac (Marcoux, Canada’s five-time world champion) and the Slovakians (PyeongChang 2018 vision impaired gold medal winners Jakub Krako and Miroslav Haraus) are my biggest rivals but I am really happy because I know this year there will be other visually impaired skiers competing, so I want to see how good they are,” he said.

“I don’t want to win easily, I want to compete to win. I want big rivals.”