Episode #74: Silvia Fontana

March 2014
An interview with Silvia Fontana, 5-time Italian Champion, 2-time Winter Olympian (for the 2002 Salt Lake City games and the 2006 Torino Games), show skater, coach, reality TV star, and founder of Karisma Sportswear with her husband American pair skater John Zimmerman. She talked about working with Carlo Fassi, why her cats didn’t like her methods of warming up, and how she balances team coaching with her husband. 33 minutes, 29 seconds


Sylvia with one of her daughters as we do our interview.

Sylvia with one of her daughters as we do our interview.

Thanks to Fiona McQuarrie for transcribing these interview highlights:

On her most embarrassing skating moment:  I want to say that it is probably the fact that I can’t hide my emotions very well. So even yesterday as Brandon [Foster] and Haven [Denney] were skating, it was just hard to maintain composure. After every one of my good performances, I would just start crying, and some of the audience or the people watching would wonder why without winning a gold medal I would break down in tears [laughs]. I’m not embarrassed but I definitely can’t hold my composure.

On starting skating: My father was in construction, and that’s why I was born in New York, because he had a temporary job building a big sports center in New York City. Then when we moved to Italy he was building a sports center in Rome, and there was a mini-rink. And of all the sports in the center, I was attracted to that. I couldn’t go down stairs and they tell me I still wanted to see the people skate. And I see my little Sofia [her older daughter] just has the same focus when people skate, everything stops. Even better than Minnie Mouse [laughs].

I have US citizenship, and that made it easier when I had to choose a country to train in. No visas, nothing like that. Carlo Fassi at the time was training in Lake Arrowhead and therefore I selected the US for my site of training. In Rome it was really difficult to get a good systematic training schedule. So I moved to the US to improve my skills and really learn the triples. And when I met John [Zimmerman, her husband], he was funny, he was like…and I was, I am, I am a US citizen. But I didn’t speak English very well so he couldn’t understand how that could be possible [laughs].

On being an Italian skater and training in the US: At the time there was [backlash from the Italian federation] but now they’re more used to understanding that some of our infrastructure and coaching has gotten better throughout the years, but wasn’t up to par with what other countries had. And when I moved I was kind of like the first one to have done that. And Carolina [Kostner] had always trained outside of Italy, and now Valentina Marchei is in Detroit. There is always part, I think, of the Italian federation and the Italian coaching staff that looks at you a little bit with disappointment because you’re emigrating, but I think now that Italy is so competitive, they are understanding how one athlete is driven and how to support them in their decision. So it’s better now. But at the time it was a little challenging. I was going to Carlo at first, so it was really emigrating to skate with an Italian, so it was kind of okay [laughs]. And then unfortunately Carlo passed away, so that’s when I moved my coaching to Frank Carroll and Evelyn Kramer.

On whether she could have skated for the US: I could have [laughs] but it’s much harder. Yesterday I saw the women’s short program and it’s such a deep field, it’s awesome. It’s beautiful to watch. For a very short moment John was without a partner and we had a mini-tryout, so we could have skated for the US in pairs, but I had just gotten all my triple jumps, and I skate lefty. And we never fight, but we had our first fight 30 minutes after skating together, and we didn’t think it was a good idea [laughs].

On being interested in ice dance: I was always a singles skater at heart. I love pairs, I love watching pairs, and now with John we’re coaching pair teams. And I’m learning so many more aspects of choreographing pairs and what to look in a pair team as far as choreography, I wouldn’t touch the technical part. I do think it’s very interesting to have two people on the ice creating a story, I love that aspect. But for me to skate — I enjoy skating with John and it’s very special to do all these shows, but even then sometimes, I’m like, you took off, wait for me [laughs]. I’m a singles skater that way.

On working with Carlo Fassi: He had an aura about himself. He had a lot of charisma. He had that personality where it wasn’t so much what he would say to you, what correction he would give to you, but how. Just the tone of his voice, the command, it almost transferred so much confidence. He knew exactly how to make you better. And to me, that is how I remember him as a young woman growing up. He gave me a lot of confidence, and whenever I felt that he believed in me, it made me believe in myself that much more. And Christa Fassi, I just saw her at Italian nationals, and Christa is a very very good coach and still coaches full out, I have very fond memories of them. It was very hard [when Carlo passed away], I had just lost my father that year, and then Carlo, that was very difficult.

On training with Frank Carroll, who at the time was coaching Michelle Kwan: It was awesome. I was very much looking up to Angela Nikodinov, Nicole Bobek, and Michelle — it was really the epicentre of the skating world at the time. I learned a lot from the coaches and from the skaters. Now in coaching I find myself relating stories of training times with Michelle, and how she would start off a long program and maybe missing her first jump but continuing the program as if that never happened, in practice as she would do it [in competition]. And just her work ethic, how she would warm up and cool off. She definitely was a huge role model for all of us training there. And it’s sad that some of the kids now, they are, oh, Michelle Kwan, I heard about her [laughs], and I always say, go and research on YouTube because she is an institution for our sport, she’s an icon.

On missing the 1998 Olympic team: I had a very poor national championship. I skated very poorly. It’s so funny now watching an Olympic trial, it’s a different stage when you are competing at a nationals to qualify for the Olympics. I had qualified Italy to be in the Olympics at a competition in August, at the time it was the Vienna Cup, and I was the very favorite to go. And I just didn’t perform well at all, the nerves just got the best of me. And I contemplated quitting, because that’s another four years [to the next Olympics], and I had already gone to Worlds, so that’s another four years to invest into your craft, and I was already 21 so that’s not very young. And I’m very glad that I stayed in because I did two more Olympics [laughs].

It was not the right time, but at the time it was so devastating. And I see so many things going through skaters’ faces now, like, well, you can’t get up from this. But you do, and it makes you stronger. And everything in your career as a skater makes you stronger as a person later.

On 2001 Worlds, where she placed 10th after being 19th the year before: I worked very very hard. I had my triples thanks to Carlo, Frank and Evelyn. Then I moved to Connecticut to be closer to John but also to be under the guidance of Galina [Zmievskaya]. Galina really put so much work into improving my skating and I really owe it to her and Nina [Petrenko] and Viktor [Petrenko] to have improved so much. And I was emotionally ready. As I was saying before, as an athlete I grew that mental toughness, and they were behind me to improve my skating to where I needed to be to be up to par with that top 10. It’s really tough to get in to the top 10 [laughs] but I felt – my skills, when being raised in Rome, technically I had so many things that weren’t perfect. And so we had to make do with some things. And Galina tried to improve my technique a little bit without completely starting over, because we didn’t have the time, and she was very successful at that, very smart.

On placing 10th at the 2002 Olympics: I wasn’t thrilled because I think — I’m a little bit of a perfectionist, and I think I made two mistakes. One big mistake and one slight mistake, and I knew I could skate better, so that’s why I was unhappy with myself. I wasn’t that unhappy with the score, I wasn’t that type of skater that really focused on the score, but I was really crying only when I skated my best [laughs].

On competing in the 2006 Olympics in Torino: I saw the NBC commercial, I don’t remember how many days it was but it was like 154 days until the Olympics, and they were showing all parts of my country, with the Olympic circles. And something came onto me, I have to try. I was so far back and I was not in shape at all, I had never done triple flip or triple lutz in four years. And I was touring in Broadway on Ice with Brian Boitano and it was in theatres, with very small ice. So I asked Brian, so how was it to come back? And he said, very difficult, but it was a good challenge. So it was good that he was there. And I didn’t want to even admit in my brain that I had thought about coming back, because we had bought a house and I was in a different phase of my life. So I said, I’m just going to start training silently, on my own, and see where I go. And John was on tour in Stars on Ice. So my tour was done in March, so I said, in June, when John comes back, if I am in good shape, maybe I’ll verbalize it out loud [laughs]. And it was good. The drive that you have in training for the Olympics is amazing.

And [with the new judging system in 2006] I had never trained some of the required positions in the spins. So when I trained from March to June, I turned on the heaters and did hot yoga in the house. The cats hated me going back to the Olympics, they were dying [laughs].

Obviously I didn’t place as well [as in the 2002 Olympics], I also had several injuries from being 29 and training all these new things. By the time I got to the Olympics I was injured a lot so I really couldn’t do triple flip and triple lutz, which I did at nationals to qualify. But that to me was the peak of my career. Even though I knew I didn’t have the goods and I couldn’t deliver the jumps at that point because of the injury, just to be able to put it together — those nine months leading to the Olympics, getting back into shape, qualifying at Italian nationals, and then skating in front of the home crowd and doing the best I could at that moment — that was it, that was worth it.

Peter Tchernyshev did the choreography for the long program. He’s brilliant. And he was the best man at our wedding so I knew he would have the best interests [laughs]. He’s a great friend, and musical and talented. And I had moved to New Jersey, and Robin [Wagner, her coach] was appropriate for my age and what I was going for, my goals. Galina was amazing but I probably could not have handled Galina’s type of training at my age. I was training very hard on my own and tried to get back in shape, but Robin was a great support for me at that time. She was very smart and supportive and positive. She connected with me and understood what I needed at that time, and understanding that if there was an injury, how to manipulate around it.

To a younger skater I could say, especially in an Olympic year, to take the defeat as a gift and not as a defeat, and say, what can I learn from this, and not to get you down. Your soul as a skater, as a performer, as a champion, has to be stronger than those little bumps in the road. And that’s what I learned from other skaters, like Michelle and Brian. I was very lucky to have met them and seen them and seen them train, and you learn that from life, it’s a great lesson. Don’t let your confidence and your dream and your drive be shattered by things like, that’s it, a door is closing. Something else will open if you keep at it.

On being on the Italian version of the Skating with Celebrities TV show, and winning twice: It’s funny, but when I go back to Italy now that’s how they introduce me [laughs]. It was a very popular show, and it was fun to do. It was interesting that, it’s my curse, I ended up skating pairs [laughs]. It was just a challenging experience. You’re a little bit of both, you’re a coach and a skater. You have to teach them how to skate, you have to teach them how to perform and put together programs, but you’re also the partner and the skater and the performer. It was challenging, but it was fun, because you feel that you’re really bringing the sport that you love into the houses of people that never knew about skating before. So you see so many people falling in love with your sport, and that’s worth it. And so many little kids are starting to skate because skating is popular because of the show.

I also did the judging for Dancing with the Stars in Italy for a little while, so I had the opportunity to venture into the TV world. I knew that wasn’t me. I liked more the contact with the sport. It’s a very lucrative job, but coaching is much more satisfying, and my clothing line Karisma. That part of it to me was more challenging than waiting for the next contract. I liked the show for what it was but I wouldn’t want to do TV for a living.

We both like The Amazing Race because we are like that with each other, oh, let’s see who gets there first. We used to play tennis, and John looked like John McEnroe, with the same intensity, we are both very competitive people. So that type of television, that type of reality show, we would both love to do.

On successfully coaching with her husband: I think it’s the respect we have for each other, and I truly believe he has so much to offer and vice versa. We trust each other in making good decisions, and we really like to hear what the other person thinks and believes. And then we come up with the best solutions for the skaters. We have the common respect for each other.

We were both lucky that we had great American coaches and great Russian coaches. John trained under Peter Oppegard and Tamara Moskvina, and I had Carlo and Frank and then Galina. So we know a bit of both systems, and I feel that helps us. Not every skater is the same and not every skater needs the same thing, so our experience helps us. That’s why it’s really hard for me to watch because I know what they’re going through [laughs].

On her clothing line, Karisma: It’s a great challenge and it’s fun because it’s my baby, it really is. We started from zero, completely, and not knowing much about that type of business, but it’s very demanding. Always thinking and always growing. It’s the most popular clothing line in Russia for figure skating, and it’s sold right now in the US, in Asia, in Japan and Hong Kong, and in Russia and all the other European countries. It’s popular and it’s doing really well, but obviously having these two little devils [her daughters] kind of put a stop to growing it for a little bit. But we believe in the product so much, and as a skater I knew how important it was to look your best, and how you feel good when you have things that look good on you.

We aspire to having it grow because we were front runners in finding the fabric, in finding the right machine. It wasn’t just an investment where we give money and forget about it. We put our heart into creating the right thing for the skaters, and hopefully it will develop into something more than just skating gear. But for now that’s what we know and that’s what we’re passionate about. We will never quit growing, and we’re proud of every little step. When we went to Moscow for worlds and saw how popular it was, and all the stores were approaching me to have the exclusive and bring me flowers, it was, wow [laughs]. We had a table, and of course having John and Peter at the table helped with all the women coming [laughs], but a flood of people were interested and we sold a lot of the product, and I did a lot of the vending personally. We are driven to make it grow and find ways to make it better.

About the Author
Yup, I’m a skating fan. But I’m a skater too. I compete nearly every year in the U.S. Adult Figure Skating Championships, and am always thrilled to see my other skating buddies there. In my real life I work in marketing for brands that make positive changes in the world, and a mom of two rambunctious boys.

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