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Sofia Goggia – The freedom of downhill skiing

Sofia Goggia – The freedom of downhill skiing 01

“If speed is created in the solidity of the path of slow growth… then here I am. Ready for this new challenge.”

These are the words that Sofia Goggia, the Italian Olympic and World Cup downhill skiing champion, used on Instagram to describe her injury – a fracture to her right ankle, or more specifically the peroneal malleolus – that kept her off the slopes for two months. 

Mentally, at least, Goggia, 25, has already moved on from that injury, which she sustained in training as she prepared for the opening race of the season. It reflects a rapid shift in thinking that suits her sport; one in which her speed as she shoots downhill forces her to anticipate every single move in her mind, “curve after curve”. 

She has described how heading downhill at more than 100km per hour is “a very delicate balance between risk awareness and awareness of the moment” – which is the way she defines “descent” in the latest edition of the Zingarelli Italian dictionary, having been invited to join the ranks of 130 other leading personalities in providing an “author’s definition” of a key word.

And it is precisely that “moment” – which “requires strategy of approach, continuous reading of the terrain and tactical intelligence, instinct and spirituality” – that the skier says she lives for. 

“There is such a sensation, so much adrenalin, you feel so alive, that that moment makes it all worthwhile,” she says as she continues training her body and mind to be “even stronger and more prepared” for her future competitions. Despite the enforced slowdown.

How are you feeling?
I’m all right, I just have a little peroneal fracture but other than that I’m fine. I’ll have to stop for a couple of months.

Being injured is always a difficult time for athletes. What helps you keep going?
I have one intrinsic motivation: I love skiing. I love putting on my jersey for the competition, fully aware of all that I have done, of all the work that has brought me to that point, at that time. I live for that moment in time: to be able to compete and be ready to do it.

So are you able to carry on enjoying yourself? 
Oh, absolutely; I am enjoying myself. I love that moment in time, I find it really exciting; it makes me feel truly alive.

In terms of skiing, how would you define power?
Power is turning your skis in very little time, managing to make the most of their structure in the minimal amount of space. Turning your skis and getting an elastic response so vast that they send you flying out of the curve like a slingshot.

Physical strength alone is not enough to make a champion: it must be managed and this is where the mind comes into it. How does a champion train the mind?
With very technical work, knowing how to apply the power I was talking about. The mental work is different for each of us. I express my strength best in a condition of freedom: I must be free of constraints, free of inner conflict. Free and in harmony.

After winning the gold medal at the 2018 Winter Olympics in South Korea, you said you took some time off for yourself and did some writing. You write a lot: you keep a diary. Is writing a part of your training?
Yes, a big part. When I write, I am alone with myself. I manage to express all the thoughts I have within me. I let them flow. It’s as if by putting them down on paper, I manage to give them a sort of perimeter, of shape.

What is your first memory of skiing?
My first memory of skiing goes back to the first question: what keeps me going? I have been thinking about this a lot in the past few days. I started skiing at the age of four at Foppolo, in the province of Bergamo. At first I only skied at weekends. 
Foppolo is a ski resort with a population fewer than 300 and only three ski lifts. It is connected with Carona, another very small ski centre. We often went from Foppolo to Carona. There’s a flat stretch connecting the two, on which you have to use your poles. But when I was a child, I was always the first of the group to get there. That little girl who wants to be first is the one who keeps me going. Because winning doesn’t only depend on you, but what I am looking for in my life is excellence, and if you excel, you will naturally get results.

You say winning doesn’t only depend on you. What else does it depend on?
There may be somebody who beats you, another competitor. Winning is a result. You can only control your own athletic performance, which brings you a result. But if there’s somebody else who can ski faster than you, then she will win. If there’s somebody who can get a better time than you, she will win. The final result does depend on you, but it also depends on other factors, which you cannot control.

What do you think about when you’re competing? What goes on in your head?
I concentrate, curve after curve. Curve after curve. I think about the next thing I have to do. You get to a jump, you know that you will have to be in a certain position at the top of the jump, but seeing as you’re going along at 180km an hour, you have to be assuming that position in your mind at least 20m before you get to it. I think about what I have to do here and now, though my here and now are in advance. I don’t even need to think it, because I’ve already done it in my head a thousand times before I get to the competition.

What do you feel as you’re on your way down the slope?
I feel free! When I know I’m on my skis, when I know I have that strength we were talking about, when I can feel the snow, feel myself, I get a unique feeling. I can’t really explain it, because it’s something I experience in a very unique way. This is a privilege that I have been granted. I don’t think I can describe it in words; a whole dictionary would not be enough to explain what I really feel. It’s impossible to say. 

Sofia Goggia – The freedom of downhill skiing 02

At the speeds you reach, winning means taking a risk, going beyond your limits…
No, no no. You’re wrong there.

Why?
Because you don’t go beyond your limits. You approach them, you touch them, but if you go beyond them, you are taking a risk. If there is a limit, you must respect it. I have taken a lot of risks in my life. When I was young I used to fall all the time, and hurt myself, because I didn’t respect my limits, but in actual fact a limit is a blessing from heaven; it teaches you just how far you can go. It is a flexible boundary, which you need to touch. If you stay below it, you dare, and it’s good to dare. If you go beyond it, you take a risk. And when you take a risk, you often lose. Limits don’t forgive.

So it’s all a matter of balance, as you have said on other occasions. How can you tell when you have found your balance?
By looking inside yourself. And it’s not easy. There are many athletes who spend their whole career being mediocre, even when they might actually have had great potential. You find your limit by trying to establish order within yourself, trying to build a puzzle with all the right pieces that define the boundaries and the shape of the composition you want to make.

You have always had this “composition” in mind, ever since you were a child. At the age of nine, you wrote on your ski club form: “I want to win the Olympics in downhill skiing”. And you did it. So what is your dream now?
I continue to dream. I dream of winning another gold medal in four years’ time, in Beijing. And I already know what discipline I want to win it in…

Which?
Super G. . I had come to maturity as a skier before this minor injury; I had been working really well. At 25, my dreams had come true. But this doesn’t mean I don’t have other dreams. The World Cup is a dream.

What is speed to you: fear, a weapon, stimulation, a variable to be managed?
Speed is a key factor in my life: it is energy; it is the engine. I’ve always tried to go fast. Speed is something that keeps me going, that makes me feel alive.

But is speed fear, too?
There’s no such thing as fear. It is just a mental projection of a situation that could end up going a certain way. On one hand it could be a limitation: it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. But if you view it as an opportunity, it becomes something that makes you stronger, as you respectfully go beyond it.

Is there anyone you owe your success to?
Myself, I’d say, that way I don’t have any trouble choosing. This answer may sound egotistical, but I’m not really like that at all. How many times did you almost give up? It’s you who makes the difference, every working day, even on the most horrible days, when it snows, when the weather is awful. But you have the potential to establish such a constructive bond with the people who work with you that that horrible day seems like the best possible day for training. It's you who makes the difference in every way. This is the case in my own little world, and I think it’s the same in any kind of work, in any personal relationship. And when I decide to make a difference, I make my mark. I answered “myself” to your question, because it was always me who was at the starting gate. But, of course, I got there thanks to many, many people.

Anybody who practises a sport at a very high level definitely has a different kind of childhood and adolescence. What sacrifices does a champion make to get to the podium?
This is my life, and I am the one who chose to do this. I don’t understand people who talk about sacrifices. When you make a choice, that choice requires you to go in a particular direction. And that direction will automatically exclude others. I made a conscious, happy choice.

Who is the adversary you most like to compete against?
Lindsey Vonn.

Your favourite ski slope?
I always say “the next one”, but to tell the truth, Cortina is my favourite. Though I really like Korea, because I won three times there. I ski well in the east.

Is there a reason for this?
It has something to do with energy: there, we get away from western consumerist society. It’s as if I am somehow more connected with my spiritual side.

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