Italy – A-
Ahh, the Italians. Home of olive oil, the Mafia and pizza pockets. As for skiing, they are kind of a big deal. Or rather, they were kind of a big deal. Like the Estonians, the Italians are old. When you run the same 4 guys in the relay in Whistler as you did 4 years prior in Torino, and those boys weren’t spring chickens then, you know there is a problem. This is the Olympics, the goal is to win medals, not have some sort of reunion tour. Save that for 10 years down the road and your high school, boys. Somehow, despite a large collection of hip replacements and walkers used by most of the Italian team, the managed to collect 4th spot on the Nations Cup ranking, just ahead of Finland, but let’s not go there again. I suspect it’s the Viagra those Italians have been dummying, because it’s their team’s title sponser.
Leading the charge this season was the 38 year old Giorgio di Centa. Amassing a solid 501 WC points, Giorgio was down a bit from last year, but at 38, it is still damn impressive number. Furthermore I must note that di Centa nailed down his first ever career World Cup win this season. Sure, it was in Canmore, the field might be a little smaller than usual, and it was a climbing course, but still. It is impressive and surprising that a skier as successful as di Centa had not bagged a win in his career. To tell you the truth, I am still on the fence – on one hand, I am stoked that he got a W, on the other; I am shocked that he had not got one before. He is a damn good skier, and it is a little surprising. Maybe even a little sad.
Di Centa was closely followed by his nursing home roommate Pietro Piller Cottrer. At 36, ‘Killer Piller’ as he is known, may not seem completely toast, but his points total would disagree. His 366 WC points this season were less than half of his 775 in 08-09. However, he did show up when it mattered – he was 2nd behind Giorgio in Canmore, then was 2nd in the 15km at the Olympics, 26th in the 50km at the Olympics, then 2nd in the Holmenkollen. Early in the season he stunk, and he cannot sprint, who cares when you can still bag a medal at the Olympics at 36. I know, I thrashed him a little earlier about his drop in points, and I think he will drop harder next season, but never count out Cottrer in a big race. (I’m referring to World Champs in Oslo, specifically the 50 km, just in case you missed that reference)
Next up is Valerio Checchi, a mere 30 years old. Checchi has always been an up and down guy compared to his two higher-profile teammates, and this season was no different. In 08-09 he only brought home 86 points – this season, he chipped in 252. Some might say that’s not bad. I may even be among them, despite the fact that he also cannot sprint. What is up with old Italian men not even being close to all-around skiers??
Roland Clara is the 4th on the men’s depth chart, but his 168 points really are not worth talking about. However, someone near the bottom of the Italian list sure is. One Christian Zorzi, perhaps? Zorzi is possibly the best known Italian skier, despite never really doing much. A former awesome sprinter, character, and anchor leg master, Zorzi is still trucking. Sure, he’s 38, but since when is that a big deal? Only when you’re trying to make a career out of sprinting on the World Cup, that’s when. Christian collected a mere 73 WCP’s this season, raced 4 individual sprints, didn’t make the cut twice, and made the final only once, in the Rybinsk so-called World Cup. Then, the Italians decide to stick him on the Team Sprint in the Olympics, where he blew and came 8th, and then called on him to anchor their 4x10, finishing in an epic 9th place! It’s not often that I lose my crap on people for poor decisions in skiing (okay, that’s a lie) but I think the Italian coach should be canned for this bullshit. I am sorry Christian, but you are no longer a world class sprinter, and you are barely a world class skier. Please, give it up, and let the young sprint boys do their job – there is talent there, and lots of it.
For example, Fabio and Renato Pasini. Brothers, obviously, not really young, but with 134 and 94 points respectively, both skied far better than Zorzi. Or how about David Hofer? He was a bit of a bust this season dropping from 272 WCP’s down to 94, but he is at least 10 years younger than Zorzi. I personally cannot stand Hofer, because of his maddeningly inconsistent skiing, but I think he is a better guy to close out your relay at the Olympics than some old dude who is pretty much only known for having the nickname ‘Zorro’ at one point in his life.
I think it is pretty clear that the Italians have a problem on their team. And it’s called the Grim Reaper. I am glad that they had 11 different males score WCP’s - that’s great! But when only 4 of those are below 30, and only 1 is below 26, you might have some problems in the near future. The average age of the men’s squad who scored more than 15 WCP is 32. I know experience is necessary, but so is youth if you want to have a ski program in a couple of years.
Take the women, for example. They are led by Arianna Follis, who is pretty damn good, at 908 WCP. She’s quite possibly the 2nd best skate sprinter in the world (behind Petra ‘I maul small Scandinvians for fun’ Majdic), and one of the best sprinters period. She is no slouch on the distance course either, turning in consistent Top 10’s and 15’s. Follis is without a dount in the elite group of women in the world, and when there are really only 5 or 6 of those, plus Justyna Kowalczyk, who we’re still not sure is actually a chick, you know you’ve got some talent. Follis finished 3rd in the Tour, and while she came home from Vancouver without any hardware, she was 4th twice. Tough pill to swallow, but not Kristin Stormer Steira territory, so don’t give up on Follis just yet.
Helping out Follis at the top is Marianna Longa. Longa is a bit of a character, going from 155 WCP in 07-08, to over 1000 in the 08-09 season out of nowhere, to back down to 646 this past year. Believe me, when she didn’t get picked in the augural season of Fantasy Nordic and then turned in over 1000 points, people started to pay attention. She’s only 31, but has been skiing quiet strong the past two seasons. I would say she is one of the most consistent 5th to 15th placing skiers on the World Cup, getting in that ball park an astounding 20 times this season in individual events. That kind of consistency is unbelievable, but can only get you so far. Longa only made the podium once this season, on a 10km mass start on the Tour. That hurts. Maybe she needs lunging lessons or something.
On the pure sprint side of things, Magda Geniun is a pretty decent Team Sprint partner for Follis, if Longa doesn’t want to do it. She was able to sprint to 282 WCP and finished 9th on the overall sprint list. The chick can classic AND skate sprint, which is pretty handy, and is rock solid, qualifying in 11 of the 12 sprints she started, including the Olympics. But similar to Longa, she lacks finish. Or Hustle. Or Clutch. Whatever the stat category is that means you can turn in podium performance, Magda seems to be missing it. 11 qualifications at the World Cup level and just 1 medal, a 2nd. Can you guess where she got it? (Hint: It wasn’t in Norway – try somewhere a little more Communist and vodka-filled.)
I am compelled to mention Sabina Valbusa here, because she retired at the age of 38, and seems to be willing to fade into the background, unlike the guys. She did collect 201 WCP, which is not all that bad, but I respect the fact she wants to go out on an okay note. She also skied on the 4th place Olympic relay team, which even on the women’s side seems to be a place to put the dinosaurs.
But they weren’t all dinosaurs! Hands down biggest surprise of my Olympic experience was watching 25 yr old owner of a whopping 73 WCP Silvia Rupil ski in the warm-up. There was a vicious debate raging over who the hell she was. Wax tech? Young coach? Piller Cottrer’s daughter? Just some chick out for a rip in an Italian ski suit? You can’t miss her either – red head with the goofy Italian pompom hat on. But Silvia was out there to throw down, and she sure did, or at least didn’t suck too badly.
So, to wrap this mess up; Italian team coach – put down your parmesan cheese for a minute, and look at the facts. Your men’s relay team with an average age of 35.5 finished 9th, and I will venture mostly due to Zorzi. Your women’s relay team, with an average age of 31.75 (one of whom is retiring) finished in 4th. For those who don’t know, that is one spot out of the medals, which last time I checked is what people want at the Olympics. If I may make one final suggestion, it would be to CHANGE your FLIPPING men’s relay team next year in Oslo. Just a thought. Except for that, the Italians did respectable this year.
Watch out For: Gaia Veurich. She is 19, scored 14 WCP all in sprints (actually, to be precise, one sprint, Dusseldorf) but owned the crap out of the Alpen Cup (not that I or you know what that really means), and came 4th at World Juniors. That resume is good, to be sure, but what really made up my mind was her most recent result. In some random sprint tour in Russia, where the prizes are big bottles of vodka and nuclear weapons at fire-sale rates, Veurich came 2nd in the first stage, edging out none other than Justyna Kowalczyk. I know, this doesn’t mean anything, especially because it was some weird downhill sprint, but anyone who beats Kowalczyk is awesome in my book. I think in Russia they throw you in jail for coming third. Enjoy the gulag, Justyna! But trust me, this chick is the next big thing out of Italy.