When Federica Brignone, the 2019-20 World Cup overall, giant slalom, and combined champion turned 30 in early July, her birthday looked a bit different than it has in the past. Brignone and her teammates had just wrapped up a camp in Stelvio, not far from her home in Valle d’Aosta, Italy. The Italian Winter Sports Federation (FISI) booked out lane and hotel space for both the men’s and women’s teams during June after the global spread of COVID-19 uprooted the spring and summer training plans of FIS athletes around the world.
Training on the glaciers in Europe for the entirety of the summer was not the plan. Typically, the Italians squeeze at least one long camp in South America at the end of the summer. That will not be possible this year. Skiing on the glaciers means unpredictable weather, reduced space, variable snow conditions, and shorter course lengths. Not to mention social distancing guidelines must be followed. But for Brignone, a change of plans hasn’t necessarily meant a change in strength or preparation. She recognizes that most of her competitors are all in the same boat, and her success isn’t dependent simply on volume; it’s the quality of training that is most important.
“If I am able to ski a lot, with quality and OK conditions, the rest is on me,” she explained. “I determine how good each training day turns out by putting in the work and giving my 100 percent. It is important to ski in an intentional way and with motivation, no matter where you are.
“With the lockdown and all season-end events being canceled, I started full gas, or better, never stopped, like I was already in full regimen right after the season,” Brignone added. “I have never gotten to July with so much work under my belt.”
When it comes to training, Brignone hasn’t missed a beat. What she did miss, was the opportunity to celebrate.
Italy was hit hard in the early stages of the global pandemic, as one of the first countries to experience a full lockdown. As the spread of the virus became rampant, the ski season came to an abrupt halt. In March, the cancelation of the season’s final races in Ofterschwang, Are, and Cortina meant Brignone had officially closed the deal, becoming the first Italian woman in the sport’s history to win the overall crystal globe.
Greatness in alpine ski racing has been a lifelong pursuit for Brignone. In fact her mother, Maria Rosa Quario, was once a World Cup skier herself – a slalom specialist who competed in two Olympics, earned four World Cup victories, and stood on 15 podiums. Her brother, Davide, who acts as her coach and closest confidante, hasn’t missed a race since 2016. He gave up his own ski racing career after many injuries, and chose to use the skills and knowledge gained from his own experience to help his sister push hers further. The drive to win and compete runs in her blood, although Brignone attributes her pursuit of the sport as a decision she made entirely on her own.
Key achievements in her career, such as her GS bronze in PyeongChang or her GS silver medal in Garmisch, were the sum of years of hard work. And while those achievements rank high on her list of accomplishments, nothing quite compares to writing her name in her country’s history books alongside the likes of Alberto Tomba.
Needless to say, the sudden end of the season left Brignone somewhat restless. She had always dreamed of this moment in her life, expecting big celebrations and to be surrounded by her friends, family, teammates, and coaches in the finish area, with fans in the stands cheering her on. COVID-19 disrupted her vision.
On Aug. 1, Brignone was a special guest at the Gran Gala della Neve in Cortina, an event hosted by La Gazzetta dello Sport, an Italian newspaper that honored and celebrated the success of her and a select few FISI athletes. The event was Brignone’s first opportunity to show off her globes in public to her fans. On Aug. 5, her adopted hometown of La Thuile celebrated her victory by naming a gondola in her honor. Although she is happy to have an opportunity to celebrate publicly after the pandemic ravaged her country, the feeling of celebrating (now almost five months after the fact) was a bit strange.
“Often when you win a medal or a cup you bring it and show it off to fans months later like I did in Cortina, but the difference is that usually you have already celebrated at the bottom of the hill, right in the moment,” Brignone sighed. “An event like this is not the same as celebrating after the race when you realized you had won. This is nothing compared to what the celebration could have been in a normal year.”
Brignone has given herself over to the sport of ski racing, but she is also capable of letting loose and having fun. She prides herself on being the kind of athlete that does not obsess over the details of her career. She prefers to see ski racing as a game and enjoy her experience rather than chase pleasure in the pursuit of medals and trophies.
That being said, part of the athlete experience is the ability to celebrate the highs, having fought through the lows. She believes that big achievements should be properly-revered because there is no guarantee they will come again.
“I live my life at 100 percent. We only have one life and we need to enjoy it,” explained Brignone. “I am an athlete and that comes with sacrifices, but I am not obsessing over my career. I wouldn’t say no to cliff-jumping to protect my body. I want to find the limit and feel alive. I want to do all the things I love and want to cherish the good times.”
While Brignone regrets her inability to fully experience her moment in history, COVID-19 has allowed her to experience more moments with those she loves than time normally allows. After training camp wrapped in Stelvio, Brignone, Davide, and some friends spent 10 days on the coast of Italy in Sardinia – an unexpected vacation in the middle of summer when her time is typically dedicated to training.
It is rare Brignone has the opportunity to vacation in her home country. Her schedule normally only allows time for breaks at the end of March, when it’s still too cold to play in the Mediterranean Sea. From kitesurfing to wave surfing, Brignone took full advantage of the opportunity to soak in the sun during her time off snow. With the lockdown lifted, she could properly celebrate both her professional achievements and turning 30 with those closest to her.
If anything, being quarantined and focused solely on training since March has proven to her that it’s important to concentrate on the things she can control – dedicating her time to her self-betterment and to the people who make her feel whole.
“I don’t think the quarantine made me change my values but rather confirmed them,” said Brignone. “I now realize, even more so, that I like to spend time with my friends and spending time at the place I call home. I didn’t miss events and public appointments. I am an athlete and a public figure, but I realize now more than ever that I like to spend time with my close friends and not with people that are there only because my name is Federica Brignone.”
A disrupted schedule has proven to be beneficial to Brignone personally, but she does fear the consequences COVID-19 will have on the upcoming World Cup season. Thus far, FIS has discussed the potential of hosting events with no spectators, a prospect that would greatly affect the visibility and atmosphere surrounding World Cup alpine races. Cortina is also scheduled to host the World Championships in 2021, which would be a major opportunity for Italian fans to experience the vibrant energy of alpine ski racing. Brignone fears that competing in a bubble will have a long-term effect on the sport.
“The racing vibe depends very much on the viewing public, so it would be a shame for me personally to race without them,” she explained. “We do this sport not only for the TV but for all the people who travel to the hill to come see us live. Cortina 2021 has the potential to become a platform for the younger generation of Italian ski racers but kids need to attend the event in person to get passionate about the sport. If the event were to be held behind closed doors, it could easily be mistaken for an event anywhere else in the world. If you see a race on TV, whether it’s in Cortina, Vail, St. Anton, or Timbuktu, it doesn’t make too much of a difference.”
Despite her worries, Brignone knows that the fate of the World Cup season is outside of her control. She continues to put in the work as if nothing has happened, in hopes that the season will still go on and she will be able to carry her momentum from 2019-20 onto the slopes of the season opener in Soelden.
“It is not worth stressing out about the situation because I can’t control the current state of things,” she said. “I am still learning in my life, on and off-piste, that there are some things that are out of my control and it is not worth it to feel bitter about them. I try to focus on what I can actually control, which is being an athlete and not a politician.”
Thus far, 2020 has proven to be a weird mix of joy, confusion, and contentment for the Italian. No matter what’s going on in the world around her, she’s come to terms with the fact that life doesn’t always play out the way we see it in our dreams. Her dream came to her after years of effort and hardwork, just not in the celebratory fashion she imagined.
As she enters a new decade of life, having recently achieved the highest honor in alpine ski racing, Brignone’s goal remains the same. Focus on joy, and living a full life. If she continues to work hard, she feels confident only good things will come her way.
“My life seems to be locked in time,” Brignone reflected. “The life of a normal person is marked by certain life events that start and end: first high school, then the university years, and after that, finally, ‘adult’ life. For us World Cup racers, whether you are in your 20s or 30s, life is the same. My sport keeps me young; training every day helps and I don’t see many changes in my body nor in my lifestyle. The more time that passes, the more energy I have to do things that make me feel alive. I feel good, I am at peace with myself.”