“One of the Best Weeks of My Life” – Coach Franca Bianconi Reflects on Europeans 2023

“One of the Best Weeks of My Life” – Coach Franca Bianconi Reflects on Europeans 2023

Coach Franca Bianconi Reflects on Europeans 2023

Franca Bianconi is a white woman with short black hair wearing a black shirt, black puffy vest, orange floral scarf and event badges. She is smiling at the camera.

It was a wildly successful European Championship for Franca Bianconi. Teams that Bianconi works with secured all three spots on the pairs podium, and her long-time student Matteo Rizzo won silver in the men’s event. 

In this moment of triumph, Bianconi reflected on her journey as a coach, and the opportunities provided by the upcoming Milano-Cortina Olympics in 2026.

Learning from Experience

Italy only has one spot for pairs at the upcoming World Championships. 

“It’s really a pity,” said Bianconi. “It was really unfortunate. Last year, two pairs had COVID, and we had no substitutes. They were not entered…Now for this one year, we will have to suffer a little bit…”

Sara Conti and Niccolò Macii with their coach Barbara Luoni will almost certainly represent Italy at worlds, as they have had higher scores in international competitions this season, and won the Italian National Championships and the European Championships. However, their teammates Rebecca Ghilardi and Filippo Ambrosini also had a lot to celebrate, especially coming back from 5th to win the Free Skate in Espoo. 

Rebecca Ghilardi and Filippo Ambrosini are doing a pair spin. Ambrosini is standing on one leg, and lifting Ghilardi by the waist and ankle while she is in a standing split.
Ghilardi and Ambrosini practice their Free Skate at Europeans

“It will motivate them,” said Bianconi. “And after that short, they needed some [motivation]. Also, this is a step, a learning process.”

Though she is best known as a pair coach, Bianconi also works with singles skaters. She has been one of Matteo Rizzo’s coaches since he was a child. 

“I’m so happy,” she said. “He’s been working very hard – like everybody else of course, but it will be a good push for him to go on from here.” She attributes his success to increased maturity and self-awareness. 

“It’s like when you know how to deal with your goals, with your fears, with your attitude. Now he’s “driving his car” well. He had a moment where he was kind of lost, but now he’s back on track. And even in practice, he is really focused. He listens, but we also discuss training programs and strategies and he also takes his time off when he needs it. So he has grown, and he knows how to manage himself much better.”

Bianconi said that she and the Italian skaters aren’t feeling too much pressure – yet – about the home Olympics in Milano-Cortina. “It’s in our minds for sure. But it’s excitement, not pressure at the moment. Maybe the pressure will come. But now it is just something exciting that everybody is looking forward to. I mean, the Olympics is always the dream for each skater, and the Olympics at home is a double dream. I think everyone is really happy and looking forward to reaching the goal: to be part of this fantastic event.”

With the strength that Italian teams showed in pairs, dance, and men, it looks like Italy will be in a strong position for the team event in 2026. “Hopefully, yes,” Bianconi agreed.  “We will try our best.”

A Dream Come True

A 1980 Olympian for Italy in singles, Bianconi is now the director of the Ice Lab of Bergamo. In 2019, Ice Lab was recognized by the ISU as one of the first six Centers of Excellence for figure skating.

 “It started with a vision and a project request from the President of Icelab Mrs. Federica Pesenti,” said Bianconi. “Actually, we started with the idea to create a center of excellence before they existed, and then all of a sudden came this thing [from the ISU] where they said, if you want to be a center of excellence, you can apply. So we applied and there it was. We were so honored. We wanted to do our best all the time and this proves that we worked well.”

Franca Bianconi, Rosanna Murante and Rebecca Ghilardi hug while other members of the Italian team applaud and smile
Celebrations backstage after the pairs Free Skate at Europeans; Bianconi hugs Rebecca Ghilardi and fellow coach Rosy Murante while Luca La Notte (left) applauds

It has taken many years to build a strong pairs program in Italy. “We work step by step, and now I will say, generation by generation,” said Bianconi. “I actually started with Rosy Murante (my assistant coach) and Ondrej Hotarek, and I didn’t even know anything about pairs in the beginning, but then I was going abroad and learning, listening, and gaining some experience. This is the second generation because it’s me, Rosy, and Ondrej, and the other coaches who grew with me together. It is so much easier now, we have more knowledge, and it’s a very good team. We respect each other, we work so well together, and all of us aim at the same goal.”

All of the coaches work with all of the teams, but “in general, there is always one coach who is the head coach for that team, and the others are kind of assistants or helpers, let’s say. So the one coach who is in charge will decide the program, the music, the competitions, and mainly manage the team, and all the others go to help.”

The teams also benefit from the Italian ice dance coaches that work in Bergano. “Anna [Capellini, wife of Ondrej Hotarek] is always helping with choosing the music, with explaining the character of the choreography. Luca [La Notte] is working with Ghilardi/Ambrosini and Hocke/Kunkel, and this other coach, Raffaela Cazzaniga, is also working with Conti/Macii. Valter Rizzo [father of Matteo] works with his son and pair skaters Lucrezzia Beccari/Matteo Guarise. Massimo Scali has been a long-time choreographer of Matteo Rizzo. Choreographers are a choice of the athletes, so in this way, we have more diversity [of styles].”

The artistic element of pairs is important for Bianconi, who opined.  “I think in general skating needs to go a little bit more back towards the artistic side, in order to have some unique skaters. [We need] each one with their own personality, each one to present something new, something that belongs to that athlete, and that everybody can remember, ‘Oh, that lift is from that pair.’ And then it gives the audience and the public more fun to watch.”

Bianconi added that she would support the addition of a choreographic (non-leveled) lift or spin in the pairs discipline. “Our idea is always to be a little bit different on the ice, to create something that stays in the memory of the public and the judges.”

It isn’t easy to put together the right skaters to make a pair team. “You need a lot of characteristics,” said Bianconi. “Body type, age, the technique of jumping, of elements. Of course, if they want to reach a high level, they must be committed. They have to skate six days a week, three/four hours a day, plus ballet plus gym plus mental coaching and nutrition. If you want to be professional, you have to be professional, so when you build up a team, you have to make sure that both are at the same level of professionalism.”

“We want to be very international”

The three medal-winning teams pose for a photo during the press conference after the pairs free skate
Italians and Germans; a podium sweep for Ice Lab of Bergamo

Bianconi is passionate about the opportunities for collaboration that the Center of Excellence program provides. “We are looking forward now to the summer and next season, and to having some guest coaches from many different parts of the world. We like to have new input from people abroad, they always bring some fresh air, some fresh ideas. We’ve had [Javier] Fernandez, we’ve had always Massimo Scali. We have had Christy Krall, Richard Gouthier, Misha Ge, and many many other international coaches.”

These exchanges help Bianconi’s skaters and also allow her to support the growth of pairs around the world. 

“We’d like to share ideas and make more exchanges,” said Bianconi. “Maybe some clubs can come with their coaches, or we can go with our coaches to their clubs, and with our skaters. Because I think to be creative and to be progressive, you always have to open up your mind and really look 360 degrees. You know if you close yourself up in a center, as beautiful as it can be, after a while you just don’t improve anymore…we want to be very international.” 

Bianconi also hopes to create more online resources like the “Keep Training” series the ISU sponsored in 2020.  “This is something we will probably do again, some series of videos to be little tutorials for people to maybe pick up an idea or to have inspiration for something.”

Bianconi’s experience of growing a pairs program from scratch makes her sympathetic to the struggles faced by coaches and skaters in other countries. “The whole movement should share the knowledge more. Because now we have let’s say six, seven, maybe eight places in the world where this discipline is ‘okay’. Where everybody knows what it is, how to train, and what to do. But then there are many other places in the world that have no clue of what this is about, and maybe they’re not as crazy as me to start a new thing from nothing. So we should bring that knowledge to other countries who do not have this. The ISU has been doing very good things with the development camps and programs in the past, and maybe that should be even enlarged.”

Bianconi has also been following the announcement from Skate Canada to allow pairs and dance teams to be composed of skaters of any gender. She could imagine this change coming to other federations in the future. 

Victoria Manni and Carlo Röthlisberger after their Free Dance in Espoo

“The whole world is moving in that direction. So maybe yes. Why not? Then I think it will be needed to create special rules, because of course if you put two male people together, they have much more strength. So maybe it needs rules, but of course, it’s interesting.” 

She added that safety should be the guiding principle. “We know that pairs can be quite dangerous. So we don’t want to hurt people. We want to be very, very safe, but if it’s safe, anything is possible.”

In the ice dance event, Franca Bianconi’s daughter, Victoria Manni, secured eleventh place, her best result by far at a European championship. It was the cherry on top of a great week in Espoo.

“I’m so happy. The heart of a mom! So happy! I think [this week has been] one of the best of my life. A lot of satisfaction!”

Franca Bianconi and her colleagues will have three pairs and one man at the upcoming World Championships in Japan: Sara Conti/Niccolò Macii (ITA), Annicka Hocke/Robert Kunckel (GER), Frederica Simioli/Alessandro Zarbo (CZE), and Matteo Rizzo (ITA). The best of luck to all!

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One Reply to ““One of the Best Weeks of My Life” – Coach Franca Bianconi Reflects on Europeans 2023”

  1. I really loved your interview. I hope you will continue to do more of these things. I really enjoy your site, a great and open minded take on what’s going on in figure skating.

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