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Italian Women’s Rowing on the Rise

BY ALAN OLDHAM
PHOTO BY PETER SPURRIER

Once upon a time in Italy, only men rowed. That’s not exactly true, but for as long as anyone can remember, it has been Italian men and–until recently–almost exclusively men who have dominated in their nation’s significant presence in international rowing.

In the last 10 Olympics alone, spanning nearly half a century since women’s rowing was added to the Games program in 1976, Italian men’s crews have won 17 medals (eight gold, three silver, six bronze).

Lisa Bertini and Martina Orzan came close to the podium on Georgia’s Lake Lanier in 1996, when Italian women made their first appearance at a Games regatta. Ranked second out of the heats in the lightweight women’s doubles, the duo finished a mere 0.27 seconds shy of the medals in the final.

That was the nearest any Italian woman has come to the Olympic podium. In fact, right through to today, Bertini and Orzan are two of only 10 Italian women to row at the Olympics and remain the only ones to reach an A final.

Yet change is in the air–or water–as Italy’s Olympic rowers set their sights on the Tokyo Games of 2020 and more recently readjusted their focus on Tokyo “2020one” with the Games’ postponement amid the global pandemic.

The Olympic Dream 

With Italy an early epicenter of the novel coronavirus outbreak, training on her own at home has become the new reality for Sara Bertolasi. “I feel lucky to have a small gym at home and direct access to my wonderful Lake Varese,” she told me in early May, almost two months into Italy’s lockdown measures. “I wish the world will get back to normal life soon.”

For Bertolasi, a normal life means getting back to full-time training for the Tokyo Games. If she can get there, she’ll be the first female Italian rower to race at three Games.

Competing at the Olympics has been a driving force in her life. When she transferred to rowing from elite cycling in the late 2000s, “the dream was exactly the same: the Olympic Games,” she said.

Since her first international start for Italy in 2008, Bertolasi has represented her country in almost every boat class, sweep and sculling, at no fewer than 30 elite regattas, including the women’s pair at the London 2012 and Rio 2016 Olympics.

“Following the historical qualification for London 2012 in the women’s pair–the first time for Italy–and the second time for Rio 2016, I decided to stop rowing and focus on new challenges in the real world,” she said of her short-lived retirement following the last Olympics. “A year later, my heart called me back to rowing to catch my third Olympics. The postponement to 2021 made me think about the future.”

With a record four berths (pairs, double sculls, quadruple sculls and lightweight doubles) qualified so far for the Tokyo Games, women are on track to make up almost half of Italy’s rowing contingent for the first time in history.

For Bertolasi, who has spent over a decade on the front lines of pushing Italian women’s success in rowing, one of the biggest changes is one she herself has helped inspire: more Italian women rowing, and rowing faster than ever before.

The current depth of rowers on the team means that the final decision about who will claim the seats still up for grabs has yet to be made. It also means that there is a chance that Italy may yet qualify another boat–the coxless four–Bertolasi’s most recent event.

Regardless of the present difficulties posed by the pandemic lockdown, Bertolasi intends to be on the start line in Tokyo to make her Olympic dream a reality one more time. She may even make history in another way, too–as the first female Italian rower to step onto an Olympic podium.

Moving Past the Past 

Globally, the longtime lack of emphasis on developing female athletes throughout history has sidelined generations of potential.

It is hard to understate the significant changes required to empower women within sport at all levels, from grassroots to elite. In Italy, changing the culture within sport has gone hand in hand with a gradual shift in Italian society more broadly–a shift that has continued to accelerate.

“Let’s talk about football or women,” quipped Italy’s longtime populist prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi, as he sought to change the topic of conversation during an important European Union summit in 2003. Although the idea of elite sport as a man’s realm was certainly one not shared by all Italians, Berlusconi’s remarks were especially pernicious, given not only his political status but also his role as owner of Italy’s top soccer club, AC Milan, and his controlling stake in Italian media.

A broadly dismissive attitude toward women in sport was nothing new, according to Giuseppe Abbagnale, president of the Italian Rowing Federation (Federazione Italiana Canottaggio). “The reasons are primarily historical. It is, unfortunately, due to a distorted vision from the 20 years of the fascist period, during which men’s sport only was encouraged and exalted.”

The toppling of Benito Mussolini in World War II did not, however, end the struggle. Recent progress has been the work of generations. “Women finally achieved access to competitive sport only very recently, and to rowing in particular in a properly organized way only around the end of the ’70s,” continued Abbagnale, who at that time was taking the first strokes in his own illustrious rowing career.

“Since London 2012, the vision of women’s rowing has substantially changed within the Italian federation,” he said. “The women’s team was included along with the men’s competitive team in training programs, which gave special attention to diversified physiology for women but always with equal consideration.”

Claudio Tranquilli, Italian Rowing’s head of communications, informed me: “Thanks to his vision of Olympic sport and world rowing, Giuseppe Abbagnale believes strongly in the potential of the Italian women. Through his determination to make them more competitive, the technical area has developed and expanded the women’s team and, in this way, the base from which to draw potential female rowers has grown.”

“This is part of the vision of the IOC’s Olympic Agenda 2020 that is the strategic roadmap for the future of the Olympic Movement,” said Abbagnale, who was quick to acknowledge the broader factors that support gender equality. “The Italian National Olympic Committee encourages it. Italian society is ready to achieve gender equality in all areas and therefore also in sport. More and more young women are asking to practice rowing in clubs, and this bodes well for the future.”

Coming to America 

The issue of sport needing to engage with more than half of the population has been addressed in different ways in different places over the years. Title IX is the most familiar example in the U.S. This decades-old legislation, aimed squarely at addressing gender imbalance in college sport, has had a transformative effect on rowing in North America. International athletes’ coming to the U.S. to study and row at NCAA colleges is a familiar sight.

This was the pathway to success that Alessandra Montesano chose when she arrived at Ohio State University to major in strategic communication and row with the Buckeyes.

“My rowing career started with the only other girl at my club in the double,” Montesano told me, of her first season in 2012 at the age of 14.

“We always finished among the last boats, until we won our first regional title together. After that, she got injured and quit, leaving me the only girl at my club. So I have always had to train by myself, alone on the erg and alone in the single, but I started to enjoy that pretty soon.”

Far from being put off by the challenge of improving with no female peers or mentors in her home club, and coming to the sport later than most Italians–the usual age of entry is around 10 to 12 years old–Montesano persevered.

“I wanted to improve and become fast,” she said. “The full sessions of training–the fatigue, the pain, all the races–it motivated me even more, because I was aware I was behind, technically speaking.”

After years of training on her own, including recovering from a back injury, Montesano began training camp with the Italian Junior National Team. In 2016, she won her first Italian National Championship in the single and represented Italy in the quadruple sculls at the World Rowing Junior Championships.

In 2017, she moved to the U.S. “I decided to go study and row in the United States, where training three times a day helped me make a big leap forward.”

Domestic Development Pathway

Creating opportunities for women within the Italian rowing system has been a top priority in recent years.

Introducing young people to the sport and promoting their rise to the national team are part and parcel of the same effort, says Francesco Cattaneo, the Italian Rowing Federation’s technical director, who serves as overall head coach for Italy’s national rowing teams.

Unlike in North America, where the usual entry point is school or college, in Italy the targeted age for beginning to row is as young as 10 years old, Cattaneo said. The clubs take the lead in developing athletes, with a focus on noncompetitive events before the age of 15.

“Starting at 15 years of age, they are followed in their clubs by the federation’s coaches,” he said. “Gradually, they participate in federation-organized training camps, national regattas and can attempt selection to be part of the junior, under-23 and senior teams.”

When it comes to opening up greater opportunities for women in sport, an issue is the funds used to support men. Italy has faced no such pushback, said Cattaneo. “The male rowers haven’t been affected in a negative way by the greater financial support required by women. The men have the same funds and support as they had previously, modulated according to the size of the men’s national team.”

Whatever the funding formula, there is no question that, when it comes to numerous women progressing through the sport and to success internationally, the system is working.

“In recent years, the number of women rowers has significantly increased as a result of the investment made,” Cattaneo said. “The women are coached by a dedicated staff, with a head coach who follows the entire technical training process. So we can say that the national team is made up of a homogeneous group, with potential expressed by men, women and para-rowing.”

Para-rowing, with crews equally divided between women and men, has benefited from this approach. After a dazzling gold-medal performance in the legs-trunk-arms mixed coxed four (now known as the PR3 Mix4+) at the inaugural Paralympic Games Regatta in Beijing 2008, the next two Games saw the Italians fall to fifth in London 2012 and to 10th in Rio 2016. Yet podium performances in two of the last three years are giving new hope for success in Tokyo and seem to reflect a strong focus from Italian Rowing.

For all the support and increased participation of women in all forms of rowing, Cattaneo believes that past psychological barriers persist. “We are still overcoming the cultural gap of women’s [lack of representation in] high-level competitive sport,” he said. “All the athletes who want to be part of the national team–both men and women–are followed in the same way. Participating in an Olympic Games is the highest goal of every athlete.”

Italian Homecoming 

Montesano’s Olympic dream began to take shape on her return to Italy following her first year at Ohio State.

“I came back home in June 2018, training for a couple of weeks in the single after spending the whole winter and spring in the eight,” she recalled. “I came in second at the senior Italian championship. After a couple of weeks, I won the U23 Italian championship in the single.”

“After those races, I was looking forward to joining the U23 national team and prepared for the U23 world championships, where I came in third in the double with Valentina Iseppi, and it was one of the best days in my life. The coaches of the national team, excited about the race we had, wanted to see how we could do at the European Rowing Championships. We came in fourth, with four boats coming together in less than half of a second: we were 0.06 from the bronze and 0.6 from the gold–one of my favorite races ever.”

Forced to turn down a chance to race with Iseppi at the 2018 World Rowing Championships because of the start of the 2018-19 school year, Montesano headed back to Buckeye training camp.

Yet the successes of that summer left a lasting impression, especially the European Rowing Championships photo finish. “That race motivated me even more,” she said. “I knew from that moment that if I kept working hard and with perseverance, I could compete with the world.”

Within days of returning home the following spring, Montesano had won her first senior national championship in the single. “That, among other things, allowed me to be considered for the Olympic team and train at a different level,” she said. That’s when she decided to take some time away from her studies to focus on training for the Olympic Games.

“The dream and goal of the Olympics are always there and motivated me every single day,” she said. “When you have such an important thing motivating you and that you want to pursue, you start caring about all the little details that before you didn’t pay attention to.

“All the little details, at this level, make the difference,” she continued. “So now, I follow a diet that allows me to get the best out of my ability and strength. I keep doing rehabilitation exercises from the Italian national-team medical staff to stay healthy and in shape and prevent any injury that could lead me to lose time and opportunity to train. I have to make every detail count, to make every stroke efficient.”

Supports such as this–now in place at the same level for both women and men on the Italian national team–will certainly fuel the future success of Italy’s top female rowers.

Most of all, though, it is the personal connections that shine through in a system built on respect for the contributions of all athletes, regardless of gender.

“I have a beautiful team, where I found my best friends and amazing coaches,” said Montesano. “They are able to make training camps so much better and funnier.”

As for the Tokyo Games, now scheduled for 2021, like many of her teammates, she isn’t sure yet what seat–if any–she’ll ultimately sit in. Despite the Games’ postponement and Covid-19-related lockdown restrictions on full-time training, she’s holding on to her dream.

 “I’ve been working to be there,” she said with resolve.

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