CapLanArticle2014-1by Melanie Hoyt | Photos by Robin Ritoss

In a season that has already included impressive highlights—a string of level 4s at their season debut, a European title, and a second trip to the Winter Olympic Games—Italy’s Anna Cappellini & Luca Lanotte have one final step to take before closing the book on this season. With the top two teams sitting out of the World Championships, all three places on the podium are up for grabs, and last year’s fourth-place finishers would love to take home a set of medals.

Of course, the road to the podium will not be easy, and about five teams are expected to seriously contend for the top three spots. Despite finishing sixth at the recent Olympic Games, two ranks lower than they did at the 2013 World Championships, Cappellini & Lanotte are still in the mix, which is exactly where they have planned to be.

“We were fourth last year, and maybe a couple of teams had problems,” Cappellini said, “but we definitely thought that the podium wasn’t that far from what we could do. If anything, it was worth it for us to train with the motivation to try and be there this year. Of course, it will be a competition, and a lot of things will happen.”

“But of course we don’t want to stay fourth,” Lanotte added. “We want to move forward. We never want to stay.”

Their charm and sweetness saw them nicknamed “the baby Italians” in their early years as a senior team, but Cappellini & Lanotte have grown leaps and bounds since then. Skating together since 2005, they complement each other very well, both in terms of skating and in terms of personality. With keen eyes to evaluate their own skating, as well as the ice dance world around them, their maturity has turned them into true veterans. They still have a hunger to keep improving, though.

“We took longer to get the skating skills of a high-level team,” Cappellini said. “In terms of maybe bending and pushing, we haven’t been the strongest, I think. It’s something that just took work and it’s still taking work; we’re still trying to improve that. So I think we feel pretty lucky that what we don’t have, we can fix with work. It’s not like we’re missing a quality that’s hard to grasp.”

The qualities that are difficult to quantify are ones they have in excess. Charming storytellers and excellent interpreters, they connect easily to each other, to the audience, and even to the judges. While they have sometimes chosen dances in the past that have challenged them to push their artistic boundaries, this season has seen Cappellini & Lanotte play to their strengths, as most teams do in an Olympic year. Their takes on “42nd Street” in the short dance and “Barber of Seville” in the free dance have both been well received, even from the start of the season, when they were not sure that they were ready.

“I think that we’ve picked up a really good work ethic that’s helping us improve a lot,” Cappellini said. “When we weren’t very sure of our material yet, and how it was going to turn out to be for everybody, we were able to just rely on the good work that we’ve done.”

13NHK-DSD-1095-CL-RR 595Their quest to improve their weaknesses has led them to a few significant coaching changes en route to finding the perfect fit. In the two seasons following their first Olympic experience in 2010, Cappellini & Lanotte spent time with both Muriel Zazoui and Nikolai Morozov, but neither coach was the right answer. In 2012, they arranged to spend part of the off-season with Igor Shpilband. They felt that they really blossomed under his tutelage, and added periodic visits with him to their regular training schedule.

“I think that we’ve improved our skating skills a lot in the past two years,” Cappellini said, “especially thanks to the work we’ve done with Igor. We’re starting to grasp the teaching, it’s coming along. I think that, having worked a lot on our skating skills, it helps us to go out there and not think all the time about the basics.”

The constant in their career together has been Paola Mezzadri, their coach in Milan. While Cappellini & Lanotte were eager to work with Shpilband, they were determined to maintain ties to Mezzadri and to home.

“In Milan, we have our coaches, our ice rink, and we have absolutely free ice,” Lanotte said. “It’s nice, because everything is about us. [The atmosphere] really helps us in every single way to improve and push us.”

“The good thing about it is that Paola is the best coach for us, because she has known us for a long time,” Cappellini said. “She does an amazing job, I think, at directing you to what you can expect. Sometimes you don’t even understand that she makes you choose something because she’s just guiding you to your own path. We trust her so much.

“And on the other side of the world, there’s Igor, who is just about the best coach in the world, of course. We’ve learned that training with him, that he’s so complete, he can tell you from the smallest technical details to the attitude that you should keep in training to maximize your training. Of course, it will result in better competitions. For us, it’s really the best combination of coaches. Two different sides of the pond, but it’s been working really well for us for the past two years.”

The downside, of course, is the travel involved. The skaters and coaches have to carefully plan their schedule, maximizing training time and utilizing both coaches, but making sure that they are well-rested when it is time to compete. This season, for example, they began their season in Detroit, then had two competitions in Japan, before the next three in Europe, and are closing the year in Japan again.

“It takes a lot of time to get into the practice when we arrive [in Michigan] and when we leave to go back to Milan,” Lanotte said. “It’s very useful to us to train in two different places […] but it’s also difficult, because it’s just tiring, you know the trip and everything.”

Of course, being a part of Team Shpilband has its benefits. They are rarely without training partners at major events, although they try to stay focused on their job, no matter the circumstances.

“We’re very focused on our performance,” Lanotte said. “We don’t get really influenced from one couple or another. You’re so centered on yourself, what you have to do.”

 “I just know that if I forget hairspray, someone is going to lend it to me,” Cappellini added.

Lifts are another aspect that the Italian champions have been aiming to improve over the past couple of seasons. With flipping, twisting lifts becoming like the quadruple jump in ice dance, teams are always looking for an edge, chasing the wow factor.

“It’s a difficult process, lots of work to really find the idea,” Lanotte said. “Then sometimes even one month and a half to get the idea real. We can do it off ice, but then it has to go on the ice. I won’t say it’s a slow process, but it’s a process where you need to be really patient. For me, it’s one of the most difficult parts of the season, because I get so frustrated and I’m in pain. Everything is harder when there is no timing between us, and I don’t know which muscles I’m using, so I’m using it all. I’m just more tired, so it’s frustrating, and most of the time for one month, absolutely nothing is happening.”

Last summer, they had the opportunity to work with Oleg Ouchakov, an acrobat from Cirque du Soleil, who helped the couple develop new techniques so they could tackle the flashier lifts. The process may have been difficult, but it was well worth the work.

“We have to be grateful to Tessa [Virtue] & Scott [Moir] and Meryl [Davis] & Charlie [White], because they really pushed it in a different direction,” Cappellini said. “I remember when everyone was doing all the same lifts, all the way through the program, everyone with the same rotational. Now, we can be so much more creative and athletic and I think that’s really interesting, but we need acrobats to do this. It’s another window that’s opened and I think that it was a great move for the sport. This sport is evolving and it can surprise you every time.”

Their desire to improve their marks and take their skating to another level has fueled their quest for bigger lifts. While it is possible to earn level 4 without attempting a death-defying entry or holding a handstand high above your partner, it is hard to maximize GOE without doing something that demands the judge’s attention—and doing it extremely well.

“I think it is true that you need the wow factor,” Cappellini said, “especially because it has been showcased so well by Tessa & Scott and Meryl & Charlie. They, for everybody, are perfection. So maybe the +3 arrives more when something can really impress a judge, not just when something is nicely, correctly done, but when the judge says, ‘Wow!’ As long as they [the top two teams] are doing this kind of thing, it’s a little harder for the rest of the world to get +3s, but it’s sport, so that’s the way it should be.”

Without being intimidated, Cappellini & Lanotte keep striving to do more, especially in what has been the all-important Olympic season. While they are clearly aware of the talent that surrounds them and are respectful of their competitors, it is clear that they have learned to keep their focus inward—on what they can do, on how they can improve—without attempting comparisons to their competitors.

“I think this is the best season to find the motivation to be on the podium,” Lanotte said. “The season is very long, and all the other couples are very good, but still, for the competition, you have to do what you have to do. We train to be one of the best teams in the world. No matter what, we are going to try to move forward and be at the same level or better than the other couples.”

And while they fell short of their goal to be on the podium in Sochi, just weeks earlier, when they won the European title, Cappellini & Lanotte defeated the team that went on to win Olympic bronze. With one more chance this season to step onto the podium, that steady, inward focus may be the key.

“Sochi has never been our ending point,” Cappellini said at the start of the season. “It will be probably the first time that we sit down and see and start thinking how much we can do after, hopefully, staying in good health. I think I can say for sure that there’s not going to be a next Olympics. We’ll be pretty aged by then. It’s been done, but I’m not really sure.”

Although another full quadrennial may not be in the cards for the likable Italians, it seems possible that their best work is still to come. With their positive attitude and careful analysis of their own progress, it is easy to believe that they are still on a learning curve that trends upward. With the barrage of retirements and rumors for more that have followed since Sochi, Cappellini & Lanotte seem ready to fully embrace their role as veterans and leaders in the sport.

“Everything that we’ve done, we’ve worked on, we’ve said, and everything our coaches and our team have said to us comes to life in that moment [when we take the ice],” Cappellini said. “This year, we feel the love of everybody. We’re getting old, so we’re getting to that point where it just takes a look to feel that support. Our relationships are starting to be without words. We feel the experience and the maturity, and hopefully, everything will keep improving.”