For seven-time Olympic cross-country skiing medallist, Manuela Di Centa, the journey started in the middle of the woods on a mountain in Friuli Venezia Giulia Region.

“I was 4 years old, and I ran through the snow. My dad prepared a pair of kid’s skis for me. Experiencing the snow, I loved the sensation, and right then and there I discovered the beauty of doing something that makes you feel well. Cold and snow, those were the elements where I felt at home. I strongly felt I needed to do something with my passion for these elements, not even imagining winning Olympic Medals.

Nevertheless, she was sure she wanted to achieve something in her life, something that would make her feel alive: “This has always been my small secret, to do what I like and to focus on what makes me happy.”

Manuela considers herself lucky with her dad, who was a ski teacher and coach, and with her 2 older brothers, Andrea and Giorgio, who also became an Olympic champion. With their family they enjoyed skiing and being surrounded by snow in the mountains. Practicing sport was part of their daily life: “All three of them accompanied me in this journey, right from the beginning, which led me eventually to winning my Olympic medals.”

The love for cross-country skiing grew at an early age: “My Dad was my first coach but not the only coach. The first time he gave me the skis he said: “Let’s go and play and have fun in the snow!” When you do something you like, it indisputably becomes a part of you.”

She experienced, like any professional athlete, the effort, the fatigue, and difficult moments, but she felt fulfilled knowing this was her destiny. She fought to finally arrive on the Olympic podium: “When I look back, I truly see that this was the best medal I could ever imagine.”

One of the important moments for an athlete in their sports career is when they decide to stop, to take a turn with their life. As a professional athlete they are always focused on giving their best.

In her fifth Olympic Games in Nagano, Manuela decided to stop after the ski relay. She was 35 years old. She had an intense training schedule for the competition and when looking back at her last race she remembers: “The moment after the finish when I took off my skis it was so symbolic, to know that I would never ski as a professional athlete again and to realise it was the last time wearing a race bib. But I started to compete in another competition, shaping my new life, while continuing practicing sport.”

She continued to challenge herself: “I’m very demanding of myself, and after the Olympic champion career I started a new one. Sport medals are important but more important are the medals that we win in our life.”

She explains: “I’m a very curious person and I was wondering: All my life I’ve planned everything as a training session, and I was very much aware it would not be easy to quit what I did for 35 years. I wanted to give my body what it needed but without pressure or a stopwatch, to feel the free movement the skis gave me and to feel myself free to breath.”

Cross Country skiing is very demanding in terms of resistance and training, so when she stopped, Manuela had a body in a very good condition that allowed her to practice ski mountaineering. This passion introduced her to Fabio, who is now her husband.

In 2003 they decided to plan a mountain expedition. Fabio, as a high-performance runner wanted to aim for a speed record, and Manuela, as a journalist, would accompany him to report on his challenge.

But the story unfolded in a totally different way. Fabio went for the record but had to stop, not wanting to risk his life.

Manuela decided to continue, without any risk, using the oxygen supplies at 7000 meters: “Finally, I arrived at the top. For me it was a gift, I’m Catholic and I think God helped me to succeed in this mission to make me understand that when someone has success in life, it is just a small thing in the universe. We always need to be reminded of this.”

Practicing sport teached Manuela to be respectful to herself and her body.

“My passion for sport helps me to focus on my wellness. I make it my priority to respect my mind and body that gave me so much throughout my life. I live a healthy lifestyle and make sure I eat nutritious food. When I can, I enjoy skiing, otherwise I walk without stopwatch just for the pleasure.”

She enjoys meeting up with other families during the weekend to practice sport, release stress and in general to take care of her wellbeing.

“During the lockdown it was so important to have some physical activity, to walk around, to breath fresh air and to find a way to pick yourself up again. I am a firm believer that sport breaks down barriers.”

As Honorary president of the Lombardia 2024 Winter World Masters Games she will join and compete in the cross – country skiing competition.

Written by Kirsty van Peer, IMGA Communications

Sport Community Health and Wellbeing News Lombardy 2024