I’m first and foremost a girl, a women who loves to bike, who wants to pursue her dreams. Because my dreams revolve mostly around sports right now.
They are huge.
And I could give up anything just to fulfil my dream.
People don’t know this, people will never understand this, because it is something only I can feel.
I take my bicycle and get on it.
And then another one.
Under Livigno’s sun, working on my strength, chewing up the miles uphill to take back what, for a minute, I thought I had lost, and that many people were right there to judge.
An athlete’s life is strange. It is a constant elevator ride between happiness and fear, excitement and sadness, always depending on your fitness, health, results or accidents.
And every one of these things can be fickle, and unforeseeable, at times.
Last year was a terrible year, anything that could go wrong, did.
I got run over during my first training session of the year. Result: a broken wrist and many days lost to prepare for the Tokyo Olympics.
Then the lockdown came, an experience we’ve all shared.
In April, when it was time to get back on the bike, I realized something else wasn’t right.
It was a weird, super strange accident, which cost me more time and efforts that it would have been if I had experience a more “traditional” fracture.
Mine was a deaf and devious annoyance that never left my side, and which I probably underestimated. My knee didn’t react as it should have, and the pain went from my tendon to my cartilage, day after day, making my life a living hell.
I couldn't do anything anymore.
I couldn’t cycle, I couldn’t run, I struggled even to walk.
I got to the point where I had to purchase an electric moped just to go grocery shopping. Since I lived by myself, I had to take care of it, and if I went there by foot, I couldn’t get back home, because of the excruciating pain I was in.
The hardest thing for me was not being able to do any sports activity. I love running, I love sports. I love any kind of sports.
If you take away my bicycle - and this is enough to make me lose my balance - and then you take away all the rest, I start to see everything blurred.
What’s more, I knew that the others, my opponents, were continuing to train and growth, while I was stuck there.
Even worse, I was falling backward.
The others were moving forward and I was moving backward.
There was no way to heal, I cried every day and laid awake at night.
I was truly scared, and this was what really killed me.
The fear I wouldn’t make it back.
The fear I wasn’t the same person anymore, which is stupid, because if you’ve became like that once it’s because you can certainly do it again.
Now that I think about it, it’s true: “I can go back to my old self.”
But when you are there, surrounded by your black tunnel, you struggle to understand and truly believe in all this.
Months away from the road, away from the track, away from the gym.
Away from everything.
It was the hardest time in my life.
I was aware that times like this are bound to happen in every athlete’s life, even the greatest. It’s physiological. You read it in books, you read it in stories, and something inside you knows that a happy ending it’s possible, you know you can go back to doing what you did before.
And you want to believe it.
However, when it happens to you it’s different, because every negative feeling gets bigger and bigger, and it suppresses all the positive emotions you are still capable of feeling.
Many people started to talk, to comment my posts on social media, jumping ahead of themselves. People that didn’t know me started to beat me up, accusing me of thinking I’d done it all, of losing my focus in competitions and being interested only in social media or TV appearances.
They made me feel wrong.
Because telling the story of my life while I wasn’t able to do my job had become a sin. On top of my physical pain, I felt this pain too, which may be more distant, yet no less difficult to bear. And I closed off, hoping to find the puzzle solution.
After six months without setting foot on a pedal, we finally managed to unravel the mess, to set things straight, by finding the source of the problem and fixing it, one step at a time, not without difficulty.
I hung on to the people who loved me, to my family, to my partners who believed in me, convinced that, sooner or later, I would go back and conquered it all.
When I got back on the track, in October, I had to face a person I didn’t recognize. Almost.
Idleness is a difficult beast to tame, because the athlete you see in the mirror has your face, but a completely different body that needs to be rebuilt.
Imagine: a muscle that is used to so much training, now shrivelled.
The weight I had lost.
The strength I no longer had.
I went out, read the wattage numbers and thought:
“Is this really me?
How can I go back to such great efforts and numbers?”
And just when I started feeling like I belonged in my shoes once again, right when I thought I had reached the end of my endless tunnel, I got Covid.
It happened during Christmas holidays: I had gone back to biking for a few weeks and I’d scheduled very few hours at home, planning to do a training sessions every day, even on the 25th.
When my father notices my eyes were red and weary, I took my temperature and found out it was 37.5, which for me is quite high.
As anyone else in these times, my thought went straight to my family, my parents and my grandparents, who are no longer with us.
The first swab came back negative, and the second one positive. The virus confined me to bed, exhausted by heavy symptoms, for over 40 days.
Completely emptied out and incapable of resuming my training even after being negative again, I spent another two months in captivity.
I lost my sense of taste, burned all my energy, and, even though I continued to repeat to myself, “It’ll pass”, like a mantra in my head, it never did pass.
For all these reasons, when I was able to finally resume my pre-2020 routine in February without any more delays, I found out I was a different person.
This thing made me stronger.
It made me incredibly stronger.
I wasn’t like this, before, really.
Now, from a temperamental level, I feel like I can overcome not everything, but many, many things.
Some of the issues that seemed so big, now seem minuscule to me.
Fear is still there.
But when you feel good and your body reacts like you want it to, fear is transformed into the drive to go further, the desire to do another session, to go beyond to make up for lost time.
Today, everything makes sense, and I think about when I reached my bike without training wheels, crawling, and started pedalling, even though I did not yet know how to walk.
Today, I know that it’s not about participating - because many people, almost anyone loves biking, but when it’s snowing, with 3°C outside and you are on the Valtellina hairpin bends at 1800 meters of altitude, there are not many amateurs.
In fact, there are none.
Today, I think about everything, down to the last detail.
And during every training session, I feel a stronger will to do on my skin, of not leaving anything to chance.
I will end the exhausting work I’m doing on my strength in Livigno, by alternating hills and dry gym sessions, to bring my engine to the top of its power. And then only the last step will be left, the pure explosiveness, the head-down pedalling that will be the last strive to reach the huge thing taking place in July this year.
After everything I went through, nothing will take away the thrill of walking into the Olympic Village, even if I’d rather be superstitious till the end, and say it under my breath still.
How this chapter will end, I’ll tell you went I get back.
In the mean time, I take my bicycle and get on it.
And then another one.
LETIZIA PATERNOSTER / CONTRIBUTOR