TURIN, Italy - The last image most Americans have of figure skating coach Robin Wagner is her face lighting up with equal amounts of shock and joy. Television cameras caught that reaction when she realized her pupil, Sarah Hughes, had won the gold medal in Salt Lake City.
While Hughes pretty much disappeared from the skating scene soon after — she is in Turin cheering on 17-year-old sister Emily — Wagner is working with another Olympian, Silvia Fontana. She’s not a threat for the podium, but medals aren’t what this is all about.
“Silvia has a true love for skating, and with the Olympics in her country, she wanted to try to skate in them,” Wagner said. “When she asked me about coming back to try for the games, I said ‘You need to be very serious about this, or don’t try.’
“She’s done everything she possibly could.”
And here they are, smiles lighting up the practice rink. Normally, workout sessions are where the wrinkles are ironed in a skater’s program. Jumps, spins and footwork are repeated until they’re right — or almost right. It’s drudgery.
Not for these two — the Olympic champion coach and the 29-year-old Italian woman who left competitive skating for three seasons, married former U.S. pairs champion John Zimmerman, and began some coaching of her own. When Fontana misses a jump, she skates over to the sideboards, consults with Wagner, then tries again. If she lands it, coach and student clap and grin.
Then it’s on to testing a layback spin or circular steps. The smile is back as Fontana heads over for more words of wisdom.
“I smile because I am happy,” Fontana said. “It has been such a dream the last nine months. At times I would feel I might not accomplish this. And once you get there, you realize what you have done and how much you have done after three years off.
“This was not my priority until so recently. If the Olympic Games were not in Italy, I would not have tried. But because it’s the most exciting and rewarding event — you cannot compare Europeans or the world championships to the Olympics — and it being in Italy gave me motivation to get the rust out.”
“I had to get up the nerve,” she said, laughing. “I think she thought I was crazy. I built up enough courage to ask Robin after exhausting John. He said, ‘This is not working for me, being at the rink all time.’ He has to skate in Stars on Ice.
“Our goals were fair. I was not asking her to build another Olympic champion in six months.”
Wagner and Hughes split when Hughes stopped competing after finishing sixth at the 2003 worlds. Wagner later worked for a short time with Sasha Cohen, who goes through coaches as quickly as ice melts on a balmy day.
Now, another home Olympics for her skater.
“Whether it’s a possible medalist or someone who is here to enjoy the experience, it’s the same for me,” Wagner said. “It’s watching them feel good about their preparation and their performance. I enjoy watching my skater get through practice sessions, which is when my most anxious moments are. Did I help them get ready?”
Fontana, who finished 10th at Salt Lake City, was in a cafeteria at the Delta Center when Hughes staged one of the greatest free skates in Olympics history to surge from fourth place to the gold.
Another 10th place showing would be impressive considering Fontana’s layoff. But she’s already had many special moments on the way to Turin.
There were the Italian championships, when she placed second to Carolina Kostner, the 2005 world bronze medalist, and made the Olympic team. There were all the congratulatory calls and letters and e-mails.
And there was the opening ceremony.
“It was very exciting when the Italian team came into the stadium and it got so loud,” she said. “I had to ask the other athletes if they had ever heard it like this.”
Fontana’s mother and brother, who live in Rome, and Zimmerman will be on hand for the short program Tuesday night. Her mother will “be stunned,” she said, because she usually doesn’t watch her daughter’s competitions live. And Zimmerman?
“He will need oxygen,” she said, chuckling.