Greater Trail native Joe Cecchini slid his way to a gold medal at the Italian skeleton championship held in Igls, Austria last month.
Yet, if travelling headfirst at speeds up to 135 kilometres-perhour while navigating hair pin turns isn’t enough of a challenge, the race turned out to be a bit of a tempest in a teapot, when controversy accompanied Cecchini’s victory.
The Italian governing body, the Italian Winter Sports Federation (FISI), wrestled with his eligibility over nationality and left some doubt as to who would be crowned champion immediately following the race.
“Transferring countries in athletics is not done very often so it can be kind of a convoluted process,” said Ceccini from his home in Calgary. “Unfortunately, we weren’t able to get into the races (prior to the event), but then I was able to participate in the Italian championships and was the winner.”
Cecchini, son of Mark and Patricia of Fruitvale, is of Italian decent and was readily granted an Italian passport, but was unable to compete officially as an Italian in Euro and Continental Cup races since applying in 2011 due to red tape regarding his unique situation.
The 30-year-old slider eventually joined Ski Club Selvino, an affiliate club, and with final approval of the governing body’s jury and technical staff, was granted permission to enter the Italian championship Feb. 20.
“It was my first race for the Italian champs, or as an Italian,” said Cecchini. “So it was a unique challenge for me to go on a track that was kind of like a home track for the Italian guys and one that I had never been fortunate enough to slide down.”
Cecchini’s world-class start propelled him to the championship, taking first in both runs with times of 54.63 and 54.61 and winning by a half second over runner-up Marco Zoccolan, and bronze medalist Giovanni Mulassano, both members of the Italian national team. But it was only after some deliberation that the medal was awarded to Cecchini.
“It was a good race and being a national champion going into an Olympic year is not a bad thing,” said the J. L. Crowe graduate.
Cecchini understands that while other competitors may not have welcomed the Canadian born and trained racer, he will be a valuable addition to the Italian national team’s cadre of sliders.
“Let’s face it, people do skeleton to be in the Olympics, so when a guy comes out of nowhere and is better than everyone on their track it’s obviously going to cause a little bit of animosity from some people, but for the most part it has been pretty positive.”
With his eligibility confirmed, Cecchini now has his sites set firmly on Sochi, and will start next season on the Euro Cup with his plan to join the World Cup circuit by Christmas in order to qualify for the 2014 Winter Olympics.
“My goal is to be in Sochi, and as national champion I feel I should be there, but I still have to get qualified up and as you can imagine there’s always some politics when you change countries.”
Cecchini trains hard all season while continuing his work as a Calgary police officer, and although the schedule can be grueling, he is confident it will all be worth it in the end.
“It’s been a bit of a whirlwind, but now we’re focused on Sochi and I’ve got a lot of work to do.”
Cecchini began racing skeleton in Calgary in 2006. He raced for three seasons with the Canadian developmental team on the North American Cup circuit, his best results coming in 2009 when he podiumed in Park City, Utah, and placed sixth overall.