The European Athletics Championships just finished in Zurich, where it was held 12-17 August 2014. The last day one of the most popular competitions – the Men’s Marathon – was won by Italian Daniele Meucci. Even cold Zurich finally became sunny and people in the streets cheered Daniele with an incredible enthusiasm, warmth and participation…it was the perfect day and celebration of sport.
I had the pleasure of joining part of the Italian team right during the last day of the Championship, and later on I had the chance to interview the medal winners. I wondered: what ‘s in their hearts and in their heads? How did they get to such results? Obviously the answer is complex. But if there is something they have in common, it’s their ability to think positive. Their capacity to bounce back and try again after the inevitable problems, pitfalls, crisis or health issues is outstanding. These guys are like all of us – emotions play a big part in their lives too – yet they can keep focused to a degree which is not common. Let’s try to understand how they do it.
Daniele Meucci, who will turn 29 in October, is a long-distance runner and a PhD student in Automation, Robotics and Bioengineering at University of Pisa. He earned a degree In Automation & Robotics Engineering magna cum laude and has two children.
He only competed in two marathons before (Rome and New York). He finished in 2 hours, 11 minutes and 8 seconds (his personal best) and won a gold medal.
Valeria Straneo is the Italian record holder in the marathon and has a rare genetic illness, Spherocytosis, which prevented her from reaching outstanding results until 35. It was only after the removal of her spleen, in 2010, that she began to reach a national standard of running. In Zurich she won a silver medal for the women’s marathon, and a gold medal as a team together with her colleagues Anna Incerti, Nadia Ejjaffini , Emma Quaglia, Deborah Toniolo and Rosaria Console.
Valeria has two children, 9 and 7 years old.
Libania Grenot is a Cuban born and acquired Italian citizenship in 2008. She took part in the Bejing and London Olympic games, won a gold medal for the 400 meters at the XVI Mediterreanean Games, and just won again gold for the same specialty in the Zurich European Championship.
Here are the questions I asked them:
Beatrice – Chicoverdose: Congratulations again for your gold medal! How are you celebrating?
Daniele: at home, with the people who always supported me.
Valeria: in Sardinia with my family…I really didn’t seen them enough, recently!
Libania: In Ostia with part of my family (my mum Olga and my brother Ignacio)..but I am still training because my season is not finished yet. I am really looking forward to going back to Cuba soon, and celebrate with my whole family.
Beatrice – Chicoverdose: Success is the result of many different factors and it’s not possible to resume its complexity in one sentence, but do you think that excellence is the result of a combination of talent and hard work, or does hard work play a more important role?
Daniele: talent is important, but hard work is more important. In sport, as in life, nobody gives you anything for free. Outstanding results come only with hard work and perseverance.
Valeria: hard work is more important. Anybody training for excellence needs to embrace fatigue and hard work, and that’s only possible if you are strong in your head. You need a good quality of training and a psychological condition to do that. Some people are less talented but train so well and so hard that they get good results anyway. Luck also plays a role. It all starts in your head though, because only with a strong mind you’ll be able to work very hard.
Libania: I think so too…talent is necessary, but not enough. One really needs to work hard and focus a lot, having a goal or a dream in mind.
Beatrice – Chicoverdose : How important is to have a supportive partner, to reach such a result?
Daniele: it is absolutely essential, because it’s the person who shares with you all the daily issues and drawbacks.
Valeria: extremely important, especially if you have kids. When I am not around my husband does everything; really a 360 degrees work. He does it well and with passion, so I can fully concentrate on my training. That helps me a lot.
Libania: I am not sure about this. I feel I am the main reason for my success, which was possible because of the love of the people who supported me.
Beatrice – Chicoverdose: Have you ever thought: “I can’t stand this anymore, maybe I made a mistake and this is not the right job for me?”
Daniele: many times. I experienced many difficult moments.
Valeria: No. I do feel down at some stages, especially during intensive training. But I am so happy and grateful about my life that I quickly overcome those moments. Because of my health issues I came late to professional sport and, for a long time, I thought “it would be so cool to be an athlete!” and I saw it as likely as going to the moon. This job is my dream come true.
Libania: never. I was born to do athletics and I always felt that, even as a kid. It is in my DNA.
Beatrice – Chicoverdose: Competing at a high level in Athletics involves a lot of traveling. Do you still enjoy the trips, or you find them stressful?
Daniele: I hate the trips! But they are part of the profession, so I accepted them.
Valeria: I always liked traveling, but when you go somewhere for a competition you can’t go out or see much of the place. Long trips are tiring and feel like a waste of time. An additional problem is that I can’t sleep on a plane, so that makes me tired. I enjoy being in a new place though.
Libania: I love traveling, trips aren’t a source of stress for me. But it’s a shame that I hardly see the places we travel to, because the time is so little.
Beatrice – Chicoverdose: How is your typical day like?
Daniele: I wake up at 6:60 and have breakfast. I study until 8:30/9 and do my first training. Then I have lunch and a nap, and I study again. Second training. I come back home and play with my children. Finally dinner and I go to bed at about 21:30/22.
Valeria: It depends on the period. If the kids have school my schedule revolves around that. If I am with the team for our month of intensive training I am away. Going away from home helps me because I can think about me and my training only and concentrate well. Kids are wonderful, but they are also a distraction.
Libania: apart from trainings, I try to live each day the way it comes, without planning too much.
Beatrice – Chicoverdose: I had lunch with part of the Italian team at the end of the European Championship, and I noticed that most people were delighted to finally eat whatever they fancied. Do you follow a diet all year round, or only before the competition?
Daniele: I don’t follow a strict diet, but I do have guidelines which were studied for me and adapted to my personal taste by my nutritionist, Claudia d’Alessandro.
Valeria: yes, I have a diet devised for me by a dear friend, a dietician. I have some food intolerances, especially for dairy products and particularly during intense training or during a competition. So I need to follow some guidelines. It’s a relatively common problem.
Beatrice – Chicoverdose: How often do you feel pain (or you feel sick), in training?
Daniele: running is not a torture! I love running and I find it fun. Pain can happen, but nobody should get to the point of extreme suffering.
Valeria: I do suffer during the most intensive training month with our team, we all do. We really try to laugh about it , we make jokes and sometimes wonder what have we done so bad, to deserve this? it’s always temporary…we all have goals and reasons to do it.
Libania: I do have pains, especially in winter, at the height of my training.
Beatrice Chicoverdose: During the award ceremony, cameras show close-ups of the winners . Did that bother you…did you for example think about your looks, or about remembering the lyrics of the National Anthem correctly ?
Daniele: not at all, I was so relaxed! I just wanted to enjoy that moment as much as possible, and I would have wanted it to last forever.
Valeria: not really. You finish your race, they immediately rush you to a press conference and you can’t even have a shower…you can’t be preoccupied with your looks. Sometimes there is a person for make up or to fix your hair, but if you didn’t have a shower you don’t feel like make up either. I don’t mind looking natural, that moment.
Libania: Those were moments of pure emotion. It was like nothing else existed and it felt beautiful. I was genuinely happy and felt comfortable being simply myself.
Beatrice – Chicoverdose: Representing a Nation gives you a kind of pressure, or is it only a stimulus to do to better?
Daniele: it’s a motivation to do better.
Valeria: it’s an honor and responsibility; I find it very positive.
Libania: absolutely, it motivates me too.
Beatrice – Chicoverdose: Can you give some tips to our readers to keep motivated in doing sports, even at a non-professional level?
Daniele: enjoy running and think positive.
Valeria: Enjoy sport, start slowly then go step by step, join other people, have a reachable goal that gives you fun.
Libania: sport is life! Being active and doing sport helps us to get to know ourselves better, and to live better. It is a great way to learn about our own body, heart and soul, and stay in tune with them.
Beatrice-Chicoverdose: Daniele, you are turning 29 in October, you already have two children and, while running at international level, you are also studying with excellent results; one can see you are very focused and disciplined, and you are able to maximize your efforts. How do you do it?
Daniele: I guess I am good at organizing my time.
Beatrice-Chicoverdose: do you ever feel guilty for not spending enough time with your wife and children?
Daniele: Not really…they join me regularly; and anyway whatever I do, I also do for them.
Beatrice-Chicoverdose: how important is sense of humor in your life?
Daniele: extremely important! It really helps me to reduce stress and anxiety.
Beatrice-Chicoverdose: Valeria, how did your spleen removal affect you?
Valeria: before the surgery I had severe anemia and therefore I always felt exhausted. I thought that was the normal condition for everybody. The doctors had told me to take care and not to push too much. I basically didn’t listen much and started to have good results. When, after the surgery, my red blood cells count became normal, I couldn’t believe my luck! I felt I could finally give it all and results arrived.
Beatrice-Chicoverdose: Valeria, how many holiday a year do you have?
Valeria: after every important competition I can easily take one or two weeks. I don’t stop for too long though, otherwise I obviously lose my shape.
Beatrice-Chicoverdose: Libania, I have three questions for you. First of all, our blog is also about fashion and I am curious about something. During all official occasions you have to wear the Italian training suit. Would you prefer to wear a dress and high heels?
Libania: I feel very comfortable with the tracksuit, and it is appropriate during ceremonies or interviews. I am very happy to wear it; there are other occasions to wear a dress and stilettos.
Beatrice-Chicoverdose: the other question is about what you said in an interview; that Usain Bolt’s biography inspired you and helped you. How exactly?
Libania: I believe his talent was given him from God, and that talent is a precious gift to use well. From his experience I learnt to compete without anxiety and with enthusiasm. At an important competition one shouldn’t think about records or about the immediate economical reward. One needs to concentrate and give everything. That’s what counts.
Beatrice- Chicoverdose: In the past, in competitions, you couldn’t always show your full potential and bring home the results you deserved. Did you always think that it was just a matter of time, and that the result would arrive?
Libania: Yes, there were many competitions during which I couldn’t show everything I had. That made me grow and develop as a person and an athlete; it made me stronger. Being mentally strong is fundamental to reach success.
Personally I found my talk to the athletes very motivating and uplifting. I felt their positivity and I could always sense they are experiencing a great moment in life. They use humour, support, dreams and clear targets to reach their goals and to be able to start allover again when things seem to go wrong.
What I also found interesting is that the long distance runners seem to share some common traits of personality, while Libania is a bit of a different character – after all she does another sport. At least this was my sensation. I think that these guys found the sport they had the talent and personality for, and then they put a huge amount of hard work into it.
I thank them and wish them more success and fun!