His career has been one of highs and lows, but the five-time Italian ice dance champion is now in his groove and he could not be happier.
A decade has passed since Massimo Scali and his former ice dance partner Federica Faiella took their final bows, after which both went in different directions: Faiella became a full-time member of the Italian police force, married and had a child, while Scali turned to coaching and choreography.
A few months after teaming up in 2001, Faiella and Scali surprised everyone when they danced into second place at Nebelhorn Trophy and qualified for the 2002 Olympic Winter Games. The duo finished in 18th place in Salt Lake City.
The next four seasons saw them slowly climb the international ice dance ranks, and shortly after a 13th-place finish at the 2006 Olympic Winter Games they relocated to the United States to work at the Detroit Skating Club with Anjelika Krylova and Pasquale Camerlengo.
That proved to be a positive move, with the duo claiming 11 podium finishes over the next five seasons, which included two silver medals at the European Championships (2009-2010) and a bronze-medal finish at the 2010 World Championships.
Following a fifth-place finish at 2011 Europeans, the team withdrew from the World Championships due to an illness Faiella had been dealing with for some time. They announced their retirement on March 15, 2011, but just a few months later had a change of heart and decided to continue for one more season.
That comeback bid ended before it began when Faiella suffered a serious injury. The duo officially announced their retirement in early 2012.
While Faiella resettled in her Italian homeland, Scali — during a month-long vacation with his family in Rome — decided his future lay in the United States. Weeks later he began working with Krylova and Camerlengo and their teams at the Detroit Skating Club.
“It was a business decision to stay in the U.S. I was a figure skater my whole life and I literally did not know how to do anything else. I knew that in this new beginning, my first real job was going to be in figure skating,” Scali explained.
“Already having the experience of living and training in the United States and having gone through the immigration process, I thought it was a great opportunity for me to grow as a coach and choreographer, instead of going back to Italy where the business is not as vibrant. It is a different setup and a different mentality, and I believed the U.S. was going to give me the best opportunity for my future.”
In the three years he spent at the Detroit Skating Club, Scali worked with many up-and-coming teams, including Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue, Kaitlin Hawayek and Jean-Luc Baker and Kaitlyn Weaver and Andrew Poje.
But following the 2014 Olympic Winter Games, Scali was looking for a new challenge. “After working with Pasquale and Anjelika for three years I just had the feeling that it was not the right situation for me anymore. I had an amazing time collaborating with them and the students they had, and it was hard leaving all the teams I had worked with, but I just felt it was time for a different situation, so I decided to leave and look for another position.”
Scali did not have to look far. Within days, Marina Zoueva — who had heard through the grapevine that he was looking to relocate — contacted Scali and a few weeks later he made the move. “It was very challenging for me to work with the high-level teams that trained with Marina,” he said.
“I enjoyed working with all the skaters, including my longtime collaboration with the Japanese team of Kana Muramoto and Chris Reed, but especially my work with Maia Shibutani and Alex Shibutani, which was probably one of the most exciting parts of my time there.
“Working with Maia and Alex was definitely the biggest challenge and the most exciting experience in the four years I worked with Marina.”
Following the 2018 Olympic Winter Games in PyeongChang, Scali was once again on the move, but this time he headed in a different direction. Even though he had enjoyed the experience of working as a coach and choreographer over the previous seven years, he said his “soul was moving toward being a freelance choreographer.”
“That is what I always loved the most. I think the coaching part is amazing because you are an important part of a skater’s career, but what always drove me the most was to create choreography.
“So, I decided that after seven years as a coach it was time for me to move into more of a freelance situation. I wanted to shift my business more into choreography and collaboration, take on small projects where I could go to a rink for a week or two and work on choreography or skating skills — or whatever the school needed — and then move on to a different project.”
With his newfound freedom, Scali headed to Chicago where his partner, Daniel Morales, was based, but not long after the couple headed to the West Coast.
“The move to California was not really planned. It happened because Daniel wanted to get a master’s degree in public policy and was accepted into the University of California, Berkeley. I was free to move wherever I wanted with my new freelance job, so I just decided to follow him. That’s how we ended up in San Francisco.
“I always dreamed about California because of the weather, the cities and everything, but I never really thought that one day I was going to move there. When I first arrived, I really did not have a plan. I contacted a few people I know in California who told me there was a rink in Oakland that was close to where I was living. I contacted the rink and then started working there from time to time.”
Shortly after his arrival in early 2020, Scali was approached by the coach of Alysa Liu — who was based at the Oakland rink — to work with her student on improving her skating skills and polishing the choreography of her programs.
All that changed one day when, out of the blue, Liu’s father hired Scali to be his daughter’s main coach. “I was very surprised,” he said of the unexpected appointment. “As you know, I come from an ice dance background and my knowledge of singles is limited to skating skills and choreography — not the jumping technique, which is one of the most important things. I first tried to arrange to just be part of the team and not the main coach, but that didn’t work out and I ended up taking Alysa under my wing.
“At first, I worked with her by myself because this was at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic and we were in lockdown. It was extremely hard because I was literally taking care of her by myself, and it was a little challenging.”
In the fall of 2020, former U.S. champion Jeremy Abbott, who had been travelling the country as a freelance choreographer and performing in shows, also landed in sunny California.
Scali recalled it was “purely by chance” that he ran into his old training mate and friend at one of the only skating rinks that was open in San Francisco at the time.
“It all happened in a very organic and casual way. As with me when I moved to California without a plan, Jeremy was kind of in the same situation. During the pandemic he decided to leave Michigan because he was also freelancing and doing shows and wasn’t really going back there too much.
“One day, Alysa and I were at the rink and he was there, so I asked him if it would be possible for him to give Alysa a few lessons. He agreed and started working with her twice a week and gradually it became four times a week. I knew I needed someone next to me who knew about jumping technique, so we ended up asking Jeremy to stay and that is how that collaboration started.”
Scali freely admits that working with Liu was one of the most challenging projects he had ever taken on in his coaching career, but it was also one of the most “inspiring and beautiful because she is an amazing human being, really so special.”
“I knew there was a lot of work to be done, but the goal was to bring a completely different Alysa to the ice — a more mature skater with improved skating skills, movement and musicality. That was all part of the final goal for last season. It was a journey for both of us. But she is so talented and clever and so humble, it was really a joy to work with her.”
When Liu emerged on the scene for the 2021-2022 season, she was taller and had matured into a young woman. Those two things combined caused her to lose the quad and triple Axel jumps she had in her repertoire in the junior ranks, but the performance aspects and a more grown-up approach was unmistakable.
Under the guidance of Scali and Abbott — and despite not having the more difficult jumps — Liu won the first three competitions she entered in the summer and early fall of 2021, including Nebelhorn Trophy, which secured a third spot for the U.S. women at the 2022 Olympic Winter Games.
But in late November, just days after Liu finished fourth at NHK Trophy, her father made another surprise coaching change, this time sending his daughter to Colorado Springs to train.
“To be honest, Alysa leaving was tough to deal with because I loved her and our work together,” said Scali, 42. “I put myself back into a coaching role, which was something I was not really looking for, but I did it for her. It was tough when they decided to leave.
“I have to say I gave my soul to this project. It was a pleasure to be a part of her career even though it was a short amount of time.”
But another unexpected opportunity was just around the corner, and it was one which helped Scali rebound from the disappointment of Liu’s departure.
The day following the official announcement of Liu’s coaching change, Scali received a call from Nathan Chen, who asked if he had any time to work with him on his Olympic programs.
Two weeks later, they began a collaboration that would continue through to the 2022 Winter Games. “As soon as Alysa made it official that she had left Jeremy and I, Nathan literally called me the day after and asked me if I was available.
“I really needed to take a break from figure skating, but knowing he was asking for help, I could not say no to him. The stakes were too high,” Scali explained. “That experience helped me come out of my negative thinking and brought everything back to being balanced and positive.
“We worked for two months leading up to nationals and continued through to the Olympics. I worked with him on his skating skills, improving his edge quality and speed, and polishing his programs, especially the long.
“The first season you compete a program you feel it and it is exciting, but sometimes when you bring it back you need to find a new energy, and I think that is what he was looking for. There was a soul missing in that program, but we found the right way to bring it back.
“As well as working on the technical elements, we also had to rediscover Nathan’s pleasure of skating that program again. He said he did not want to leave any stone unturned, so we worked a lot on the arm movements, the details, accents and his emotions because it is very important to know exactly what is going on throughout a program.
“I think Nathan was also looking for emotional support to guide him toward the gigantic goal he had. I feel I brought that extra support. Whatever it was, it worked out in the end. He is another extremely talented, humble, clever person. It was an amazing collaboration, and it was really a pleasure to work with him. I am very glad I did it.”
Scali is now based at the Yerba Buena rink in downtown San Francisco, where he is once again focused mainly on his work as a choreographer. But three months ago, he and Abbott were approached by a young skater from the Bay area, Kate Wang, who wanted to work with them full time.
“Jeremy and I are now collaborating on coaching Kate. I choreographed for her last year and when she decided to change coaches, Jeremy and I agreed to do this new project together.
“It is one that is less demanding compared with the work we did with Alysa and is way more manageable. It does not require the same amount of time and energy in general, so we can both keep our freelance pursuits. We make sure that one of us is always in town to work with Kate.
“But we are not looking for other students,” Scali hastened to add.
He has found himself in high demand for programs for the upcoming season and is very happy to be choreographing routines for ice dancers once again. Two teams from the I.AM Academy in Montréal came to work with him on their rhythm dances, one of which was Kaitlin Hawayek and Jean-Luc Baker with whom he worked many years ago when they trained at the Detroit Skating Club. “I love them, and I was so happy to have the chance to work with them again,” Scali said.
In May, he went to Rome to work with Lithuania’s Alison Reed and Saulius Ambrulevičius on their rhythm dance and choreographed the free dance for Finland’s Juulia Turkkila and Matthias Versluis, who are coached by his countryman and former rival, Maurizio Margaglio. Scali is also collaborating with Elena Dostatni (Khalyavina), an ice dance coach at the World Arena in Colorado Springs.
One of his favorite projects this spring was having the opportunity to work with Muramoto and Daisuke Takahashi on a new show program, which they will debut at the “Friends on Ice” show in Japan in August.
“I was the person Kana and Daisuke first contacted when they were trying to figure out whether they could become an ice dance team,” Scali recalled. “I was like absolutely! It is such an exciting project. For Daisuke to finish the amazing singles career that he had and then challenge himself in a completely different discipline … I was like ‘Man, I admire you so much that you are even thinking about putting yourself into this situation.’
“But the improvement he made in just two seasons has been amazing. He really became an ice dancer. It’s crazy the amount of work he did. I keep reminding him when he gets a little negative and is like ‘I can’t do this’ that ‘You can do anything! Trust me!’ More than anything, I love the energy and connection that we have when we work together.”
Scali has rebounded from what was, in part, a tumultuous season and said he is now in a great place mentally. “I am really happy because I have a lot of amazing skaters that want to collaborate with me. Life is incredible sometimes.”
This article was originally published in the IFS August 2022 issue.
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