13.04.2022 18:00

Atleti Polimi - Alessandro Riva

Interview with the trail running and skyrunning athlete, Aeronautical Engineering student at Politecnico di Milano

The latest encounter with Polimi athletes. This time we met with Alessandro Riva, 22, a Laurea Magistrale (equivalent to Master of Science) student in Aeronautical Engineering and a trail running and skyrunning athlete. He was born in Bergamo and lives in Galbiate, in the province of Lecco.

Trail running is a running speciality that takes place in nature, while the setting for skyrunning is specifically up in the mountains.

Alessandro has achieved many successes in the past year. In mountain running, he placed third in the youth category at the Italian Long Distance Mountain Running Championships and 5th overall at the Half Valtellina Wine Trail. As for skyrunning, he was 10th overall and 4th in the U23 category at the Italian Vertical Championship <1000 m and 11th overall and 4th in the U23 category at the Positano-Agerola Vertical.

Let's get to know him better.

Hi Alessandro, how and when did your passion for mountains and trail running start?

My passion for the mountains started when I was very young. My parents have always taken me hiking in the summer and snowshoeing in the winter, giving me the opportunity to spend many weekends in nature discovering beautiful places around Lombardy and beyond.

My progression to trail running, however, is not strictly linked to the time I spent walking during my childhood. During my secondary school years, I did competitive cycling, a discipline that took me away from the mountains, as I spent most of the year training and racing on two wheels. However, at the beginning of my last year of high school, when I had to give up bike racing, I was faced with the question of what to do next: I have always played sports (before cycling I also played football and swam) and I have always loved to compete, but at that time I didn’t have a goal.

So what did you decide to do?

Three mountain running races are held in my town every year, and almost just for fun I signed up for the Monte Barro Running race in April 2018. I showed up at the starting line with little, if any, specific training and no experience in that kind of race. But the end result exceeded my expectations.

So with the support of some of my parents' friends, I signed up for two more races: my love for trail running had blossomed. That's when Poli came into play: I wanted to take part in the PolimiRun Winter 2018 race on the trails near my home, but I found out that you had to be a FIDAL (Italian Athletics Federation) member to run it. That's how I got to know more about the world of racing, before joining my current club, G.S.A Cometa, for which I have been racing since 2019, the year I started racing seriously. From that moment on, achievements and passion grew hand in hand, giving me the opportunity to become part of the National Skyrunning Team and to be supported by important technical sponsors.

Which athletes are you inspired by?

As for anyone who runs on the trails, my undisputed idol is Kilian Jornet Burgada; however, I also admire several athletes from other sports. I have always been a great fan of Vincenzo Nibali and I find inspiration in the stories and achievements of the great mountaineers of the past, such as Walter Bonatti, and of today, such as Hervé Barmasse and Nirmal Purja. In any case, I find great motivation in seeing and reading about the achievements of all the greats in sport, from Eliud Kipchoge to Tommy Caldwell, Filippo Ganna and many others.

Finally, over the last two years, thanks to the sponsors who support me, I have had the good fortune to meet Franco Collè and Federico Pellegrino in person: listening to their advice is priceless.

Which of the races you have faced thrilled you the most?

In terms of pure emotions, last May's Esino Skyrace was crazy. I had just had a difficult month where I had struggled terribly in two races I was looking forward to, but on the Grigna trails I had finally started to feel good again, and at the finish line I burst into tears.

Or the Half Valtellina Wine Trail last November, which I consider one of my best performances to date: being there fighting for a podium place with athletes who I had been watching from afar until only recently was priceless.

What do you think has been your greatest sporting success?

I honestly don’t know. I'm never satisfied, and even after good races I think about what I could have done better. I always like to aim a little higher and improve day by day. So, cliché as it may sound, I'd say my greatest success is yet to come.

What does sport mean to you? Do you think it has taught you something in other areas of life as well?

Sport has always been my greatest passion, and an essential outlet for overcoming all the obstacles I may come across. Practising endurance disciplines has taught me to adapt and to endure situations that are not always pleasant, but which I have always tried to tackle with determination. I like working hard, and I think that in the future this will allow me to find satisfaction in many areas, even those not related to sport.

Why did you choose to study Aeronautical Engineering? Why at the Politecnico di Milano specifically?

My choice of study path was instinctive, during my fourth year of high school. My class visited a number of laboratories at the Politecnico, including the wind tunnel. At that time I was still bike racing, and the sight of the wall with autographs of all the athletes who had been there for aerodynamic tests impressed me so much that I decided to enrol in Aerospace Engineering for my Bachelor’s degree and then Aeronautics for my Master's degree.

Alessandro Riva during the training
Alessandro Riva at Giuriati Sports Center
Alessandro Riva during a race
Alessandro Riva at Giuriati Sports Center
Alessandro Riva during a race
Alessandro Riva at Giuriati Sports Center
Alessandro Riva during a race
Alessandro Riva at Giuriati Sports Center
Alessandro Riva during a race
Alessandro Riva during the training

How do you manage to balance training and studying?

I believe that if you really want to do something, you can always find the time to do it. Of course it is not easy to manage all the commitments, but if you are willing to put in the effort everything is possible.

On my side, I am good at adapting to schedules and commitments, which I brought with me from high school: my parents always let me play as much sport as I wanted as long as I got good grades. When I was cycling, waking up at dawn to study was almost the norm, as training took up most of my time in the afternoon.

Now, with university, things are perhaps easier in this respect. I'm able to manage my time more freely, and I personally have never been able to spend the whole day with my head in a book: training allows me to switch off and let off steam between study sessions.

How does the Dual Career programme help you with this?

I have only recently joined the programme and have not yet had the opportunity to take full advantage of its benefits. I think that in the future, if I have issues with timetables or dates for lectures and exams, the programme will ensure that I don't have to give up my sport or compromise my academic results.

Are you satisfied with your choice of Politecnico di Milano?

Tough question. Although I graduated in the shortest possible time and now I am now going on to my Master's degree, I will not hide the fact that there have been many moments when I have asked myself “who made me do it?”. Certainly the pandemic restrictions did not help with lab activities; I probably expected a different approach to the subjects. However, I am sure that in the future my efforts over the years will pay off and will provide me with unique experiences, both at work and elsewhere, which will bring me much satisfaction.

What advice would you give to an athlete who doesn't know whether or not to go to university?

In order to have as many open doors as possible in the future, studying is essential. I've always been told that a good athlete is able to stay organized and do everything well, so I think that if you care about both sport and study you can succeed in both. In any case, it is essential to always set yourself goals, both in university and in sport, and to focus on them so that you don't lose heart. My motto is #stepbystep: little by little you can achieve everything!

Do you find time for your private life too? What are your passions besides sport and studying?

I have always tried to balance all my commitments and give up as little as possible. By making sacrifices, however, I have always managed to find time for my friends and my girlfriend.

I am also a volunteer for the Italian Red Cross at the Valmadrera committee, where I provide both 118 rescue and community health services, as well as looking after the warehouse and managing stock. Finally, for almost ten years, I have also been a volunteer at the cinema in my town, as a projectionist.

What do you like about Milan?

As a mountain and nature lover, Milan is definitely not my natural habitat. I am not made to live in the city, but studying in Milan also has undeniable advantages. Coming into contact with students and professors from all over the world and living in a dynamic environment is a unique opportunity for growth. In any case, whenever possible I always prefer to go back to the foot of my beloved Monte Barro!

What are your goals and dreams for the future, sporting and otherwise?

Honestly, I'm not sure what to expect from the future. Sports-wise, I definitely want to continue to grow and, who knows, one day compete with the greats of the sport. On the other hand, I am aware that sport, competitively speaking, will never be my profession: for this reason my hope is that once I have finished my studies I can find a job that will allow me to work in this world. My dream is to be able to reap the benefits of the effort I have put into my studies over the years in sports-related areas, preferably in the mountains.

To find out about the Dual Career programme, which helps our students who practise sport at the highest level to pursue both their sporting and educational activities with confidence and success, visit the Polimi Sport website.

Photo credits

1: KARPOS. 3: Fabio Fusco Positano. 5: Piccoli. 7: Ferrari Foto. 9: Massimo Novali.