After 26 years in the World Championship and more than three decades of racing, Valentino Rossi retired from competing on two wheels. His mother Stefania Palma looks back on the achievements of her son and the future in an exclusive interview.
There is something quiet, calm, gentle and very calculated in the way Stefania Palma speaks. Her eyes are penetrating yet beautiful, delicate and soft at the same time. She radiates warmth, acceptance, patience but she is also direct and resolute.
Stefania, or Steffi as her sons call her, does not share the same surname as Valentino - Graziano's son, a past racer - or like Luca - the son of Massimo Marini, who coaches soccer goalkeepers by profession - and seems quite comfortable with the fact that the family name gives her some anonymity.
Stefania met Graziano when he was already pursuing his dream of becoming a motorcycle racer. Parallel to her studies she accompanied the young rider through his career at the World Championship, even when he suffered serious and life-threatening injuries that led to his retirement - and might have also had an influence on their separation when their only shared son Valentino was a young boy.
It may look like Stefania had taken the back seat in everything that has to do with her children's careers. Graziano was the one who led and pushed Valentino, Valentino and Luca himself were the ones who pushed her younger son into the racing world. But the experience she gained alongside her ex-husband when he was competing, her sharp and clear vision, her ability to pay attention to details and her unbiased critique made her the engine behind the champion and the one aspiring to be a champ.
There is something captivating about her, she is a beautiful woman, there is no doubt about that, but there is something beyond that. Her gray hair slides over her shoulders and she is dressed with relative simplicity for the mother of one of the richest athletes in Italy. Jeans, sneakers, knitwear. Nothing sets her apart from the rest of the residents of Tavullia, where she lives and works full-time as a civil engineer for the town of about 8,000 inhabitants. Her office is located opposite the place that has become a tourist site. The church, the fan club, the Pizzeria da Rossi, and until a few weeks ago even a huge sign hanging there saying "Thank you Vale" was visible from her office window. Only when she speaks and you sink into her blue eyes, can one see the resemblance of her sons to her.
Behind the scenes
She doesn't like to be at the center of things. She watches from the sideline, observes, and examines. It's hard to find pictures of her, especially from recent years alongside her children, on the track or during victory celebrations. And it's not that she's not an important part of the success. Every Wednesday before the race she and Valentino used to have dinner together, this was also the opportunity for Rossi to tell her, just before flying to Austria, that he was about to retire. Throughout the first Covid lockdown, she lived with her eldest son and his partner Francesca at Valentino's home. Her sons call her every day at the end of proceedings at the racetracks at rounds where she is not present. She has not always come to races, especially in the years when Valentino was already a grown man and Luca was not yet competing in the world championships, as she has her own job and obligations, of course.
Stefania does not speak English. She is not interviewed much. She agreed to the interview only after receiving the request from the person functioning as the translator, Filippo Falsaperla, a former La Gazzetta dello Sport journalist who covered Valentino's career for more than a quarter of a century and maintained a friendship with her all those years.
A lot was about to change in her life while the interview was conducted, when she was in her office and I was in Tel Aviv. Valentino was about to retire and she is about to become a grandmother and she is very excited especially about the second thing.
"First of all, congratulations, you are becoming a grandmother soon," I tell her and feel I must also thank her for educating her sons to be not only professionals, but also respectful and polite people.
"For me, women have a very important part in this world, even more than usual and particularly because of it as it is a sport which is considered masculine. We are the other half of the world, in line with the masculine half," she replies as if reading my mind. From there, despite language difficulties and despite the distance and screens separating us, she listens, focuses on our conversation, in the interview, and gives a glimpse into her world, what it's like to be the mother of arguably the greatest rider in the world and how he and Luca, despite the success stayed with their feet on the ground.
Retirement, how are you feeling now? Sadness, release, relief, joy?
"This is the end of an important period, the end of a story that in general I did not expect to happen at all. We are all aware that in life there are periods, chapters. We also know that during life we go through changes and that stories come to an end.
I knew it would happen sooner or later. I'm convinced that sport is an important part of our lives, of every person. throughout this period Valentino has been very focused on what he needs to do, he has been very prepared and alert for it, especially mentally."
Valentino said that after he told you he was about to announce that the 2021 season was his last, you got up from the table and went to wash dishes
"Yeah, that's right. I understood what was going on, but I could not even say a word."
Did you want to ask him to continue?
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