American-born figure skater Alexia Paganini just competed in her first Olympics – for Switzerland. Although her sport and her dual nationality have taken her all over the world, she calls the Alpine nation her “home country”.
The 16-year-old, who lives in New York, placed 21st at the recent Winter Olympics in PyeongChang and competed at the World Figure Skating Championships held in Milan this past week. She spoke with swissinfo.ch about her life as an athlete and a raclette-loving Swiss living abroad.
swissinfo.ch: When and why did your parents leave Switzerland?
Alexia Paganini: My parents left Switzerland in 2000 because my dad wanted to do an executive MBA programme at Columbia University. Before they left, they were living in St. Moritz [in canton Graubünden] with my older brother Kevin who was born in [nearby] Samedan.
swissinfo.ch: Why are you Swiss?
A.P.: I am Swiss because both of my parents are Swiss and when I was born I automatically got my Swiss citizenship.
My dad is originally from Brusio in the Valle di Poschiavo [in canton Graubünden], and my mom lived in St. Moritz for ten years. She is originally from the Netherlands.
[Now], my parents are expats and live in the US [with] a visa status, so we are a Swiss family living abroad. My father is a lieutenant colonel in the Swiss Army, retired for four years.
swissinfo.ch: How did you find your way to figure skating?
A.P.: Figure skating has been in my life for as long as I can remember. My mother took me and my brothers Kevin and Mario to a local ice rink when I was just two years old, my brothers are hockey players and I am figure skater. We're all very passionate about our sports.
swissinfo.ch: Why did you decide to represent Switzerland in your sport instead of the US?
A.P.: My parents, being Swiss, always wanted me to skate for Switzerland, so when I was nine years old my mom contacted the Swiss Ice Skating Federation. Back then it didn't work out. Last year, in January, I switched coaches and my new coach Igor Krokavec wanted to give it another try.
At the World Championships, he met with the president of the Swiss Federation and after tests and paperwork they gave me a chance to try out last summer. I did and it all worked out.
swissinfo.ch: What was it like to represent Switzerland at the Olympics? What are your strongest memories from the experience?
A.P.: It was an amazing experience to represent Switzerland at the Olympic Games; I feel blessed and very thankful.
My strongest memory is that first moment when I stepped on the official Olympic rink, it all sank in then and I realised this is real, it's happening, I'm here competing at the Olympics representing my home country Switzerland. That was a very intense moment that I will cherish the rest of my life.
swissinfo.ch: What were your conversations with other Swiss athletes like?
A.P.: The Swiss athletes were great, I'm not the only one who lives abroad.
We all were sharing our daily experiences with each other and cheered each other on at our events; it was great to feel their support.
We laughed together, we celebrated together and we cried together. And we even had haircuts together in the PyeongChang village.
It was very special and I have found many new great friendships!
swissinfo.ch: What are your professional goals for the future?
A.P.: My goals for the future are to train hard to take my capabilities to the maximum.
swissinfo.ch: Where do you live at the moment, and what's a typical day like for you?
A.P.: At the moment when I'm not travelling, I live in New York. Every morning, my mom drives one hour to the rink in New Jersey to start my training day at 8am.
My training day is from 8am until 5pm. I have two on-ice sessions, I do off-ice and I go to the gym. I have an hour and a half off for lunch where I do part of my school work, and I do the rest of my homework in the evening at home.
swissinfo.ch: What kind of relationship do you have with Switzerland?
A.P.: I have always felt Swiss, and I'm very proud to be Swiss. Almost all of my family lives there. We have family in Weesen, Solothurn, Zurich and Poschiavo, and Nonna (my grandmother) lives in Brusio. I love being in Switzerland; it's my home country.
swissinfo.ch: Do you speak a Swiss national language?
A.P.: I speak “high German” because I went for many years to the German school in [nearby] White Plains [New York].
swissinfo.ch: How do people in the US react when they hear you are Swiss?
A.P.: The rink where I train had 11 people who went to the Olympics, all from different nationalities. They have always known I am Swiss; we all train together and support each other.
swissinfo.ch: What's your impression of Switzerland from abroad?
A.P.: My impression of Switzerland is that it’s a great country, safe and with many opportunities for everyone. It's beautiful and Swiss people are wonderful, it's special that there are different cultures all with different heritage but all united!
swissinfo.ch: Are you planning to return to Switzerland one day?
A.P.: I can’t look into the future, but I could see myself living in Switzerland at some point.
swissinfo.ch: What do you miss most about Switzerland?
A.P.: I'm often in Switzerland, and the first thing I always do is to look for a great raclette “Stübli” [restaurant]. I love a delicious raclette!
swissinfo.ch (based on a written interview)