The Italian Honorary President of the Lombardy 2024 Organising Committee Manuela Di Centa insisted "sport breaks down barriers" ©IMGA

Manuela Di Centa, Honorary President of the International Masters Games Association's (IMGA) Lombardy 2024 Winter Games, has insisted "the medals that we win in our life" are more important than sporting medals as she reflected on her career in cross-country skiing.

Di Centa featured at five Winter Olympic Games, clinching a five-medal haul at Lillehammer 1994 which included golds in the women's 15 kilometres freestyle and 30km classical events.

She now holds the Honorary Presidential role on the Organising Committee for the next edition of the Winter World Masters Games, which are due to be held in the Lombardy region of her native Italy in 2024.

A third women's 4x5km relay bronze medal at Nagano 1998 marked Di Centa's final competition as a professional athlete.

Reflecting on her career, Di Centa said retirement and a subsequent move into ski mountaineering had given her a different perspective on life.

"The moment after the finish when I took off my skis it was so symbolic, to know that I would never ski as a professional athlete again and to realise it was the last time wearing a race bib," she said.

"But I started to compete in another competition, shaping my new life, while continuing practicing sport.

"I’m very demanding of myself, and after the Olympic champion career I started a new one.

"Sport medals are important but more important are the medals that we win in our life.

Manuela Di Centa won five cross-country skiing medals representing Italy at the Lillehammer 1994 Winter Olympics ©IMGA
Manuela Di Centa won five cross-country skiing medals representing Italy at the Lillehammer 1994 Winter Olympics ©IMGA

"I’m a very curious person and I was wondering: all my life I’ve planned everything as a training session, and I was very much aware it would not be easy to quit what I did for 35 years.

"I wanted to give my body what it needed but without pressure or a stopwatch, to feel the free movement the skis gave me and to feel myself free to breathe."

The double Olympic champion also extolled the value of sport to general well-being, a feeling strengthened by restrictions during the COVID-19 pandemic.

"During the lockdown it was so important to have some physical activity, to walk around, to breathe fresh air and to find a way to pick yourself up again," Di Centa said.

"I am a firm believer that sport breaks down barriers."

She added that she had translated this into action herself, with sport continuing to play a pivotal role in her life.

"My passion for sport helps me to focus on my wellness," Di Centa said.

"I make it my priority to respect my mind and body that gave me so much throughout my life.

"I live a healthy lifestyle and make sure I eat nutritious food.

"When I can, I enjoy skiing, otherwise I walk without stopwatch just for the pleasure."

The Winter World Masters Games is the IMGA's flagship winter sports event, open to all competitors in the masters age bracket.

The Lombardy region of Italy is set to host the Winter World Masters Games in 2024 ©IMGA
The Lombardy region of Italy is set to host the Winter World Masters Games in 2024 ©IMGA

The minimum age varies between sports, with the lowest being 25.

Di Centa looked back at the start of her sporting journey, when she instantly fell in love with skiing in the mountains of Friuli Venezia Giulia in north-east Italy.

"I was four years old, and I ran through the snow," she said.

"My dad prepared a pair of kid’s skis for me.

"Experiencing the snow, I loved the sensation, and right then and there I discovered the beauty of doing something that makes you feel well.

"Cold and snow, those were the elements where I felt at home. I strongly felt I needed to do something with my passion for these elements, not even imagining winning Olympic medals.

"Nevertheless, I was sure I wanted to achieve something in my life, something that would make me feel alive.

"This has always been my small secret, to do what I like and to focus on what makes me happy."

Twelve sports are due to feature at Lombardy 2024.

As well as the Winter World Masters Games in two years' time, Lombardy is also set to host events at the Milan-Cortina 2026 Winter Olympics.