Federica Pellegrini Doing It “For the Love of the Sport”

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Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

There is no denying that Federica Pellegrini is the greatest 200 freestyler in history. What makes her illustrious career so special is her approach to swimming she’s simply doing what she loves. This article appeared in the April 2020 issue of Swimming World Magazine. It was written before the coronavirus postponed the Olympics back a whole year.

Italy’s Federica Pellegrini has held the world record in the women’s 200 meter freestyle for more than a decade now, with her 1:52.98 shiny-suit standard still standing from 2009. An Olympic gold medalist in 2008, she has also medaled at every single World Championships since she was 17 in 2005.

And she just keeps getting better and better.

A couple of weeks before her 31st birthday last year, Pellegrini won the 200 free gold medal at the World Championships in Gwangju, South Korea. It was her fourth World title in the event, adding to her gold medals won in 2009, 2011 and 2017. And it was the fastest she had ever swum in a textile suit.

Her winning time of 1:54.22 was a huge surprise to her. Even with all her success in the 200 and all of the accolades she had received, she had contemplated many times in 2018 if she would even still be competitive internationally in that event.

It seems silly in retrospect. Pellegrini was the reigning World champ from 2017 when she became the first person to take down Katie Ledecky in that final in Budapest. After that race, she insisted that she was done competing in the 200 and that she would take up the 100 freestyle.

DECISION TIME

But her 100 free results were not as strong. And she went back and forth on whether she would still want to swim the 200 at Gwangju. Then a month before Worlds, she swam at the Sette Colli international meet in Rome, site of where she set her world record a decade earlier.

“I swam a 1:55.3, and it exceeded my expectations,” Pellegrini said of that race in June 2019. “At that moment, we decided to swim the 200 freestyle at the World Championships. Until then, we didn’t know if I could be competitive in the 200.”

Even though she was the reigning champion and world record holder, she wasn’t the favorite heading into Gwangju. Instead, all of the attention was focused on the Australian duo of Emma McKeon and Ariarne Titmus, who had both swum 1:54s a month earlier. Ledecky and Sweden’s Sarah Sjostrom were also considered among the favorites since they finished 1-2 at the Rio Olympics.

Then there was Canada’s Taylor Ruck, who had the fastest time in the world in 2018, and France’s Charlotte Bonnet was the reigning European champion. Needless to say, Pellegrini was hardly on anybody’s radar.

“I had no expectations and no pressure at all,” Pellegrini admitted, “because everybody was talking about Titmus, Ledecky, Sjostrom, McKeon. I was off the radar, so that was a good point for me.”

AN INCREDIBLE RACE

Federica Pellegrini of Italy celebrates after winning in the women’s 200m Freestyle Final during the Swimming events at the Gwangju 2019 FINA World Championships, Gwangju, South Korea, 24 July 2019.

Federica Pellegrini celebrates her 200 free gold in 2019. Photo Courtesy: Patrick B. Kraemer

The 200 free was shaping up to be one of the marquee events of the World Championships, but illness affected Ledecky and McKeon, and the two medal contenders withdrew from the race before the heats even started. McKeon had the second fastest time in the world before the meet, and Ledecky had her impressive pedigree across the longer distances. Losing two medal contenders right before the heats didn’t deter Pellegrini in the slightest.

“I was focused on trying to perform my best,” Pellegrini said. “The day before, Ledecky wasn’t (at her best) for the 1500, and she didn’t swim the final. But if you start thinking about someone else besides yourself, it doesn’t work well.”

Even without those two, it was still an incredibly fast final. The top four all swam under 1:55, with Titmus winning the silver (1:54.66)—just 44-hundredths behind. Pellegrini—and Sjostrom the bronze (1:54.78). Hong Kong’s Siobhan Haughey added her name to the mix with a 1:54.98, just missing the podium.

“I was incredibly happy with what I swam,” Pellegrini said, acknowledging just how fast the race was.

“Titmus—she just got the gold medal in the 400 freestyle, so she was in incredible condition. And Sjostrom was the silver medalist in 2016 in Rio, so everything was going perfectly for me.

“I was feeling incredibly good when I touched and looked at the scoreboard. Swimming a 1:54.2 was really amazing for me—especially since I’m almost 31 and I just swam my best…and the sensation I had during the race. That was an incredible thing.

“I would like to have that same feeling every time I jump into the water—hopefully again a few more times.”

“THAT’S AMORE!”

July 27, 2011; Shanghai, CHINA; Federica Pellegrini (ITA) celebrates after winning the women's 200m freestyle final the 14th FINA World Championships. Mandatory Credit: OSports via US PRESSWIRE

Federica Pellegrini celebrating her world title in 2011. Photo Courtesy: Osports/ Swimming World Archive

So, why has Pellegrini been so good for so long in the 200 freestyle? Since she was 16, she has been on the podium every single year at the Olympics or World Championships except for two. In 2004, a relatively unknown Pellegrini won the silver medal at the Athens Olympics. She finished ahead of the legendary Franziska van Almsick of Germany, who had held the world record from 1994 to 2007 (which was coincidentally broken by Pellegrini at the Melbourne World Championships—her first world record in the event).

She improved to gold in 2008, setting the world record twice in Beijing and becoming the first woman to swim under 1:55. The next year, she lowered the WR three times, becoming the first woman to swim under 1:54, then 1:53 to her current world record of 1:52.98—a record she still owns to this day.

She’s won four gold medals at Worlds in this event in 2009, 2011, 2017 and 2019. She won silvers in 2005, 2013 and 2015, and a bronze in 2007.

Her dominance in the event is tied in with her love for racing it.

“It’s really the kind of love that we call in Italy, ‘amore’—just love like ‘I love you.’ It’s something that is special and something really deep. And every season and every year, I want to be my best in that race,” Pellegrini said.

OLYMPIC FRUSTRATION

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Federica Pellegrini races for the Aqua Centurions in the International Swimming League. Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

Although she has dominated the last two World Championships, she has not stood on the Olympic podium since winning gold in 2008.

She was a favorite heading into both the 2012 and 2016 Games, but fell short both times, finishing fifth in London and fourth in Rio, with the latter coming within 2-tenths of the bronze medal.

“That season was really good in terms of results and in terms of preparation,” Pellegrini said of the 2016 year. “The only thing that went wrong was fourth place and not getting the medal.”

She used that disappointment as motivation for the next year, which resulted in a historic performance at the World Championships in Budapest: Pellegrini handed Ledecky her first loss in a major international final.

“That season, I was thinking sometimes about Rio and the fourth place. I would try to push harder and harder to get a medal at the World Championships,” she admitted. “The year after in 2018? No. There was no thinking of Rio still affecting my life or my mind.

“(After 2017), I was feeling more comfortable with my speed and feeling more comfortable with training and with workouts. Everything was going well, especially last season in Gwangju, where I swam my best textile time in the 200 freestyle. I was feeling amazing, and did not expect that.”

PREPARING FOR TOKYO

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Federica Pellegrini (middle) at the 2017 Worlds. Photo Courtesy: SIPA USA

Pellegrini is preparing now for Tokyo in what would be her fifth Olympic Games. She’s been a world-class performer for 16 years. Between 2004 and 2019, she’s medaled in the 200 free at major meets (Olympics, SC Worlds, LC Worlds or Europeans) every year except 2018.

The only swimmer who can even compare would be Michael Phelps, who won medals in the 200 butterfly 15 times in 16 years from 2001-16 (he took a break from racing the event in 2005).

As Pellegrini seeks to continue her impressive streak, she finds herself yet again as a favorite to win the 200 free in Tokyo. However, she has indicated that the 2020 Olympics will be her last Games…although she hasn’t fully committed herself to being retired after this summer.

“After Tokyo, I will take some time to see what is better for my life because I don’t want to think about it right now. I want to be focused on training and preparation.”

She came into Gwangju last year with hardly any pressure, but now that she has shown herself to be in great shape, there will be greater expectations placed on the world record holder who will turn 32 in August.

“I don’t want to have any pressure,” she said. “I want to do it with a big smile on my face.”

If Pellegrini retires after this summer and finishes with a gold medal, it would be a storybook ending to an absolutely incredible career.

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