Gregorio Paltrinieri Has Olympic History Within Reach

Gregorio Paltrinieri of Italy celebrates on his way out after winning in the men's 800m Freestyle Final during the Swimming events at the Gwangju 2019 FINA World Championships, Gwangju, South Korea, 24 July 2019. Henrik Christiansen of Norway (R) finishes second.
Gregorio Paltrinieri celebrates his gold medal in the 800 free at the 2019 FINA World Championships -- Photo Courtesy: Patrick B. Kraemer

Gregorio Paltrinieri Has Olympic History Within Reach (From November’s Swimming World Magazine)

Despite the global pandemic, the Olympic postponement and a coaching change, Italy’s Gregorio Paltrinieri put together some of the best swimming of his career last summer in the 800 and 1500 meter freestyle as well as the 10K marathon. Come Tokyo 2021, he’ll be trying to become the first swimmer ever to capture gold in both the pool and open water events in the same Olympic Games.

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Gregorio Paltrinieri had conquered the challenge of becoming the world’s best in the longest event in the pool, the 1500 free. After winning his first World Championships title under bizarre circumstances, Paltrinieri established a long winning streak and took over for Sun Yang as the world’s premier miler, just as Sun Yang had surpassed Ous Mellouli four years earlier and Mellouli had surpassed the great Grant Hackett three years before that.

Then, Paltrinieri decided he needed a new challenge—and he’s already one of the world’s best in that, too.

In 2015, at the World Championships in Kazan, Paltrinieri already had won a silver medal in the 800 free, and he had a bronze at the previous World Championships in the 1500. He entered the mile final as the top seed, but Sun was heavily favored to win a third straight gold in the event.

Except Sun never showed up.

The Chinese world record holder complained of chest pain, and rumors circulated of an altercation between Sun and a Brazilian swimmer in the warm-up pool. But whatever the reasons, the lane next to Paltrinieri was empty, and he took advantage of the opportunity.

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Gregorio Paltrinieri racing at the 2019 FINA World Championships — Photo Courtesy: Becca Wyant

Paltrinieri fended off American Connor Jaeger and swam a time of 14:39.67, a European record, and he became the fifth-fastest performer in history. Nine months later at the European Championships, Paltrinieri lowered his lifetime best to 14:34.04, passing Hackett to become the second-fastest man in history, and firmly establish himself as the favorite for Olympic gold.

At Rio in 2016, the then-21-year-old Paltrinieri claimed the gold medal, winning by five seconds, and his Italian teammate and training partner Gabriele Detti joined him on the podium as the bronze medalist. Thinking back on those Olympics, Paltrinieri remembers his emotions: excitement, sure, but perhaps even more relief. As the pre-race favorite, the fear and pressure had proved exhausting, far more so than in his previous World or European Championships experiences.

“When I was a kid, I always thought, ‘OK, if you win the Olympics, you start to cry. You have to cry because it’s the Olympics,’” Paltrinieri recalled. “But I touched the wall, and I couldn’t cry. I don’t know…it’s a weird emotion. I was really happy about what I did. At the same time, I was happy that everything was done.

“When you’re at school and you have a big exam or something like that, you can’t wait to be finished. Maybe you are well prepared and you studied a lot and everything, but you can’t wait for it to be over because it’s so much pressure on you. At the Olympics, so many people are watching your race, so it’s that kind of situation.”


Gregorio Paltrinieri’s Change in Scenery

Then, in 2017, Paltrinieri decided to try his first open water race. He was seeking a new motivating force in his swimming, something fresh and exciting. He had swum in open water when he was younger, but the focus shifted exclusively to pool swimming when he began training with Coach Stefano Morini in 2012, and Morini would guide Paltrinieri to years of international dominance in the pool.

Gregorio Paltrinieri

Gregorio Paltrinieri finishing an open water race

Speaking about his first open water experience, Paltrinieri said, “It was really bad.” During that race, he felt like he had forgotten how to swim. But gradually, Paltrinieri found his comfort and enjoyment in open water, and in his first international 10K race, Paltrinieri took gold at that year’s World University Games in Taipei.

“It’s really fun. I love the ocean. I love the feeling of swimming outside, not in a swimming pool,” Paltrinieri said. “You can feel the energy of the sea. You look at some fish around you, and you look at the beach, and you are in a good environment. It’s all good for me.”

Considering the differences between pool and open water swimming, Paltrinieri said that everything in pool swimming competition comes down to preparation and execution. Swimmers perfect their fitness and their strategies, and that translates directly to their races. But open water works a little differently.

“In the open water, it’s a little bit different because the race is really long. It’s almost two hours…and then you have the conditions. Maybe the water is cold, maybe the water is warm…and maybe you have jellyfish…and then you have a big fight at every turning buoy,” Paltrinieri said. “You have to adapt yourself in those situations, and that is something that I think helps me in the pool. Sometimes in the pool as well, you have to change what you’re doing. If you start one way and that way doesn’t work, you have to be prepared to change. You learn that from open water.”

But around the same time he was getting his start in open water, Paltrinieri started losing his invulnerability in the longest event in the pool. He defended his 1500 free world title in 2017, but he ended up fading to third in the event at both the 2018 European Championships and the 2019 World Championships, with Germany’s Florian Wellbrock and Ukraine’s Mykhailo Romanchuk winning gold and silver, respectively. On both occasions, Paltrinieri finished well off his lifetime best.

Still, even with his disappointing 1500, Paltrinieri still swam his way to a successful World Championships. He picked up his first-ever world-level gold medal in the 800 free, setting a European record with his 7:39.27, and perhaps most importantly, he qualified for the Tokyo Olympics in the 10K.

Competing in open water for the first time on the global level, Paltrinieri finished sixth in the marathon race, just four seconds away from the medals and six seconds away from gold, but his top-10 finish earned him his spot in Tokyo. Fellow Italian Mario Sanzullo finished ninth and also earned an Olympic berth. Paltrinieri would also earn a silver medal as part of Italy’s open water relay event.


…And Along Came COVID-19

Then, in the midst of Paltrinieri’s final preparation for the Olympics, COVID-19 happened.

The pandemic hit Italy early and hard, with the country largely forced into quarantine in early March. So for five weeks, much of that time before the official one-year Olympic postponement, Paltrinieri could not swim. In early April, he started going to the beach in his home of Ostia, Italy, and swimming by himself once per day to get himself back in swimming shape and to immerse himself in that open water environment he had come to enjoy. Come May, when pools in Italy re-opened, Paltrinieri decided to make a significant change.

“I spent nine years with Stefano Morini,” he said. “We won the Olympics and three World Championships, European Championships…a lot of things. At the end of the day, if you don’t agree 100% with your coach at some point, it’s time to change. For me, I was feeling that way.”

Seeking new motivation, Paltrinieri decided to leave his previous training environment, where Detti had been his training partner, and he decided to swim with Fabrizio Antonelli, who had specialized in coaching open water swimmers, including 2016 10K women’s silver medalist Rachele Bruni.

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Gregorio Paltrinieri celebrates a gold medal at the 2017 FINA World Championships — Photo Courtesy: SIPA USA

“It’s exciting right now because it’s a new group, a new coach and a new program, and I want to do everything. I’m 100% into it,” Paltrinieri said. “With Morini, I used to go at a medium pace—not fast, but not slow…like medium. Right now, I’m trying to work on changing speed. Probably I’m swimming more kilometers every day, but sometimes very slow and sometimes really fast, changing pace.”

After just three months of swimming under Antonelli, Paltrinieri would have his first post-COVID competitive opportunity at the Sette Colli meet in Rome. “It was pretty much weird because I had done a lot of things that I’d never done in my life with the new coach. I was really confident myself—just because I was pretty sure I was training well—but I didn’t know if I could have gone 14:30 or 14:35 or 14:40 or 14:50 because everything was new for me.”

It turns out that Paltrinieri swam as fast or faster than ever. He swam a 7:40.22 in the 800 free, less than a second off his lifetime best and World Championships-winning time from the year before, and the next day, he beat a four-year-old best time in the 1500. The 14:33.10 beat his own European record and stood up as the second-fastest time in history, behind just Sun’s world record. After two years of coming up short against a pair of European rivals in the 1500—still his favorite race—he had suddenly established himself once again as the Olympic gold medal favorite.

“I didn’t even have the feeling that I was swimming that well because it was without people, no crowd, nobody in the stands, and it was probably 9:30 in the evening,” Paltrinieri said. “So I was swimming in this empty pool…outside with the moon…swimming by myself—and I went 14:33. It was kind of romantic. It was unexpected.”

Three days later, Paltrinieri won a 10K race in Italy, beating out a field that included France’s Marc-Antoine Olivier, the 2016 Olympic bronze medalist, as well as Sanzullo. So in the summer of 2020, Paltrinieri put together some of the best swimming of his career.

When the Tokyo Olympics begin, one year later than expected in 2021, Paltrinieri should have a busy schedule, with the 800 coming on the fourth and sixth days of the swimming schedule, then the 1500 on the seventh and ninth days…and then, four days later, the 10K marathon. That’s an ambitious schedule with a lot of meters of racing, but Paltrinieri prefers that to the World Championships schedule that includes open water swimming before the competition in the pool. So, with the Olympics schedule, he does not have to show up to the pool already exhausted from the open water race.

“I think it will be difficult, but I’m ready,” Paltrinieri said. “I’m ready, and I just can’t wait, actually. It’s really fun trying to do both.”