If Federica Pellegrini is Indeed Done, Appreciate Her Phenomenal, Historic Career

Federica PELLEGRINI AQC Aqua Centurions (AQC) ISL International Swimming League 2021 Match 10 day 1 Piscina Felice Scandone Napoli, Naples Photo Giorgio Scala / Deepbluemedia / Insidefoto
Federica Pellegrini walking out before a race during the 2021 ISL season -- Photo Courtesy: Photo Giorgio Scala / Deepbluemedia / Insidefoto

If Federica Pellegrini is Indeed Done, Appreciate Her Phenomenal, Historic Career

Watching the Aqua Centurions’ matches during this ISL regular season, you wouldn’t know that Federica Pellegrini is 33 years old and in her swansong, one last run of meets in her home country before she concludes a remarkable career as one of history’s greatest freestylers. Prior to the Tokyo Olympics, Pellegrini’s fifth Games, she announced that the meets in Venice would be the end of the line, so her 200 freestyle during Match 10 Sunday may have been Pellegrini’s final race.

Aqua has qualified for the ISL postseason, scheduled for November in Eindhoven, and Pellegrini suggested in an Instagram post that she will be joining her teammates for those meets, but Naples at least provided a chance for Italian fans to bid their superstar farewell.

During the regular season, Pellegrini has been an important contributor for the Centurions as their typical relay anchor on the 400 freestyle and 400 medley relays, and she has swum either the 200 back or 100 free at every match, but the 200 free has always been her specialty event. Ahtough Pellegrini never managed to win that event in her four matches, she did finish second all four times, to four different swimmers, once by as little as 0.11.

Federica PELLEGRINI AQC Aqua Centurions (AQC) ISL International Swimming League 2021 Match 10 day 1 Piscina Felice Scandone Napoli, Naples Photo Giorgio Scala / Deepbluemedia / Insidefoto

Federica Pellegrini during the 2021 ISL regular season — Photo Courtesy: Photo Giorgio Scala / Deepbluemedia / Insidefoto

But more importantly, the meets provided Italian fans in Venice an opportunity to watch Pellegrini one last time, to send off the swimmer dubbed the “Lioness of Verona” in style, 17 years after Pellegrini first impressed the world as a 16-year-old at the Athens Olympics by winning silver in a close 200 free.

In 2007, Pellegrini set her first world record in the 200 free, and in 2008, she won her first and only Olympic gold medal in the 200 free. Almost certainly the highlight of her career was 2009, at the World Championships in Rome, when she delighted the Italian faithful by winning gold medals and crushing world records in both the 400 free and 200 free.

2009, of course, was the year that 43 world records fell at the World Championships as swimmers took advantage of the full-body polyurethane suits that completely changed the sport before they were outlawed a few months later, but so Pellegrini’s records would last as benchmark time. That 200 free record of 1:52.98 still stands, despite Ariarne Titmus making a run at the record earlier this year and falling just a tenth short. Pellegrini’s 400 free mark of 3:59.15, which made her the first woman to ever break 4:00, lasted until Katie Ledecky broke it in 2014.

For some reference as to how long ago that was, Ledecky was 12 at the time, still three years away from making her leap onto the Olympic level and unexpectedly winning gold in the 800 free. Titmus was 8. Canada’s Summer McIntosh, who missed joining Pellegrini in the 200 free Olympic final this year by one spot and less than three tenths, was a few weeks shy of her third birthday.

franklin-ledecky-pellegrini-world-championships-200-free

Federica Pellegrini after winning one of her eight straight World Championship medals in the 200 free — Photo Courtesy: Maria Dobysheva

Following 2009, she would again win both the 400 free and 200 free at the 2011 World Championships, but a rough meet at the 2012 Olympics kept her off the podium entirely. Pellegrini would swim at the 2016 and 2021 Olympics as well, but she never again hit her stride at the right time to be able to win a medal at the Games. But Olympic medal counts do not tell the full story of a swimmer and certainly not in Pellegrini’s case.

Of all the numbers that explain her swimming accomplishments, this one seems most telling: Pellegrini is the only swimmer in history to win a medal in the same event at eight straight World Championships. Yes, eight. She won gold on four of those occasions (2009, 2011, 2017 and 2019) along with three silvers and one bronze. Admittedly, the stat is a little skewed because Worlds only returned to every two years at the beginning of the 21st century, but none of the other greats were able to pull this off. The closest was Ryan Lochte, who medaled in the 200 IM at six straight Worlds (four gold) from 2005 to 2015.

Probably the most stunning of those finishes came in 2017, a year after Pellegrini placed fourth in a loaded field at the Rio Olympics. That was the race where Pellegrini upset Ledecky and Emma McKeon to reclaim the world title, her time of 1:54.73 her quickest since setting the suit-aided world record eight years earlier.

Immediately after, Pellegrini announced she was retiring from the 200 free, content to focus on the 100 free and backstroke events from that point on after going out with such an amazing accomplishment. Except two years later, she changed her mind and swam the 200 free, and she shockingly defended that title, improving on her 2017 time with a 1:54.22. At that point, she was 30, about to turn 31, and she was still defying the odds. For good measure, she anchored Italy’s 400 medley relay at that meet in 52.53, the quickest split of her life, and the team placed fourth.

PELLEGRINI Federica AQC Aqua Centurions (AQC) ISL International Swimming League 2021 Match 6 day 2 Piscina Felice Scandone Napoli, Naples Photo Giorgio Scala / Deepbluemedia / Insidefoto

Federica Pellegrini poses for a selfie with a fan during the 2021 ISL regular season — Photo Courtesy: Photo Giorgio Scala / Deepbluemedia / Insidefoto

Following the COVID-19 pandemic and the one-year delay of the Olympics, Pellegrini was unable to reclaim that 2019 form in time for Tokyo. She did qualify for the 200 free Olympic final (where she was the oldest swimmer by nearly six years) but placed seventh in a fast heat, more than a second outside of the medals. She also swam on three Italian relays and came within a few tenths of a medal when she anchored the mixed 400 medley squad to a fourth-place result.

Now, Pellegrini has said, that’s it. Even with next year’s European Championships scheduled for Rome, she has no plans of continuing further than this ISL stretch. Or at least she didn’t in June, when she revealed her plan for one last ride during the ISL regular season. But after she indicated that Naples would be it, it now sounds like she will join her Centurion teammates for the playoffs in Eindhoven in five weeks. If Pellegrini decides to continue on beyond that, it would not be the first time she has changed her mind about her remaining ambitions in swimming.

Whatever Pellegrini decides, give her some massive respect for an amazing career. She spawned so many eras of swimming, from racing against German star Franziska van Almsick (born 1978) in 2004 to racing against Titmus (born 2000) more recently. Every time we thought Pellegrini was done or at least on the downslope, she came back and excelled. What an amazing swimmer.

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