On the Rise: Italian Swimmers Earn Unexpected Seven Medals at Tokyo Olympics

Jul 26, 2021; Tokyo, Japan; Italy relay team celebrates on the podium in the medals ceremony for the men's 4x100m freestyle relay during the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Summer Games at Tokyo Aquatics Centre. Mandatory Credit: Rob Schumacher-USA TODAY Sports
The Italian men’s 400 free relay that won silver -- Photo Courtesy: Rob Schumacher-USA TODAY Sports

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On the Rise: Italian Swimmers Earn Unexpected Seven Medals at Tokyo Olympics

(From September’s Swimming World Magazine)

Since 2004, Italy had managed only seven medals in pool swimming. This year, Italian swimmers won six, doubling their total from 2016, plus another in open water. Prior to 2021, Italy’s men had won just one Olympic relay medal ever, but in Tokyo, two of their medals came from men’s relays. Alessandro Miressi, Thomas Ceccon, Lorenzo Zazzeri and Manuel Frigo clocked a national record 3:10.11 for a silver medal in the men’s 400 freestyle relay.

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For years, Federica Pellegrini has been the standard-bearer for Italian swimming. Pellegrini, the Olympic gold medalist in the 200 freestyle at the 2008 Olympics, had experienced a late-20s career revival by winning world titles in the event in 2017 and 2019. But at her fifth Olympics, she would be 31 years old.

The returning star for the Italian men was Gregorio Paltrinieri, the 2016 gold medalist in the 1500 free (and the second-fastest man in history in the event) along with being the 2019 world champion in the 800 free. Gabriele Detti had been a consistent international presence for years in the longer freestyles, winning two bronze medals at the 2016 Olympics.

As it turned out, Paltrinieri did earn a pair of medals in Tokyo (silver in the 800 free and bronze in the 10K), but it was a group of younger swimmers who propelled Italy to one of its best-ever performances in the pool at an Olympics.

After Italy had three finalists on Day 1 in Tokyo (Alberto Razzetti in the men’s 400 IM, Detti in the men’s 400 free and Ilaria Cusinato in the women’s 400 IM), Day 2 brought two medals: 21-year-old Nicolo Martinenghi won bronze in the men’s 100 breaststroke (58.33), and in the men’s 400 freestyle relay, the team of Alessandro Miressi, Thomas Ceccon, Lorenzo Zazzeri and Manuel Frigo secured a shocking silver medal (3:10.11, a national record). No one had the Italians pegged as a medal contender, but they touched second behind only the United States.

On Day 3, Ceccon, 20, swam to fourth in the men’s 100 back final, his time of 52.30 just a tenth behind world record holder Ryan Murphy for the bronze medal, and Martina Carrarro was seventh in the women’s 100 breast. The day after that, Pellegrini was in the pool for the women’s 200 freestyle final, and after she finished seventh, 19-year-old Federico Burdisso grabbed bronze in the men’s 200 fly (1:54.45). His Italian compatriots swam to fourth place in the men’s 800 freestyle relay.

Day 5 saw Miressi finish sixth in the men’s 100 free final and Paltrinieri earn his first medal of the Olympics in the 800 freestyle (7:42.11). Paltrinieri had been dealing with mononucleosis since mid-June, so he arrived in Tokyo not at full strength, and he barely qualified for the first-ever Olympic 800 free final in the eighth position. But the 26-year-old showed guts and heart, taking the race out hard and swimming ahead of the field. His rivals caught up, but Paltrinieri finished with a hard-fought silver medal.

Italy would reach the podium three more times over the course of the week.

Simona Quadarella had arrived in Tokyo as the reigning world champion in the 1500 (a race swum with world record holder Katie Ledecky absent), but she faded badly in that race and ended up fifth, 11 seconds out of the medal chase. But she would get back up to race the 800 free on the second-to-last day in the pool, and ended up securing a bronze medal behind Ledecky and Ariarne Titmus in 8:18.35.

On the last day of racing in the pool, Zazzeri was seventh in a fast 50 free final, and Paltrinieri’s defense of his Olympic gold medal in the 1500 free left him fourth. But then, Italy’s group of Ceccon, Martinenghi, Burdisso and Miressi won bronze in the men’s 400 medley relay (3:29.17), holding off the Russian Olympic Committee by five hundredths. This was another relay medal that few had predicted, and prior to 2021, Italy’s men had won just one Olympic relay medal ever—a bronze in the 800 freestyle relay in 2004. But in 2021, the country put two relays on the podium and finished fourth in the men’s 800 free relay and mixed 400 medley relay.

Last of all, after Paltrinieri’s rough 1500 free, he rebounded to earn a bronze medal in the 10K open water event. “It means a lot because this is my first Olympics in open water, and I’ve been putting myself in a position mentally to try and focus on the open water more and more in these last two, three, four years. That was the goal, to come here and get on the podium,” Paltrinieri said.

That brought Italy’s medal total for the Games to seven (six in pool swimming—two silver and four bronze), and that was without any contributions to the medal count from Benedetta Pilato, the 16-year-old who broke the world record in the women’s 50 breaststroke earlier this year. And other than Paltrinieri, the core of the men’s team—Miressi, Ceccon, Martinenghi, Burdisso, Razzetti—is all 22 or younger.

So the future is bright for the women and men from Italy.

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