Simona Quadarella Following Long Line of Great Italian Distance Swimmers

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Simona Quadarella kisses her gold medal for winning the 1500 free at the World Championships. Photo Courtesy: Becca Wyant

At age 20, Simona Quadarella was already one of the world’s best distance freestyle swimmers, collecting a bronze medal in the 1500 at the 2017 World Championships. In 2018, she swept all three distance events at the European Championships.

And 2019 was expected to be another good year for her — but what she got was way more than she thought could happen.

Quadarella had cruised in the 1500 freestyle heats to grab the second seed behind world-record holder Katie Ledecky of the USA. But merely eight hours before she was set to swim the final, Quadarella found out Ledecky had scratched out of the final due to illness, leaving the gold medal up for grabs.

“I’ve discovered at noon that Ledecky was out, the next hours has been the the worst of my life: I was so nervous,” Simona Quadarella said in the mixed zone immediately after winning the gold medal.

She had expected to hang with Ledecky as long as she could in the 1500 final. But when you’re racing someone as dominant as Ledecky, it is realistic to believe you’re really fighting for silver.

But when Ledecky scratched it was anyone’s game.

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Simona Quadarella on top of the medal stand at World Championships. Photo Courtesy: Becca Wyant

Quadarella took advantage of no Ledecky and won the gold medal with a 15:40.89, eight seconds ahead of silver medal winner Sarah Kohler of Germany, and moved up to fourth all-time in the process.

“Before the race, maybe I knew that I was going to win the race so I didn’t think about Katie Ledecky but I was thinking about my race and the other girls,” Quadarella said of the 1500 Worlds final while on a training camp in south Florida.

It was an emotional win for Quadarella, who celebrated her first gold medal at the world level.

She said immediately after the race: “I keep on crying…too much emotion. Before the race, the news of Ledecky, then anxiety of the start, then the voice of my family while I was swimming and the Italian anthem… I’m overwhelmed.”

Ledecky was able to feel good enough health wise to jump back in the pool for the 800 near the end of the championships. In the final, she lined up against Quadarella and the Italian actually took the lead through 450 meters, and seemed to be building each 50, leaving Ledecky behind.

But Ledecky kicked it into another gear and ran down the Italian to win her fourth straight World title in the 800 freestyle. Quadarella settled for the silver with an 8:14. It was still a best time and she had nothing to complain about.

She walked away from South Korea with a gold and a silver medal. It was beyond her wildest dreams.

“I was happy with the 1500 for the gold medal but I also was happy with the 800 because it was a great race with Katie Ledecky,” Quadarella said. “I tried to beat her but it was so hard.”

“It was a great year. I didn’t expect to become a world champion and it was pretty cool.”

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Simona Quadarella racing alongside Katie Ledecky in the 800 at Worlds. Photo Courtesy: Becca Wyant

Simona Quadarella shifts her focus now to the Olympic year where she has already solidified her qualification in the 1500 for her first Games.

“Training is pretty hard right now,” Quadarella said with a laugh.

In December, she qualified for Tokyo in the 1500 by getting under the desired standard. She still has yet to qualify for the 800 free but she will have that opportunity in April at the Italian Nationals where she will aim to get under 8:25. Her best is an 8:14, so it shouldn’t be too big of an undertaking for the World Champion, but it brings back memories of 2016 for her.

Four years ago, she had tried to qualify for Rio in the 800 free but missed the qualifying standard by two seconds when she swam an 8:27 at Nationals. She was only 17 but it was still devastating to miss qualifying for the Olympics by such a small margin, especially since her best event, the 1500, was not even offered at the Games.

“I think I am better in 1500 so it was so hard to train for 800 and I didn’t reach the standard. This year could be my year,” she said.

This year the 1500 will be making its debut at the Olympic Games, and Quadarella is already set to represent Italy in that event. It is a great opportunity for someone like Quadarella to win an individual medal because she is more suited for the longer event. And because the 1500 heats fall on the night after the 400 final, she has dropped the 400 from her repertoire altogether.

“The 1500 freestyle is my best race and I am training for this race and then for 800. No more 400.”

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Simona Quadarella contemplates her win over 800m freestyle while wearing teammate Elena Di Liddo’s cap at the European SC Championships in Glasgow – Photo Courtesy: Patrick B. Kraemer / MAGICPBK

Simona Quadarella is another swimmer in a long list of great distance swimmers to come out of Italy. Alessia Filippi was a world champion in 2009. Gregorio Paltrinieri is the reigning Olympic champ in the 1500. Gabriele Detti has medaled in all three distance events at the Worlds or Olympics.

She believes she is just following in the tradition that was started before her by Italy’s first great swimmer: Novella Calligaris, who won three medals in the 1972 Olympics in the 400 IM, and 400 and 800 free.

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Novella Calligaris. Photo Courtesy: International Swimming Hall of Fame

Massimiliano Rosolino also was a big inspiration, winning three medals at the 2000 Olympics in the 200 & 400 free, and gold in the 200 IM.

And the distance tradition has continued into present day. Italy won three gold medals at the World Championships in 2019; all in freestyle events.

“I think swimming in Italy is improving so much in the last few years. I think there is a generation changing because there are so many younger swimmers in Italy.”

With the recent success of Italian swimmers like Paltrinieri and Federica Pellegrini, it has sparked a change in Italy and swimming is becoming a bigger deal now in a country dominated by soccer.

Quadarella is pushing for her first Olympics where she will aim to win a medal in the inaugural 1500.

“I’m excited (for the Olympics). But I will try to do something great,” she said. “I will train so hard for this Olympics and I will try to enjoy Olympics.”

Although she primarily swims alone and has longer training sessions, she is able to do speed work during Italian national team training camps with her good friend Margherita Panziera, who is primarily a 200 backstroker.

“I always swim a lot of aerobic training and (Margherita) swims a lot of faster training and when she does faster training I swim with her and it helps me to go faster because I am not so good in faster training.”

Italy currently has four swimmers who have already qualified to swim in Tokyo. Quadarella, Paltrinieri, Panziera and breaststroker Nicolo Martinenghi are all on the team for Tokyo and many more have a chance to qualify.

They have medal contenders across the board, and a strong team that could be one of the best in the country’s history. With a new charge led by Quadarella and company, Italy could be on its way to a great showing at the Olympics.

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