by Taylor Brien, Swimming World staff writer.
Some were shocked, but all were awed by the amazing race unfolding in the Budapest Duna Arena. Katie Ledecky and Emma McKeon were barreling towards the finish in the 200 free, but an unexpected Federica Pellegrini was closing in from behind.
The 28-year-old Italian had shifted gears in the final 50-meters to blitz past both Ledecky and McKeon for gold. She would stop the clock at a 1:54.73, leaving Ledecky and McKeon to tie for silver with matching 1:55.18s.
Following the excitement of an upset race were questions of what went wrong for Ledecky, but the continually missing question appeared to be “what went right for Pellegrini?” For the last five years Ledecky had been dominant on the international scene, claiming gold in every individual race she entered, but before Ledecky’s dominance had begun, Pellegrini’s had already been etched in stone.
In 2004, a young 16-year-old stepped onto the scene in Athens and became the youngest Italian athlete to win an Olympic medal, with a silver medal in the 200 free. That success continued through the next several years as Pellegrini took in medals at both the 2005 and 2007 World Championships.
She arrived in Beijing hungry for more. She would go on to lower the world record in the 200 free twice en route to earning her first Olympic gold medal, all while fighting the disappointment of finishing fifth in the 400 free.
The success spiraled from there as Pellegrini would go on to claim gold (and another world record) at the 2009 World Championships, following up that success with a second gold in 2011. Post 2011 saw the blossoming of the effervescent Missy Franklin and the unexpected emergence of Ledecky edging Pellegrini from the top, but she didn’t go far.
While some would call Pellegrini’s lack of gold for the next six years disappointing, she never left the podium, returning to the top once again last night.
Her most recent gold marks the seventh straight 200 free medal from a World Championship, making her the first male or female swimmer to medal in the same singular event for seven straight World Championships. That statistic alone solidifies her as one of the greats in a sport that is continually evolving.
Throughout her career Pellegrini has downed a total of nine world records (400 LCM free x3, 200 SCM free x2, and 200 LCM free x6), been named Swimming World’s World Swimmer of the Year in 2009, European Swimmer of the Year from 2009-2011, and was the first woman to break the four-minute mark in the long course version of the 400 free.
Today Pellegrini’s 200 free world record of 1:52.98 stands un-touched with a 1:53.61 by Allison Schmitt the closest anyone has come to her elusive world record.
For the last 13 years Pellegrini has stood as an inspiration to those around her, fighting through the pains of loss and never giving up on her dream of returning to golden victory. Was last night’s victory unexpected? Yes. But was it a completing surprising victory? Pellegrini’s history speaks volumes and the answer is no.
All commentaries are the opinion of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Swimming World Magazine nor its staff.