This column appeared in the Arizona Daily Sun in March 2006.
Italian Olympian roars to stardom
By Ed Odeven
It’s probably safe to assume that the best birthday present Federica Pellegrini ever received was in 2004, her sweet 16th.
The gift arrived six days late, though, on Aug. 11, when the Italian swimmer received a silver medal in the 200-meter freestyle at the Athens Summer Games.
After this life-changing performance, Pellegrini, who has been dubbed “the lioness of Venice” because of her fondness for collecting photos of lions, as noted by Swimming World’s Phillip Whitten in a 2004 article, told reporters she didn’t expect to be on the awards podium, but that she showed no fear during the race.
Talk about displaying maturity. Talk about grace under pressure. And talk about, well, becoming a national hero in the process.
Nearly two years later, Pellegrini, who completed a three-week stay in Flagstaff (she trained twice a day at NAU’s Center for High Altitude Training with the Italian National Team), is a seasoned swimmer, and a proven competitor on the world’s biggest stage.
“Now she is more confident in her swimming,” Italian coach Alberto Castagnetti said after Thursday’s workout, the team’s final training session in town, at the Wall Aquatic Center. “Her character is very strong. Normally, it’s happy, but maybe in the water her character is (more focused).”
This was Pellegrini’s first training camp in Flagstaff, though some of her teammates, like Massimiliano Rosolino, have been here several times. Like her teammates, Pellegrini expressed optimism looking ahead to competing in Shanghai, China, in early April and the European Long Course Championships in Budapest, Hungary, in late July.
“We trained very well, and when you train very well you are happy … I work very, very hard always and am happy about the work I’ve been doing up here,” she said through Rosolino, who serves as the team’s unofficial interpreter. “So I’m very hungry to start the next few meets.”
Can you blame her? Pellegrini has thrived in big-time competitions. In addition to her effort at the 2004 Olympics, Pellegrini garnered national attention by setting three national records (in the 50, 100 and 200 freestyle races) at the 2004 Italian Winter Championships in Livorno in March 2004. She set records with times of 25.47 seconds, 54.40 and 1:59.23, respectively.
Sociologists and sports talk-show hosts point to a definitive time when a star athlete, quietly or noisily, announces they’ve “arrived.”
This might happen during a press conference — “I’m the greatest,” Cassius Clay, who became Muhammad Ali, told reporters and backed it up in the ring — or at a sporting venue.
For Pellegrini, 2004 was her time. It was the year she splashed onto the radar. To put her accomplishments into perspective, remember this: In 2003, she wasn’t ranked in the world’s top 200 in any of her three events.
She’s coming off another magnificent showing at the 2005 FINA World Championships in Montreal last July, earning a second-place finish in the 200 free 1:58.73, or 13 hundredths of a second (less time than it takes to blink once) behind France’s Solenne Figues.
“I think when you do very well when you’re young you can stay positive and things can only get better,” said Rosolino, a three-time Olympian
“She’s still very young, but in two or three years … ,” added Castagnetti without completing the thought.
A visible display of excitement was on Castagnetti’s face when he made those remarks. In other words, he expects her to have a bright future.
Pellegrini began her international career as a sprinter, focusing on the 50, 100 and 200 free events. In the years to come, Castagnetti said her best event should be the 400 free.
That’s why her coaches have tailored her training to make that tradition to middle-distance sprints.
“I think that in Beijing (the 2008 Summer Olympics) she’ll swim the 400 freestyle and not the 200,” the coach said. “Normally, now she’s not so strong in the 400.”
Castagnetti said she’s shown some frustration in making this transition, But he’s urged patience for his young pupil.
“I think she’ll come back really strong before Beijing next year in the world championships in Australia,” he added.
When Castagnetti makes these observations, it’s useful to remember that he competed in the 1972 Olympics and knows a thing or two about gauging talent, such as:
“For me, (her success in Athens), is not surprising because I hoped she would win and not (place) second. But for the people in Italy, it’s a surprise.”
Maybe then, but not now. These days, this cheerful signorina has remained level-headed about her accomplishments, enjoying the process of training and competing and starting from scratch after a marquee meet.
After her final March workout at NAU, Pellegrini was content to say that her stay in Flagstaff was a rewarding experience, a chance to take full advantage of this city’s 7000-foot elevation and complete a challenging training camp.
Previously, she had trained at high altitude in Spain and at a ski resort’s pool in northwest Italy.
Naturally, her stay here wasn’t all work, work and more work in the big pool that’s been used by international standouts from all corners of the earth — and locals as well.
Leisure time was part of the plan, too. Two Sundays ago, Pellegrini went horseback riding — on a white horse; she likes white horses, she said, smiling — with a few coaches and teammates in picturesque Canyon de Chelly.
“When I went horse riding I was very happy,” she said.
OK, so it wasn’t a birthday activity, but it was a well-deserved day of fun.