“I love success”


Federica Pellegrini (ITA)

Federica Pellegrini, the greatest Italian sportswoman ever?

“Do you believe you are now the greatest female athlete that Italy has ever had?” The question was put forward by an Italian journalist at a crowded press conference held on July 29 soon after the medal ceremony of the 200m freestyle, in which Federica (or “Fede”, as her name is often shortened) Pellegrini had just won her second gold medal and set her third world record of the meet. The challenging question could have been embarrassing for anybody else; certainly it was not for Federica. Staring at her interlocutor, Federica answered in a firm and passionate voice: “Of course I do! I thought that already before these championships. Now I have two gold medals from the Worlds and three more world records.” Pondering her words she added: “One of my goals was to set ten world records while I was still twenty; that is exactly what I have done, in fact I will turn 21 next week”. Pellegrini’s daring statement was like icing on the cake for the Italian media, which had been inundated by the flow of controversial comments and commentaries. Some thought Federica’s assertion was arrogant and perhaps blunt; others praised her sincerity and self-esteem. Surely, in term of absolute excellence, it will be difficult not to acknowledge Federica having already become the greatest Italian sportswoman ever.

At the Foro Italico, Pellegrini made the raucous home crowd wild, filling the stands at full capacity, by winning with a clear margin both the 400m (on July 26) and the 200m freestyle: both victories were achieved in world record times (in the 200m she set a third world record in the semi-final, with 1:53.67).

Federica won the 400m in 3:59.58 and the 200m in 1:52.98 (on this distance she left the second classified, USA’s Allison Schmitt, about two seconds behind). After winning the title in the 200m, Federica said: “I have surprised myself, I thought I could better my time from the semi-final by 1/10, instead…going under 1:53 is amazing…it’s a time that only men can do; when I saw it I thought there was something wrong with the scoreboard”.
In the history of the World Championships only three swimmers have accomplished a similar feat: Shirley Babashoff (USA), Heike Friedrich (GDR) and Laure Manaudou (FRA).

With the award for the best female performer at the 2009 FINA World Championships - credit: gettyimages

Together with Michael Phelps, Pellegrini was awarded the FINA Trophy for the best female performer. Michael and Fede were certainly the two superstars of a world championships edition rich in top performances, thrilling duels and great personalities.
Thanks to her Roman feats and the wide media coverage they have received, the already huge swimming movement in Italy (over 5 million swimmers) will receive a further boost.

Federica Pellegrini (178 cm tall, 65 kilos) was born August 5, 1988, in Mirano, less than two months before the Olympic Games of Seoul, where Kristin Otto won six titles and Matt Biondi seven medals. Her parents, Cinzia and Roberto, and her brother Alessandro still live in that area, in Spinea, not far from her native place. After she returned from Beijing, the mayor and population welcomed her with fireworks, fanfare, speeches and a street parade on a Roll Royce in the town centre.

Pellegrini started swimming in 1995, at seven, under coach Massimiliano (“Max”) Di Mito, with the club Serenissima Nuoto. In 2007 she moved to Settimo Milanese, nearby Milan, to follow Di Mito at the DDS Club. At the Athens 2004 Olympics (at the age of 16) she won her first international podium, a silver medal in the 200m freestyle, becoming the second Italian swimmer to climb an Olympic podium - 32 years after Novella Calligaris - and the youngest Italian athlete to win an Olympic medal in an individual event. At the 2005 World Championships in Montreal, she was once more second in the 200m freestyle but this time she perceived the result as disappointing and felt it did not meet general expectations. Thanks to her combative character and exceptional drive, Federica, who is a born-antagonist and perfectionist, was determined to react. Unfortunately, at the 2006 European Championships in Budapest, her state of form was precarious: she took part in only the 200m freestyle, failing to even make the semi-finals.

Like many girls her age Federica is full of contradictions and has a complex personality. But she is also naive, sincere and generous. Like all girls, Federica has many dreams and many wishes she would like to see come true. Sometimes she may be seen as a devil, other times an angel.

After Budapest she made the move that changed her life when she decided to join Italy’s Head Coach, Alberto Castagnetti, at the  Elite Training Centre of the Italian Swimming Federation located in Verona, the town of the Arena (Italy’s second Colosseum -  in ancient times the stage for gladiatorial combats, but now the world’s largest open air theatre). In Verona, also known as the city of Romeo and Juliet, Federica developed an important love story with her team mate Luca Marin (bronze medallist in the 400m individual medley at Melbourne 2007 and former fiancé to Laure Manaudou). At club level Federica joined Aniene, a prestigious club in Rome chaired by Giovanni Malagò (also the chairman of the Rome09 Organising Committee), who had agreed that she would live and train in Verona.

Under Castagnetti she improved her technique and changed her training schedule. A few months later, at the World Championships in Melbourne, she set the 200m freestyle world record in the semi-final. In the final, however, she was only third, behind both Manaudou and the German Annika Lurz.

At the European Championships in Eindhoven in March 2008 she got very angry after being disqualified in her favourite event, the 200m freestyle. However, she walked away from the meet with silver in the 4x100m freestyle relay, a bronze in the 4x200m freestyle relay and a gold medal, in a world record time of 4:01.53, in the 400m freestyle.

Pellegrini celebrated her 20th birthday when she arrived in Beijing on August 5, 2008 (a few days before the start of the Olympic Games) as the world-record holder and the favourite for the gold medal in the 400m freestyle; instead, on August 11 she finished in a disappointing 5th place in the final. However, she reacted promptly and on the same day she set a world record in the heats of the 200m freestyle. In the final of that event on August 13, she won her first Olympic gold medal, breaking her own world record with the time of 1:54.82 and becoming the first Italian woman to win an Olympic title.

Pellegrini’s strength was also on display over short course at the 2008 European SC Championships in Rijeka (CRO), where she won the 200m freestyle, also in a world-record time (1:51.85). On March 8, 2009 (Women’s Day) at the Italian Championships in Riccione, she bettered her 200m world record with a 1:54.47.

At the 2009 Mediterranean Games in Pescara at the end of June, Pellegrini broke the 400m freestyle world record with a time of 4:00.41. Then she came to Rome. In the Eternal City, like Julius Cesar, she can say: “Veni, vidi, vici” (“I came, I saw, I conquered”).

Also a star in the “normal” life - credit: gettyimages

After the Championships she left Rome for Capri, the Island of lovers, to celebrate her 21st birthday in company with Luca Marin. The pair, after their seaside holidays, will leave for Los Angeles where they plan to spend from four to six months: they want to see California, learn English and train in a different environment. According to gossip magazines, Marin also plans to capitalise on his Latin macho charm and act in an Italian movie to be filmed there next autumn.

In her last press conference in Rome, Pellegrini made a promise to the press in attendance: “The next time I will possibly be able to answer your questions in English”.

Meanwhile, her coach, Castagnetti, will undergo heart surgery at the end of September to counter some heart problems that possibly originated from the strong emotions his swimmers – Giorgio Lamberti, Domenico Fioravanti, Massimiliano Rosolino, Emiliano Brembilla and Federica Pellegrini, to name a few, all Olympic champions or medallists or world champions or world record setters – have stirred in him.

Federica is the only Italian swimmer to have set world records – ten overall - in more than one event. She currently holds 4 World, 5 European and 12 Italian records. Her personal bests (in brackets short course), as of July 30, 2009, are:

•    50m freestyle: 25.47, 2004 (25.02, 2004)
•    100m freestyle: 53.55, 2009 (53.89, 2003)
•    200m freestyle: 1:52.98, 2009wr (1:51.85, 2008wr)
•    400m freestyle: 3:59.15, 2009wr (3:59.96, 2006)
•    800 m freestyle: 8:29.01, 2007 (8:21.68, 2007)
•    100 m backstroke: 1:00.07 (2009)

Like many girls her age Federica is full of contradictions and has a complex personality. But she is also naive, sincere and generous. Like all girls, Federica has many dreams and many wishes she would like to see come true. Sometimes she may be seen as a devil, other times an angel.

Early in July 2009, on the eve of the Rome World Championships, Fede was portrayed nude (in a tuck position) and painted with gold (a premonition of her imminent successes?) on the front cover of “Vanity Fair” magazine. That was not the first time she appeared naked (with some precautions) on a magazine: it also happened in 2008, just before the Olympics, when she appeared without full bodysuit, and wearing nothing else but her skin, on the front cover of the Fox magazine. In 2007 she signed a book, together with journalist Federico Taddia, entitled “Mom, can I have a piercing?”, discussing the joys of having a nipple piercing (“A place where not many would dare to have it”), but also about how she spends her days and about her secrets, her dreams and her vision of life. Federica is very feminine and indeed she loves appearing sexy; she loves being admired, also for her body, and has planned a calendar. With the beaches of the Seychelles Islands as backdrop, last year she was the protagonist of a video track for a song by Anastacia.  

She is mad about shoes with tall heels, she loves being fashionable and dressing up, especially wearing dresses by Armani, the stylist who adores her. She also loves music and is attracted to tattoos: she has a few scattered on her body, including a butterfly on her shoulder and the writing “Balù” (Luca Marin’s nickname) on an ankle. Being a lion herself, she loves toy lions. She loves shopping too: she admitted that going shopping is to her an antidote to stress. Federica is also very sociable and loves signing autographs, especially for kids; she is very available to the press.

Her popularity literally exploded after the Beijing Olympics and with it also her revenues, from the most disparate sources. In running business she is helped by her father, a former parachute military man, and her agent Marco Del Checcolo. After Rome she was honoured with more magazines covers and in-depth stories:  on the popular “Oggi” (Today), the gossip mag “Chi” (Who), and also on “Panorama”, Italy’s largest weekly. Although she appeared frequently on TV talk shows as a guest she discarded the idea of taking part in a reality show. Federica is very popular also on the web (You Tube, Facebook, a number of fan sites) where she also has an official site (http://www.federicapellegrini.com/).

In spite of appearances, Pellegrini is rather conservative: she wants to have a family (with Luca Marin) and children of her own, but not before the 2012 Olympic Games. Her favourite book is the late Oriana Fallaci’s “The anger and the pride”.

At the Foro Italico, Pellegrini made the raucous home crowd wild, filling the stands at full capacity, by winning with a clear margin both the 400m (on July 26) and the 200m freestyle: both victories were achieved in world record times (in the 200m she set a third world record in the semi-final, with 1:53.67).

Her close encounter with Pope Benedict XVI on August 1 at the Pontiff’s summer residence in Castel Gandolfo – when he gave audience to the participants of the World Championships - made her happy. She delivered to the Holy Father a World Championships polo shirt. “Visiting the Pope gave me strong emotions. He told me he had seen all of my races but I could only whisper ‘thank you’,” Pellegrini told the press afterwards.

Her sensibility is demonstrated by her commitment to non-profit organisations, such as those active in organ donation and nutrition disorders.

From topless to well covered shoulders in front of the Pope; from panic crises to world records in the 400m freestyle; from being a “devil” to being an “angel” who emerges triumphant from her “holy” water with gold medals and new world records. Definitely, Pellegrini has a glamorous, fascinating, complex, strong but sometimes fragile personality.

Although nobody has put Federica on the fast lane to success, four men, her “Four Mosqueteers”, have helped her get where she is now: her father, her coach Alberto Castagnetti, her fiancé Luca Marin and Daniele Popolizio, the psychologist who managed to take her out of the doldrums of panic attacks.

In fact, Federica has gone through some hard times in the past years, having suffered from nutrition disorders and panic attacks that have obliged her to withdraw from some races (in the 400m). Her achievements are the result of an optimal combination of talent, great coaching and hard work. “People think that everything is easy for me. They don’t know how much work (up to seven hours a day during periods of maximum training), how much fatigue and how much sufferance there are behind the successes”, she confessed recently. And she added: “But I enjoy everything I do, I love swimming, I love success, I love popularity”.

However, at times Federica thinks that she could tackle life also in a different way, perhaps by enrolling herself at the European School of Economics. Time will tell…

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