La Divina. La Fede. The Lioness of Verona.
Seventeen years after winning 200 free silver on her Olympic debut at Athens 2004, Federica Pellegrini will take to the blocks for her final international meet of a spectacular career at the age of 32.
It is one that has encapsulated the highest of highs as well as the lowest of lows.
There was the crushing disappointment of fifth in the 400 free final at Beijing 2008 only for the Italian to return from that morning final to set a world record of 1:55.45 in the 200 semis later in the day before going on to win gold.
That was the last Olympic medal of a glittering career. Four years later in London there were fifth places over 200 and 400 and at Rio 2016 there was the devastation of fourth place in the four-length race, Pellegrini having retired over the longer distance in 2014.
She resolved to continue and in 2017 won the 200 free at the World Championships in Budapest, beating Olympic champion Katie Ledecky in the process.
Pellegrini retained the title two years ago in Gwangju and now has eight consecutive medals in the 200 at the World Championships since first claiming silver in 2005 in Montreal behind Frenchwoman Solenne Figues.
She was the queen of the Foro Italico at the 2009 World Championships, the home crowd singing her name on balmy Rome nights as she set WRs over 200 and 400 free, the former still standing today despite the best efforts of Ariarne Titmus.
Can Pellegrini – who turns 33 on 5 August – win her third Olympic medal and second title, 17 years after first gracing the podium?
Her textile PB stands at 1:54.22, set at the 2019 worlds aged 30, 10 years after her top-two efforts that were both in the supersuit.
Contrary to some reports, it isn’t just about Titmus and Ledecky and many things will factor in as they start the heats on Monday 26 July.
Pellegrini absolutely has to be on her best and maybe the Australian and American will be slightly off come finals day.
We’ve seen before the nip and tuck where races within the race play some part in determining the outcome the 2017 worlds being a good example.
Who will be affected by the occasion? How will the Australians maintain the form of the trials? Will Pellegrini leave it a fraction late to make a charge down the last 50? Will her tactics be different? What about one of the young pretenders like 14-year-old Summer McIntosh? And no-one is mentioning Barbora Seemanova, the Czech swimmer who rose to the occasion to finish top of the podium in a national record at the European Championships.
Whatever happens, Pellegrini will retire as one of the most influential women of the pool and an idol so respected among her peers.
The Freestylers Of The Netherlands
Femke Heemskerk won her first individual title aged 33 at the European Championships in May.
She turned to the board, head back and roaring to the skies, at long last atop an international podium, 15 years after making her European debut in 2006.
Another legacy of that victory was the effect it had on the onlooking swimmers with less experience under their belts.
Among them Freya Anderson who was inspired by Heemskerk’s performance, realising that success may come further down the road and that it doesn’t have to be immediate.
Heemskerk’s winning time of 53.05 is the 19th swiftest effort in the world this year and 0.02secs outside her season’s best of 53.03 from the Sette Colli.
Emma McKeon tops the rankings with 52.19 from the Australian trials ahead of team-mate Cate Campbell and her 52.43.
The times from Australian trials are mind-boggling, the question being how they maintain it over five weeks coming into Tokyo.
Aside from Heemskerk, Ranomi Kromowidjojo has performed consistently over the last year or so with her winning time of 23.97 in the 50 free at Europeans faster than that which brought her Olympic gold in 2012.
The 30-year-old stands third in the rankings with a return to the Olympic podium nine years after her last visit, a distinct possibility.
So too does it bode well for the relay freestylers who were Olympic champions back in 2008.
Will Sarah Sjostrom Fly Once More?
Sjostrom was very much missed at Europeans.
After all, we want to see the best compete against the best and athletes to know they have faced the greatest of challengers.
The Swede underwent surgery and subsequent rehab on her elbow following a fall on ice south of Stockholm in February.
The 27-year-old made her racing comeback at last month’s Mare Nostrum tour in the sprint freestyles and 50 fly.
At the Sette Colli in Rome, Sjostrom went 24.25 and 53.47 in the 50 and 100 free as well as 57.65 in her first 100 fly since falling, the event in which she is Olympic champion.
She’s entered for all three events but it’s impossible to really gauge where she is – or many of the other swimmers for that matter.
The three-time Olympic medallist will have been chomping at the bit to get back into training following surgery and then into racing, Sjostrom being a competitive beast.
There are questions of how much strain she’s able to put on her joints at full stretch at optimal pace over heats, semis and final – should she make it.
While she has been out of the water, the world has been getting very speedy.
However, we know she can rise to the big occasion.
Her 100 fly PB and world record in the 100 fly of 55.48 was set at Rio 2016 while her 100 free WR was done on the Swedish lead-off in the 4x1oo relay at the 2017 worlds where she set her 50 free global standard of 23.67.
However, her astonishing 50 fly WR of 24.43 was done at the 2014 national championships so big occasion, small stage – it doesn’t matter. She can and does execute the big performance when it matters – it’s just how much she missed in terms of racing and the physical and mental repetition and edge.
Italian Breaststroke Queens
Three into two doesn’t go.
Just ask Arianna Castiglioni, who will watch Tokyo on the TV at despite having gone quicker than Benedetta Pilato’s qualification time at the Italian trials but with the 16-year-old all set for her Olympic debut where she’ll be joined by Martina Carraro.
Castiglioni won 100br silver at the European Championships behind Sweden’s Sophie Hansson and ahead of Carraro who took bronze at the Duna Arena.
The Italian pair had occupied the top two slots after the heats – Castiglioni sitting first in 1:05.98 – with Pilato joint third with Hansson in 1:06.34 but the two-per-nation rule meant the youngster had to sit it out.
Come June and the Sette Colli and Castiglioni set a national record of 1:05.67, lowering Carraro’s previous standard of 1:05.86 en-route to booking her Tokyo slot at trials with Pilato also going inside the old mark in 1:05.84.
That placed Castiglioni fourth in the 2021 rankings behind Lilly King (1:04.72), Lydia Jacoby (1:05.28) and Annie Lazor (1:05.37).
On the face of it, it seems harsh that Castiglioni will be staying home.
In reality, only one spot was up for grabs at the trials which Carraro grabbed with both hands as Pilato had already qualified.
Castiglioni and Pilato tied in Riccione with matching times of 1:06.00, faster than the 1:06.02 in which the latter had booked her spot on the team.
It is though one of the vagaries of sport.
At 23, Castiglioni has the chance to compete in at least one Olympics with Paris just three years hence although Pilato has her entire swimming career pretty much ahead of her despite already having a world record as well as world and European titles – albeit in the non-Olympic 50 breaststroke.
Carraro is 28 and a world and European bronze medallist.
Whatever happens in Tokyo, Italy has an embarrassment of breaststroke riches with three women fighting it out as well as Nicolo Martinenghi, who stands joint fourth all-time with Ilya Shymanovich in the men’s 100br in 58.29.
What Will Hosszu Do At Her Fifth Games?
Katinka Hosszu isn’t the only Hungarian to be competing at their fifth Olympics.
Evelyn Verraszto and Zsuzsanna Jakabos are also making a fifth appearance among the women with Laszlo Cseh completing the quartet.
Between Hosszu and Cseh, they have 10 Olympic medals – three golds, four silvers and two bronze.
Hosszu has quite the Olympic career that has encapsulated high and low after her international debut at Athens 2004, finishing 31st in the 200 free which also featured Pellegrini and Mel Marshall, now coach to Olympic champion Adam Peaty.
She didn’t progress from heats four years later in Beijing, finishing 12th in the 400IM and 17th in the short medley, 0.11 outside the semis.
A year later she became world 400IM champion at the shiny-suit circus in Rome in a European record of 4:30.31 as well as bronzes in the 200IM (European record 2:07.46) and 200 fly (2:04.28).
There were three European titles in 2010 and although there were no trips to the podium at the 2011 worlds, Hosszu entered Olympic year in fine form.
There were three European titles and 4×2 silver in Debrecen in May and Hosszu appeared on the brink of breaking her Olympic duck.
It wasn’t to be however. She was fourth in the 400IM, eighth in the shorter medley and didn’t make the 200 fly final, finishing one spot outside.
Such was her devastation that Hosszu contemplated retiring but she continued, coached by Shane Tusup who she married in 2013.
Hosszu took on ferocious schedules of back-to-back racing at competition, fuelling the ‘Iron Lady’ nickname that we hear little of these days.
Tusup was a hardcore trainer, as damning in his criticism as he was effusive in his praise, his antics on poolside drawing attention and no little judgement.
In the pool it worked for Hosszu at Rio 2016.
There was an astonishing WR of 4:26.36 and gold in the 400IM, an Olympic standard of 2:06.58 in the short medley and a national 100 back mark of 58.45 as she claimed three golds plus silver over 200 back.
However, she split with Tusup the following year and it took its toll in and out of the pool.
At the 2018 Europeans, she talked to this author of training alone after years of spending 24/7 with Tusup.
She was a woman trying to negotiate her way once more as she said:
“It’s hard to say how it would be if my personal life was fine and I was just training alone, if it will have been easier.
“But I felt there was nothing to hold on to, it was obviously hard to try and figure out my training, what am I going to do and then do it myself and all that stuff.
“Trying to ignore my feelings because I am still a human going down to the pool, it brings back a lot of memories.
“And still coming to Europeans I still have mixed feelings, I’m not going to lie.
“I think it’s going to take a lot of time for me to look back and everything is clear in my head.
“That’s why right now I am trying to be happy to be here and try to race hard.”
She won the IM double at the 2019 worlds where she gave her time to each journalist in the mixed zone after winning the 400IM for the fifth time.
The area where reporters and athletes speak snaked around in Gwangju and once she reached the end, Hosszu sweetly smiled, looked up and very politely asked: “Are you going to ask me if I’m happy that I’ve won a gold medal?”
It would, I said, be very strange if she wasn’t.
Come 2021 and the European Championships and once more Hosszu won the 400IM but there was bronze this time in the four-length event.
Anastasia Gorbenko made history as the first Israeli woman to win a European swimming title with Britain’s Abbie Wood second as Hosszu finished third, a bull-run of five straight titles brought to an end.
She though was unconcerned, maturity and experience on show as she said:
“I don’t really care about stats, there is no such thing that someone is unbeaten as you win races and lose races, no matter the event.
“If I said I was dissatisfied with my 200m fly because I didn’t feel I gave everything, then now I have to say that this was a good swim.
“I came from a pretty hard training camp so I lack the speed the others had today but I’m not worrying.
“I can tell you I’m standing right now exactly there where I have to be at this stage, I have time to work hard and there are a lot more races ahead which is the most important part of the preparations.”
She reaches Tokyo aged 32 and entered in the two IMs, 200 fly and 200 back.
Questions have been asked of Hosszu and judgements made that have grown louder.
She isn’t as dominant as she once was but she has already shown how she responds to adversity, the public nature of her break-up with Tusup elegantly negotiated and with head held high.
Fifth in the 400IM rankings – with the four ahead of her all American and with only two in the event – it would be foolhardy to bet against her being on the podium again on the morning of Sunday 25 July.
Advertising: Shop At Swim360