From Freestyle to Free Time: Federica Pellegrini

Sometimes you get used to people being part of the landscape, their presence is a constant, immutable and irreversible. Sport gives that illusion from time to time, only for time itself to enjoy the last laugh.

The outpouring of sadness that greets footballers leaving the stage for the last time seems to be most poignant in Italy, perhaps the increased longevity, perhaps the more universal acclaim tearing up supporters more than elsewhere.

Fans of the Azzurri may well find themselves saying farewell to another sporting legend this year, as Federica Pellegrini has intimated that she may be on the verge of hanging up her swimming costume one final time.

“My heart is telling me to stop after too many personal disappointments out of the pool,” she recently confessed, “on the other hand, my head wants me to continue. By Autumn I will decide what to do with my life permanently.”

Pellegrini is now 30 years old (and celebrated that milestone three times over, each with a different group of nearest and dearest) which is certainly well into veteran territory in swimming terms. Yet she is only 12 months beyond winning a fifth World Championship gold medal, becoming the first woman to beat the phenomenon that is Katie Ledecky in the process.

That 200m freestyle gold ensured that Pellegrini, the Lioness of Verona, became the first woman to claim a World Championship medal in the same event seven times in a row. She talked previously of ending her career after the Rio Olympics, but has also stated an intention to carry on to 2020 and beyond. All the while she remains at the top of her chosen field, she has the luxury to know that she could leave on her own terms.

Recent rumours seem to indicate that Tokyo 2020 remains on the cards, with 200m freestyle a likely target, but a role of elder stateswoman in the relay team another possibility. It would make her the first woman to compete in five consecutive Olympic games in the sand event, another of those records that sounds impressive but is moreso because of the underlying statement that she would have been at the top of her sport for 16 years by that point. Swimmers generally don’t last as long as that.

“I am aware that this opportunity is not available to all athletes,” she explained to Sky Sport earlier this year. “An example closer to me, to our history, to our longevity, who I have often watched, feeling close to him, is Gigi Buffon. His being a step away from winning the Champions League and then wanting to continue just to not end with a bitter taste in the mouth of his career. My dream for him is that he can find his ‘perfect match’ and be at peace, but I understand that it is very difficult.”

Not that Pellegrini would struggle to find races that could be described as perfect during her illustrious career.

There was the 2009 World Championships, a World Record that still stands today, crying before a race that she was to describe as a ‘fairytale I’ve not yet understood’ immediately afterwards. Even watching it back now, it’s a little difficult to comprehend, for the Italian to come from behind to win so comprehensively.

Her first Olympic final, way back in 2004, the days of the full-length bodysuit, was another. The stony stare of sixteen year old Pellegrini might have been due to nerves, but she swam a fabulous race to end up with a silver medal few, if any, had predicted beforehand.

Even last year, the World Championship gold ahead of Ledecky was special, a masterpiece of timing and strength, as much due to training as performance on the day. She knew what she had to do, and executed perfectly. Level after 50m, the American pulled ahead by the second turn and still led with just one length to go. Pellegrini was not to be denied, her fourth 50m almost a full second faster than Ledecky, and she swept through to claim the gold. It was quite a moment.

But then, her career has been filled with moments like that and more often than not, she has been on the right side of them. Not for nothing do the Italian press so often call her “La Divina”. She has been, is, and no doubt will continue to be, something very special indeed.

“I hope I have entertained the public,” Pellegrini admitted after her very first international gold medal, “I think so.”

She may leave the swimming pool this year, or she may leave it later, but when she does choose to leave it for good, she has certainly entertained. We just need to enjoy her while we can.

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