Star attraction

Published : Aug 08, 2009 00:00 IST



Italy's Federica Pellegrini has gone from diva to national darling after her record-breaking performances at the World Championships in Rome, writes Andy Bull.

The Stadio del Nuoto at the Foro Italico seats 13,000 people. During the second week at the world swimming championships, it has been full three times, for each of Federica Pellegrini's three finals.

In fact, it was more than full on each of those three nights - it was overflowing. The seats had long since been filled and the stairways and aisles were thronged not by paying spectators, but by catering staff, security guards, policemen and a small army of student volunteers. When Pellegrini starts, Italy seems to stop.

The sound of the crowd when she swims is overwhelming, 10- times louder than normal. Not many overseas fans make the trip to the world swimming championships, so the near-entirety of those 13,000- plus is there simply to scream for Pellegrini, to stamp their feet and pound their fists as she swims.

She is the biggest star at these championships, a diva who lives her life on the front pages of newspapers and glossy magazines, which revel in revealing the intimate details of her life. Pellegrini has been at the centre of a pool-side love triangle and, of late, has been prone to pulling up during races after suffering panic attacks. There is more than a little soap-opera about the way she lives.

Pellegrini became world champion in the 400m freestyle and the first woman to break the four-minute barrier at the distance. It seemed, afterwards, as though Rebecca Adlington had never had a chance of winning gold at all, despite being Olympic champion.

"The way that crowd was cheering for her tonight, it was just amazing," Adlington said after taking bronze. "I'm just so happy to have been in that race. It was definitely Pellegrini's moment. It is something I'm going to remember for the rest of my life."

Next, pellegrini became the world champion in the 200m freestyle and broke her own world record as she did so. Joanne Jackson, who had come second behind Pellegrini in the 400m, finished in fourth. Like Adlington, she was overwhelmed by what she had seen. "That was just amazing. That time she did tonight was unbelievable. It was like a bloke's time."

The three women are similar ages. Pellegrini is 21. Adlington is 20, Jackson 22. Pellegrini, though, seems to have been around for longer. Aged 16, she swam for Italy at the Athens Olympics in 2004 and won silver in the 200m.

Five-foot nine inches tall and with looks that could have come straight from the pages of a vintage Vogue, Pellegrini has been a star ever since.

Her fiance is a fellow Italian swimmer, former European 400m individual medley champion Luca Marin. Before they started dating, though, Marin was in a relationship with one of Pellegrini's great rivals, France's Laure Manaudou. Pellegrini and Marin are often pictured kissing poolside, just as he and Manaudou once were. In 2007, Manaudou won gold in the 200m, ahead of Pellegrini, at the world championships.

That same year, Manaudou quit France to live and train in Italy with Marin, saying she "wanted to have his babies". It did not work out as she and Marin fell out.

Pellegrini started dating Marin shortly afterwards and, all the while, she and Manaudou were swapping the world record for the 200m, back and forth between them. Manaudou quit swimming at the beginning of this year saying she had "lost the pleasure and will to swim". Pellegrini ended up with the man and the world record. But she was also suffering.

In Beijing, she lost badly, shockingly, to Adlington in the 400m, ending up fifth in the final. Later on the same day she lost that final, she broke the world record in the heats of the 200m freestyle and then went on to win gold in the event. Still, twice last year Pellegrini pulled up during races after suffering panic attacks. The first time was in November 2008, when she climbed from the pool wheezing and heaving to receive medical attention. She was later diagnosed as asthmatic and started to use an inhaler. But the problem was not solved. The next month, she pulled up again during a 400m race.

The 400m seemed to inspire in her a particular fear. She said the event made her feel caught in two minds, unable to trust her own pace because it attracted sprinters who would swim hard early on and endurance athletes who would attack in the later stages.

Since then, Pellegrini has been seeing a sports psychologist. Before the record-breaking 400m, she said she was pleased the race was on the first day of the meet. "Let's pull the tooth right away, get rid of the pain."

She certainly did that. The diva has become Italy's national darling.

© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2009

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