ROME (AP) — Gregorio Paltrinieri won’t be surprised again by Sun Yang.
The Italian swimmer recovered from his initial shock over his Chinese rival’s last-minute no-show to win the longest race in the pool at this year’s World Championships.
For next year’s Rio de Janeiro Olympics, Paltrinieri is already considering the possibility that Sun won’t enter the 1500m freestyle at all.
“It would be great if for once I could really race him stroke for stroke. I’m not afraid of a showdown with him. In fact I would relish that,” Paltrinieri said in a recent interview with The Associated Press.
“But I’ve also got to realize that he might not enter,” Paltrinieri added. “I’ve got to keep the option open in my mind that if he doesn’t race I’m going to be the favorite in an Olympic final and all eyes are going to be on me just like everyone was watching Sun Yang before.”
At the World Championships in Kazan, Russia, in August, Sun created chaos in the ready room when he failed to show up for the final of an event that he had dominated for five years.
Sun attributed the no-show to a heart problem but he also got into an altercation with a Brazilian swimmer in the warmup pool on the day of the final.
There were already questions over Sun’s form since he served a three-month doping suspension last year for a banned stimulant. And he didn’t dominate as usual in the 800 free, coming from behind over the last two laps to narrowly edge Paltrinieri for gold.
Three months later, Paltrinieri suspects Sun was afraid of losing.
“It could have been that he was ill. I’m not doubting that. But he was definitely tense and nervous. I had finished this close to him in the 800,” Paltrinieri said, holding his hands less than a meter (yard) apart. “And in the 1500 heats I had beat him by a lot. So I think he just wasn’t so sure anymore that he could win the 1500. And that must have been a factor.”
Since neither Sun nor the Chinese team told organizers that he wasn’t racing, his lane remained empty for the final and reserve Pal Joensen of the Faeroe Islands was denied a chance to compete.
“I still don’t understand what happened and I don’t think we ever will,” said Stefano Morini, Paltrinieri’s coach. “The Chinese are a fairly enigmatic people and they don’t really express themselves too much. And that can be a good thing. We Italians talk too much.”
The talk about the 21-year-old Paltrinieri is that he’s one of Italy’s biggest medal hopefuls for Rio.
Since the 800m is not an Olympic event for men, the 1500m will be Paltrinieri’s only race in Rio. It will be his second Olympics, having finished fifth in the 1500m as a 17-year-old at the 2012 London Games.
Paltrinieri’s grueling workout regimen consists of 14 to 18 kilometers (9 to 11 miles) of swimming per day. His training group includes another medal hopeful, Gabriele Detti, who missed worlds due to a urinary infection.
It’s easy to spot Paltrinieri, though, because he’s the one with the frenetic stroke style.
In an Olympic-sized 50-meter pool, Paltrinieri often requires more than 40 strokes per lap. To an untrained eye, that might appear like a big waste of energy compared to Sun’s more fluid and long strokes which usually total less than 30 per lap.
But the much smaller Paltrinieri is able to produce speed by rapidly rotating the trunk of his body, much like how American standout Katie Ledecky has come to dominate the women’s events in freestyle.
“It’s like a surfer who’s always on top of the wave,” Paltrinieri said.
Another comparison could be made to the way Tour de France winner Chris Froome pedals much more rapidly up mountains than traditional climbers.
“Everyone has their own style. Mine is an extreme one and so is Froome’s. But they’re effective,” Paltrinieri said. “The more you swim above the water the faster you go. It’s like when you’re on a motor boat bouncing up and down. Sun Yang swims underwater more than anybody else, like [Ian] Thorpe. He has enormous strength. It’s great to watch but it’s not the most effective way to swim.”
Still, Morini is working on lengthening Paltrinieri’s strokes, and they have plenty of time to discuss their plans since both coach and athlete sleep at the Italian federation’s training facility in Ostia, the Roman seaside, from Monday to Friday.
On the weekends, Paltrinieri usually goes home to Carpi, a town near Modena that was also the hometown of Dorando Pietri, the runner who was denied victory in the marathon at the 1908 London Games because officials helped him up when he collapsed just before the finish.
A century later, a statue of Pietri was erected in Carpi.
Depending on how things go for Paltrinieri in Rio, another statue might be in order – whether or not Sun races.
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