By Mark Meadows
LONDON, June 11 (Reuters) – Love triangles, panic attacks and gold medals – life is never dull for Italy’s best-known sportswoman Federica Pellegrini.
The swimmer, who will be looking to retain her 200 meters freestyle gold at the London Olympics as well as pick up other medals, is never far from the headlines and absolutely anything could happen in the July and August Games.
Her occasional tendency to lose her customary cool and succumb to a panic attack before diving into the pool means opponents will think they can beat her even if the 23-year-old’s times suggest she should coast to victory.
Pellegrini seemed to be getting over her anxiety issues but last month she failed to get through the 400m semi-final at the European championships, complaining of pain in her leg.
Italian media reckoned the problem was all in her head again and medical tests showed no issues.
“When you give your best and you swim a time so indescribably bad, you have to ask yourself some questions. But now we’ll start over. I’ve got two months of intensive training ahead,” she told reporters.
The last time the pressure was really on – at the Rome world championships in 2009 in front of her adoring home fans – Pellegrini managed to control her emotions and put in a series of stunning displays in the searing heat – albeit with the now banned supersuits.
She won gold in the 200 and 400 freestyle and then retained her titles in style in Shanghai last year.
Her victories came despite the loss of her inspirational coach Alberto Castagnetti in October 2009.
The death of the 66-year-old affected Pellegrini greatly and she has dedicated almost every medal since to the former Olympic swimmer.
Castagnetti has not been the only important man in her life.
Pellegrini has spent much of the last few years on the front pages of gossip and men’s magazines in Italy after being involved in a swimming champion love triangle.
She was engaged to fellow Italian swimmer Luca Marin, who was previously romantically involved with French pool heroine Laure Manaudou.
Spats between the female pair had French and Italian newspapers in dreamland with Manaudou having a similar profile to Pellegrini’s in France.
While Manaudou went on to date French swimmer Frederick Bousquet, Pellegrini fell for Italian freestyle specialist Filippo Magnini.
He has become her rock with Castagnetti gone and helped her through her recent problems at the Euros, where she did still win 200 freestyle and 200 relay gold.
“I try to be very critical with myself, to do better and expect more and more,” she said.
For a major European nation, Italy will struggle for a host of golds in London and Pellegrini is among their best hopes for glory.
She is well aware of the pressure and if she can keep her focus and avoid stress, Pellegrini could become one of the faces of the Games.
The Venetian is used to the camera lens and even if everything goes wrong in the London Aquatics Centre, she may still be hogging the limelight.