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Gregorio Paltrinieri exclusive: Waves, nature, jellyfish...Why open water is more fun than swimming in the pool

The Olympic champion is looking to make history in Tokyo, targeting gold in both pool and open water events. He is swimming 18km a day to prepare for the challenge.
By Alessandro Poggi and Andrew Binner

Gregorio Paltrinieri became the first Italian ever to win a 1500m freestyle Olympic gold medal at Rio 2016. But instead of basking in his glory, he immediately decided to set himself an even bigger challenge for Tokyo 2020.

"As soon as I touched the wall in Rio, my mind switched from the swimming pool to the open water," the 26-year-old - who recently won gold in the 5K, 10K and mixed relay events at the European Aquatics Championships in Budapest - told Olympics.com. "The swimming pool wasn't enough anymore. Open water is something new and something exciting."

Paltrinieri will race in three events this summer at the Olympics in Tokyo: the 800m (he is the reigning world champion and the event is returning to the Olympics for the first time since 1904), the 1500m, and 10K marathon.

By winning three golds in Japan he would also surpass the Italian record of two Olympic swimming titles set at Sydney 2020 by Domenico Fioravanti.

But 'Greg' could even write more history. No athlete has ever won Olympic gold medals in the pool and the open water at the same Olympic Games. Tunisia's Oussama Mellouli has come closest, when he landed gold in the 10km, and bronze in the 1500m freestyle at London 2012.

To make matters even more difficult for Paltrinieri, as he will have to beat reigning 1500m and 10K world champion Florian Wellbrock across all three events in Tokyo.

Olympics.com caught up with the Italian record-chaser, to talk about his rivalry with Wellbrock, why he decided to change coach after winning gold, and how eating pasta twice a day helps fuel his gruelling training regime.

Olympic Channel: You won the 800 and the 1500 freestyle with impressive times at the Italian swimming championships in April. How pleased are you with your form at this stage going towards Tokyo?

Gregorio Paltrinieri: It wasn't easy this past year because of the pandemic. We had to be out of the water for more or less for two months. When I came back, I was actually really hungry, I really wanted to swim and I wanted to achieve something fast because I missed swimming so much. When I came back [in 2020] I was pretty fast at the Sette Colli, the competition in Rome, setting the European record in the 1500. And then I went back to to the sea: I won the 10K and 5K, so it was it was great.

Now I'm training for the Olympics and it's a good feeling because I miss the Olympics and I'm really excited. I can't wait to be there.

OC: It seems you have a new energy and a new motivation since returning from the lockdown. Where does it come from?

GP: Yes, it has been like that. On top of being excited to swim, I also changed training venue and coach last year, so it was a big year for me. When I realised the Olympics was postponed, I decided to go to another coach, because I like his style and I like what he's doing. That has helped to motivate me a lot. It's a fresh start and I want to keep improving. So we'll see at the Olympics.

OC: How difficult was it leaving your previous coach Stefano Morini, with whom you won an Olympic gold medal? And how is Fabrizio Antonelli's training different?

GP: All the past years with Stefano were great, and we achieved everything we wanted to achieve. Then I started to think that I needed to try something new. If you're not a 100 percent in what you're doing, you better move on and try something else.

Going with Fabrizio meant changing everything and that new position was exciting. Fabrizio is a coach that really focusses on open water. I was relatively new to the sport, so it was exciting. I am swimming more than ever and we are actually focussing on a lot of different stuff, like improving my speed and other bits. It's a fresh start and I really like it.

OC: How important is mental training for open water?

GP: Very. The mental preparation for open water is really different from the pool. In the open water, you have a strategy, but it never goes as you think, because there are a lot of external things like fighting with people in the water and the waves. Ten kilometres is really long, so you can also change your tactics while you're swimming. It's more fun for me, actually compared to always being in the pool!

OC: Another major rival of yours, Florian Wellbrock, is also trying to win medals in open water swimming and the pool. How aware of his times at the moment are you and what sort of motivation does this rivalry give you?

GP: I'm well aware of what he's doing, and it keeps me motivated a lot, so I think it's a good competition and I really like that he is doing the same thing. For me, I just want to beat him and he wants to beat me. And it's not just the two of us, of course, but he's probably the most dangerous competitor in the field. It's good that we are doing the same thing, and we have really missed competing one against each other.

OC: How well do you know each other?

GP: We've spoken a lot of times. We also trained together a little bit and sometimes. So yes we are friends. We've never spent a lot of time together but we share the same goal.

OC: The only person to have medalled in both in the pool and the open water at the same Olympics was Tunisia's Ousmana Mellouli. Did his achievement inspire you to do the same?

GP: I would say yes, because I remember when back in 2012 I was looking at him as one of the best. So I remember him doing a swimming pool and open water. And I I was really excited about what he was doing, so I tried to stay focussed on the swimming pool until 2016 because that was my my first goal, to win in the pool. But I remember as soon as I touched the wall in Rio, my mind switched from the swimming pool to the open water. I remember I was like, 'OK, I want to try something new and I want to try to be competitive in the open water as well'. So, yes, Mellouli was the first one, he's a a great guy, we also trained together.

OC: Did he give you any tips or any advice?

GP: Yes, I think that the most important thing he said was that it is possible to win both, because he has already come so close. I think we have two different techniques and styles of swimming, but he did it, he was really competitive in the pool and then in the open water.

Gregorio Paltrinieri (R) and Florian Wellbrock (C) will both compete in both the 800m, 1500m and 10K marathon swimming at the Tokyo Olympics.

OC: Let's take a walk down memory lane. At Rio 2016 you became the first Italian in history to win the 1500 metres, and you were almost five seconds ahead of Connor Jaegger in second place! How did it feel making history for your country?

GP: Yes, it felt good. And I remember it was my dream because in 2015 I won the World Championships, and in 2014 the European Championships. So every year I was getting better. I remember I was thinking, 'OK, you won everything. You have to win the Olympics. I want to go to there and try to do my best and we see what happens'. The Olympics gets you in a different way from any other competition. It's not like the Europeans, it's not like the World Championships. It's a totally different thing, but it's really good. I remember I was also in London in 2012, but I was really young. So for me, it was just good to be there in the final with the other guys. But in Rio, I really wanted to win.

OC: Have you always been a very versatile swimmer?

GP: Actually when I was a kid, I was a breaststroker! Suddenly I grew a lot in one summer, and when I got back to the pool, I wasn't able to swim breaststroke anymore. So I tried to do freestyle and I realised I was good in endurance stuff during training. I kept doing that and I also swam individual medley for a little period. So I tried to do a lot of things in my career. Then at 16 years old I moved from home to Rome in order to train with Stefano Morini, and I focussed on the 1500m.

OC: When you decided to try the 10K after Rio, did people try to tell you not to do it?

GP: It was tough, I remember all the people were saying, 'OK, you just won, you have to go on with the 1500 and try to stay on top still in the 1500. But I remember that for me, choosing the open water was not about leaving the swimming pool. I just wanted to try something new and still be competitive in the 1500m. So even with Stefano Morini, when I first talked to him, I was like, 'OK, I'm not leaving the pool. I just want to try the open water because I like it and it's a new adventure for me'. It was difficult, also with the media, but I really didn't care. I wanted to do it, so I did it.

OC: Competitive swimming can take its toll, both mentally and physically. Has your versatility allowed you to keep enjoying the sport more?

GP: I think that's the most important thing, because I'm swimming a lot. I'm swimming around 18 kilometres a day every day except for Sunday. So I have to like what I'm doing. Just swimming in the swimming pool wasn't enough anymore. So I tried something new and open water for me is probably more fun than the pool right now. The pool is sometimes boring. I'm not saying I don't like the pool, but open water you are on in the ocean. You see the nature. So it's a different venue for me and I really love it.

It's kind of weird trying to swim in the open water and trying to avoid jellyfish... Right now here it's full of jellyfish where I train!

OC: When you swim for 10 kilometres, what are you thinking about during such a long race?

GP: I really don't know! When you start the 10K, there's a big pack of people, we are all together and you think about fighting and also dodging kicks. Then you try to do your move. Maybe someone sprints and the other one tries to catch up.

I think [open water swimming] is like a Formula One race. - Gregorio Paltrinieri

You know, it's a long race. Everyone is doing their thing. So it's fun also for me to be in the water and see what happens and try to change my technique and my strategy. So I'm always focussed on what I'm doing, but at the same time, I enjoy what I'm doing and I enjoy everything.

OC: How much of it is a mental challenge rather than a physical challenge?

GP: I think it's very mental. It's the same thing in the pool, actually. Because the eight guys in the Olympic final, they are all talented and they are all fast, but at the end of the day, just one wins. So I think the mental part is really important. And if you stay calm and ready to react in different situations, that's the key. So I don't get nervous in the race. I just enjoy the situation and adapt.

OC: What's your favourite out of the 800, 1500m and the 1500m?

GP: This is a good question. I don't know. My heart is on the 1500 because the 1500 has always been my race, but I like 10K so much right now. So I don't know...but 10K is really important for me right now.

OC: You said that you swim roughly 18 kilometres a day during training at the moment. How many calories are you burning daily and how much do you need to eat?

GP: I eat a lot! But I don't know how many calories. I have pasta every day, twice a day, lunch and dinner. Pasta is my favourite food. I eat a lot of pasta! And then, we are on the seaside during training, so we have good fish. So fish or meat every day twice. And then vegetables, fruit, a lot of things. When you when you get out of the water, you're really hungry.

OC: What mental training do you do?

GP: Back in Rio in 2016, I was I was doing a lot of visualisation and a lot of training for my mind with with a mental coach who followed me every day and in every venue. I'm not doing it anymore, but sometimes I remember what I did in the past, so I'm still doing little bits. It helps me to stay calm and be relaxed. The Olympics is stressful, but if you think, 'It's just a race and I race because I want to race and because I enjoy racing,' it's not that big of a deal.

OC: Is there another event that you would like to try going forward after Tokyo?

GP: No, I'm not thinking about anything else. We'll see after Tokyo, but I would like open water to be part of my future.

OC: Finally, the most important question: will you be swimming with a moustache in Tokyo?

GP: I'm still thinking about it, but I would say no right now because I want to be perfectly shaved for the race. But right now we are on the beach, you know, a little bit of moustache is good!