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Training a champion: Pellegrini’s coach talks to Al Arabiya

Francesca Astorri

Published: Updated:

Watching Italian Olympic swimmer Federica Pellegrini winning the gold medal in the 200-meter freestyle at the Swimming World Championship in Budapest this July, one wonders how she made it again to the very top.

In 2008 Beijing Olympic champion Pellegrini won 7 World Championships, and she keeps on winning also after turning 28, which for an athlete, especially for a swimmer, is quite an age.

According to Matteo Giunta, Pellegrini’s coach since 2014, isolation, psychological support, training, diet (but not a too rigid one…) were fundamental to prepare a champion like Pellegrini.

“These factors worked, but there isn’t one method that works for all athletes. The coach needs to be able to perceive the subjective needs of the athlete” Giunta said in an exclusive interview with Al Arabiya English.

This time Giunta decided to do the final training partly in Livigno on the Italian Alps, partly in the High Performance Center (Centro de Alto Rendimiento - CAR) located at 2,320 meters above the sea level in Sierra Nevada, Spain.

“Working out in the heights was an experiment, a not explored territory for us, but it worked. I kept Federica far from everything and everyone” said Giunta, describing the sport center in Sierra Nevada, Spain as a place similar to the hotel in the movie Shining by Stanley Kubrick. “It was very isolated. The training routine in that context never stops.” Giunta added.

One would expect to see a sport veteran behind Pellegrini’s training, but that’s not the case. Giunta, 35, has been winning over all prejudices regarding his young age and also Pellegrini’s demanding expectations.

“I was in my 30s’ when I started working with Federica. For the first years I was siding Philippe Lucas that was training her and this helped me understanding and knowing her better, hence working as her coach then” Giunta explained.

The Italian swimmer has been changing almost 10 coaches in her career, showing that the relation between the athlete and its coach is a very delicate one, challenged on a daily basis by discipline, sacrifice, physical and mental stress.

“Total and unconditional trust is what makes a relation between athlete and coach work. The athlete must feel that it can totally rely on the coach. You also need time because new training sessions need time to give results, but then success and medals tend to strengthen that trust” Giunta explained.

On Federica Pellegrini’s swimming cap there is her nickname, Fede, which by coincidence means faith in Italian. Swimming is very much a mental game, that’s why the psychological factor plays a crucial role.

For this reason, since 2015 Pellegrini is followed by psychologist and former Olympic athlete Bruna Rossi.

“Bruna Rossi was key as a mediating personality and also in keeping everything in the right balance. At this level of competition being all serene was very important” said Giunta.

Between the people that helped Pellegrini achieving so much, beside her coach and psychologist, there are also her medical staff, physiotherapists, nutritionists and also her chef.

“Federica needs to get rid of all the toxins caused by stress, and to do so she needs a healthy diet” said Chef Marco Bianchi, friend and food advisor of the swimmer, in an interview with an Italian magazine.

Seafood, whole wheat pasta and extra-virgin olive oil are key to Pellegrini’s diet.

“Lots of protein of vegetable origin, lots of seafood both raw and cooked, especially blue fish that is rich in Omega 3. And then whole wheat pasta and rise that are rich in fiber. No butter, but extra-virgin olive oil” said Bianchi.

As swimming is one of the most calorie-consuming sports with around 500 calories per hour, having something sweet might be necessary, but not just for the body.

According to coach Giunta, Pellegrini’s diet is not one of those in which grams are meticulously counted. “Federica loves desserts and I think that indulging sometimes is healthy. Too much rigidity doesn’t work and it can lead to negative effects.

Beside all sacrifices, one needs to be content” Giunta said.

Maybe that’s why between Chef Bianchi’s recipes for Pellegrini there is also an apple crumble (with no butter).

This shows that no champion makes it to the top alone with its talent. A champion is an athlete that knows how to choose and work with the greatest professionals and experts in keeping mind and body well supported while making the effort to unlock its talent.