Italy’s best medal tallies at the World Championships featured three golds as maximum in swimming (2009, 2017, 2019) – now their swimmers already produced that amount in two days, what’s more, Thomas Ceccon set a new world record in the men’s 100m back. Romania’s David Popovici confirmed his status as the king of the next generation of freestylers by winning the 200m with a new junior world record.
By total number of medals, Italy was the fourth best NOC in swimming at the Olympics in Tokyo with 7 podiums, however, they couldn’t win any gold, ‘only’ had two silvers and five bronzes. Now the golds arrived in Budapest and in large numbers. After Nicolo Martinenghi’s victory in the 100m breast on Day 2, Thomas Ceccon and Benedetta Pilato also hit the wall first, proving that the new generation is ready to conquer and keep Italy among the superpowers even after the retirement of Federica Pellegrini, and Greg Paltrinieri’s switch of interest towards open water.
Ceccon’s win was even more remarkable as he set a new world record of 58.60 in the 100m back and beat the mighty US Olympic and world champion Ryan Murphy. He became the second Italian male ever to hold a long-course global mark after Giorgio Lamberti (who bettered the 200m free WR in 1989). “I haven’t realised that I broke the world record” he said under his magnificent moustache. “I didn’t think of any record or time before the start, I just swam my own race. The water and the pool are excellent and it’s a fantastic thing when you break the world record in every sport – for me it’s simply unbelievable.”
Soon he was joined Benedetta Pilato who won a real thriller in the women’s 100m breast where the top three hit the wall within 0.09sec. Pilato out-touched Germany’s Anna Elendt by 0.05sec while Lithuania’s Ruta Meilutyte came further 0.04sec adrift.
Pilato was overjoyed, obviously, searching for words after her brilliant win. “I’m super-super happy and proud, I’m so grareful for all. It was a dream, which came true tonight, and I would like to say a big thank you for my coach and my whole team.”
Elendt and Meilutyte completed another European clean sweep of the podium after the male breaststrokers did the same a day earlier. Both of them had some personal struggles but they admitted they had overcome them and now were happy with their success. Though the paths they took were totally different. The German had to bounce back from a serious injury – and put aside a lighter one for this event.
“Actually, the aim was to be in the finals, but this is something much bigger” Elendt said. “The others were up front after 50m but I kind of like to hunt, that’s my style. I was slower than yesterday, but I can’t be really angry about it, I had a big shoulder injury this year, there were many ups and downs and had many treatments, and even at the college championships I was ill. But in the US I managed to find happiness in swimming and not even the cut on my head bothered me which I had got while I was packing mirrors in my apartment…”
As for Meilutyte, the Lithuanian was done with swimming last year. She took a flying start in her career, became Olympic champion at the age 15 in London 2012, but she found extremely hard to cope with the pressure coming with the early success. Still, she decided to make a comeback six months ago – and now she is on the podium again, nine years after winning this event in Barcelona and seven years after her last medal-winning campaign in Kazan.
“I think it’s a deserved medal and a good result, and I’m so happy to have been able to achieve this. I enjoy competing and swimming, and I think I’ve never felt this before in my life. I truly recommend to every swimmer, and I do highlight this, to take a break from swimming and try to think and approach the sport in a totally different way. Try to save your mentality and personality, you need that for your mental health. Now I’ve come back as a different person with a different perspective and now I’m really enjoying what I’m doing.”
Wise thoughts from a 25 years-old – and for sure David Popovici may devote some time to think things over in the coming months: aged 17, the Romanian teen made his first big splash at the grand stage here in Budapest. Last summer in Rome he was the star of the junior Europeans and big things were expected from him at the Olympics, however, his real breakthrough was delayed till now. But it came inevitably in the 200m free final where he simply left the pack behind and won by a mile while setting a new junior WR with 1:43.21. If he develops like this, soon the untouchable WR (1:42.00, from Rome 2009, in a shiny suit) of Paul Biederman will be within his reach.
“I’m absolutely tired but that’s a great feeling, I pushed to the maximum. It was a tactical swim, easy strokes, dominate the field, sprint at the end. I’m loving to have this lot of people watching me here and supporting from home. I’m really grateful fot my coach who has been really supportive. I can’t recall the famous Steve Jobs’ quote word by word, I just remember him saying, success never comes by accident, if you work hard for it, you’ll be rewarded for sure” said Popovici, who beat, among others, the Olympic title-holder Brit Tom Dean who finished third.
Italy’s big day began earlier, on the Margaret Island where Giorgio Minisini and Lucrezia Ruggeiro won gold in the mixed duet technical final. For Minisini, Budapest is a lucky city as he also claimed a stunning gold – with a different partner – five years ago. “Budapest is in the bottom of my heart – I’m here, and again, we won the gold medal” he said. “This is amazing that the Hungarians put together these championships in four month and created such wonderful venues once more. I wanted this title badly, we worked very hard with Lucrezia, and I really wanted her to stand with me on the top of the podium. I’m so proud of her and our performance. We always want to innovate, to leave our mark, this how Italian synchro works and lives. I think we did many new things compared to 2017. Now we stay here and root for our free combo team, I hope they finish on the podium as well.”
Indeed, they finished there – the Italians earned a well-deserved bronze, while the Ukrainians managed to clinch their first gold. Amidst the given circumstances that was a truly uplifting moment, and not only for them.
As Maryna Aleksiiva put it: “It’s our first gold medal in this championship, so we are very excited and so proud of our nationality. We want show to the world how brave the Ukrainian people are, and we are so happy to be able to be here and just doing that.”
The water polo tournament also kicked off at four venues, with the first round of the women’s prelims. Where European sides faced teams from the other continents, all but one teams left the pool with a convincing win. The host Hungarians demolished newcomer Colombia 35-4, the Netherlands downed Argentina 29-6 and Greece did the same with Thailand (28-1). In the day’s only European clash Olympic runner-up Spain beat France 18-8 with ease, only Italy could not win its encounter, though they were happy with the 7-7 draw against Canada. After all, at the end of a day like this, any result would have been done for the Italians.
Photo: Simone Castrovillari/LEN