If you were hiding under a swimming-rock in the middle part of last decade, you might have missed the development of the rivalry between France’s Laure Manaudou and Italy’s Federica Pellegrini.
In the pool, the battle was heated. The two were constantly struggling in the middle-distance freestyles to outdo the other. Competitively, the rivalry came to a head in 2007 and 2008. In 2007, Manaudou took the World Championship double in the 200 and 400 freestyle. In 2008, at the Olympics, Pellegrini twice smashed Manaudou’s World Record in the 200 free, and carried this success to 2009 in Rome where she doubled in the 200 and 400. Manaudou, meanwhile, plummeted off of the swimming radar in one of the more brutal collapses in recent memory, when she slipped from the lead halfway through the 400 to dead last at the final touch. Her highest finish, at an Olympic games where she hoped for as many as 3 medals, was 7th in the 100 back. Shortly after, Manaudou retired from the sport.
But this rivalry in the pool, which was all in the name of healthy competition, was overshadowed by the tabloid accounts of what was going on in their personal lives. Manaudou’s competitive collapse coincided heavily with the collapse in her personal life. In May of 2007, Manaudou moved to Italy to train with long-time boyfriend Luca Marin. Shortly thereafter, it was reported (during her 4-medal performance at 2007 Worlds) that she and her beau were hitting a rough spot in their relationship. Then, the bomb hit, and nude pictures of Manaudou blasted all over the internet; which Marin denied involvement in.
To add insult to injury, Manaudou was kicked off of her Italian squad, and Marin began to date her swimming arch-rival Pellegrini. This story was the fodder for huge headlines in Europe; it made the Phelps-Gastineau pregnancy rumors look like junior high drama.
Pellegrini has remained in the National spotlight, and is a popular pick to win many medals at next year’s World Championships, while Manaudou announced earlier this year that she was coming out of retirement with an eye towards the 2012 Games.
The latest twist in the saga came out in Italian newspapers yesterday, when it was announced that Pellegrini would begin training with Manaudou’s old coach Philippe Lucas. Given the relationship that Manaudou had with Lucas, under whom she trained for 6 years in her heyday, it’s an odd choice for Pellegrini to work with him.
Ok, so this story really grabbed a lot of headlines because of the names involved, but both swimmers have long moved on. Pellegrini’s coach, Alberto Castegnetti, passed away in 2009, and she has been training with Stefano Morini. In the meantime, Manaudou had a child with French sprint superstar Fred Bousquet, and has now joined him in training at Auburn. The two are unlikely to even match up head-to-head in London, as Manaudou has said that she intends to focus on the backstroke events.
From a swimming perspective, the story is way more interesting for what it does for the European (and world) swimming landscape. Pellegrini split with her former coach after a disappointing performance last month at the Dubai World Championships, and Marin certainly has a solid reputation of success with middle-distance freestylers (especially with the aforementioned Manaudou).
Pellegrini and the Italian Federation are now in a bit of a showdown. Pellegrini has said that she prefers to stay and train in Verona, Italy, but that she will move to Paris if they cannot provide a suitable pool for her. Verona doesn’t have a 50 meter pool, which is Pellegrini’s prefered course for training. As the federation’s most visible member, it would be a bit of a blackeye on the Italian program for her to have to cross the border to France to train.