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W 400m Freestyle: Pellegrini Packs A Punch

Jul 24, 2011  - Craig Lord

Day 1 finals - Oriental Sports Center, Shanghai

Women's 400m freestyle

Federica Pellegrini became the first pool swimmer at the championships to retain a world title, a 4:01.97 victory in the 400m freestyle taking her back to spring 2008 on the clock but taking her one stroke closer to knowing how to handle rivals under any circumstance. Victory also made the Italian the second woman in history, after France's Laure Manaudou, to keep the 400m crown on her head at two straight championships.

Today was about the fight not the figures and if Pellegrini was queen of pace, then Olympic champion Rebecca Adlington (GBR) out in lane 1 after five sleepless nights in Shanghai and a night-before knockout pill aimed at getting her to the blocks on time, confirmed that she has the racing gene and the ability to rise to the occasion, while Camille Muffat (FRA) joined the ranks of proven freestyle forces when the heat is on. All of which returned all three medals to Europe two years after the battle of Rome.

The result:

  • 1. Federica Pellegrini (ITA) 4:01.97
  • 2. Rebecca Adlington (GBR) 4:04.01
  • 3. Camille Muffat (FRA) 4:04.06
  • 4. Kylie Palmer (AUS) 4:04.62
  • 5. Lotte Friis (DEN) 4:04.68
  • 6. Lauren Boyle (NZL) 4:06.11
  • 7. Kathryn Hoff (USA) 4:08.22
  • 8. Melania Costa Schmid (ESP) 4:09.66

Race report: 

The lesson of Beijing was learned in time for Shanghai three years on, Pellegrini has grown powerful on her mission to get the better of rivals ready to exploit any weakness she may show. 

In Beijing, the Italian had been too nervous to swim her own race, too lacking in confidence that she could use her 200m speed to advantage and still manage to cope with the 400m forces around her at the time. Her hesitation was then in the control of others.

Today, Pellegrini, coached by former Manaudou mentor Philippe Lucas in Paris for most of the season, controlled the pace, the race and her own ambitions on the way to gold in 4:01.97, the second-best ever in a textile suit behind her 2008 standard of 4:01.53. Last at the first turn, third by 100m, fifth at 200m, Pellegrini ploughed off the midway wall with clear intent to put the ambitions of those around her through a mangle. 

A 30.41 split (after two of 31.2) catapulted the Olympic 200m champion into a healthy lead, though Adlington, on 30.79, was not only quickest to spot the move but the most capable of responding to the change of pace. Muffat, net to Pellegrini in 5 and Australian Kylie Palmer, next to the Brit in 2, also moved up a gear and the race for the medals was on.

The right hook was just the warm-up: Pellegrini swung a left - 29.89 on the way to the 300m mark in 3:02.60. That took 1.27sec off Adlington, 0.59sec off Muffat and 1.20sec off Palmer. The golden sting planted, Pellegrini floated home in 59.37sec, leaving the rest to tussle for a place alongside her on the podium.

Muffat, coached by Fabrice Pellerin in Nice, was a touch ahead of Adlington, coached by Bill Furniss at Nottingham's Nova Centurion, at the last turn but refused to surrender, the two battling stroke for stroke until the Olympic champion got her hand to the wall first in 4:04.01, 0.05sec ahead of the challenger from Nice, palmer locked out by 0.56sec, with Lotte Friis (DEN), 800m world champion and leader for the first half of the 400m bout before dropping to fifth, recovering to fourth in a 4:04.68 that augurs well for the longer distances ahead of her.

Pellegrini was well off her world mark of 3:59.15 but that was the shiny then, this the here and now. "I knew I could have a race like this and it went perfectly," Pellegrini said. "This gold is different from the one two years ago. I approach races differently now - I eat and sleep, I'm much calmer."

At least one of those elements was missing from Adlington bag of advantages today. A night flight into Asia had thrown her off her sleep rhythm and caused her to have five sleepless night. "I was so tired this morning, I was like a zombie," she said the day after having taken a sleeping tablet to help her nod off. She described the feeling thus: "You know when you wake up mid-dream and all day you feel crap? It's so annoying, I hate it."

Silver and a time down on a season best that would have given Pellegrini a lot more trouble had not left the Rome 2009 bronze medallist disappointed: "It was hard and the time wasn't as quick and wasn't there but I am so pleased. This morning was just horrific and painful. I wasn't expecting miracles, I knew I wouldn't hit the 4:02 I did in trials. I was really pleased just to get in the race. I saw Pellegrini at about 300 (metres). I just saw feet and thought 'It's got to be her.' I couldn't really see people with her so I thought I might be in with a shot of a medal so I just tried to put my head down and go."

The splits compared:

  • 2011: 59.77; 2:02.30; 3:02.60; 4:01.97 Pellegrini Shanghai gold
  • 2009: 58.66; 1:59.42; 2:59.93; 3:59.15 Federica Pellegrini WR 
  • 2008: 59.01; 1:59.60; 3:00.41; 4:01.53 Pellegrini WR (textile)

History in the making:

  • WR (all suits): 3:59.15 Federica Pellegrini 2009
  • WR (textile):  4:01.53 Pellegrini 2008
  • First woman under 4:20: Shane Gould (AUS) 4:19.04 Munich August 30, 1972
  • First woman under 4:10: Petra Thumer (GDR)* 4:09.89 Montreal July 20, 1976 
  • First woman under 4:07: Tracey Wickham (AUS) 4:06.28 Berlin August 24, 1978
  • First woman under 4:05: Janet Evans (USA) 4:03.85 Seoul September 22, 1988
  • * - GDR swimmers were doped under State Plan 14:25

World-class stats:

  • World Record wins: Tracey Wickham (AUS) 1978; Pellegrini 2009
  • Title retained: Laure Manaudou (FRA); Federica Pellegrini (ITA)
  • Biggest margin: Yana Klochkova (UKR) beat Claudia Poll* (CRC) by 1.85sec in 2001
  • Closest shave: Manaudou beat Ai Shibata (JPN) by 0.30sec in 2005

* - subsequently suspended for doping, her claim that cross contamination must have been to blame not accepted by CAS

From the archive:

At Berlin in 1978, Tracey Wickham (AUS) set a 4:06.28 negative-split world record for the world title. The time, faster than that in which Mark Spitz (USA) had held the men’s 400m world record 10 years before, would stand as the championship record until Manaudou's victory in 2007. The same year, Wickham’s daughter, Hannah Ciobo, lost her fight against cancer and died aged 19 a few hours after marrying Tom O'Driscoll in hospital. Wickham launched an Australia-wide campaign to raise funds for cancer sufferers.