Italian swimmer Paltrinieri has a plan to dethrone Sun Yang
KAZAN, Russia (AP) Gregorio Paltrinieri's strategy to dethrone Sun Yang during the longest race in the pool is simple: gain a big lead on the Chinese superstar and never look back.
The Italian's main concern for the marathon-like 1,500-meter freestyle final Sunday at the swimming world championships is how big of a lead he needs entering the final two laps.
''To be sure, two or three seconds,'' Paltrinieri said. ''That's my tactic: start strong and see if the others can keep up.''
Stefano Morini, Paltrinieri's coach, would rather not cut it so close. He's aware of Sun's superior sprinting prowess at the end of the 30-lap event.
''He needs six seconds,'' Morini said. ''It's better to be sure and not have a heart attack.''
The tactic worked in Saturday morning's prelims, which Paltrinieri led in 14 minutes, 51.04 seconds. Swimming in the same heat, Connor Jaeger of the U.S. was second in 14:53.34 and Sun touched third in 14:55.11.
''I did what I wanted to do without pushing too much,'' said Paltrinieri, whose frenetic style comes in sharp contrast to Sun's longer, controlled and more efficient strokes.
Paltrinieri's confidence got a boost after hanging with Sun for most of the 800 free earlier this week. The Italian was ahead at the 700-meter mark until Sun surged in front on the final two laps.
Paltrinieri settled for silver, his second career medal at worlds after taking bronze behind Sun and Canadian veteran Ryan Cochrane in the 1,500 two years ago in Barcelona.
''Seeing Sun Yang yesterday I think we can beat him this year,'' Morini said. ''At least I hope we can.''
After the 800, Sun lifted Paltrinieri's arm while the pair were still in the pool, almost as if to thank the Italian for finally providing him with some competition.
''We talked about it afterward and he was very pleased,'' Paltrinieri said, in an interview session arranged by his sponsor, Arena. ''He asked me a lot of questions and told me he thinks I can do very well in the 1,500. So I think he's a bit afraid of me. I've got the pace.''
Sun appears to have lost some pace since China's anti-doping agency revealed in November that he served a three-month ban earlier that year after testing positive for a banned stimulant.
If he does pull off the upset, Paltrinieri will likely celebrate by pointing three fingers to his head - a gesture he borrows from New York Knicks forward Carmelo Anthony.
Paltrinieri is an acknowledged NBA junkie and a diehard fan of the Knicks. He's lost count of how many pairs of Michael Jordan sneakers he has.
After his 800 win, Italian NBA player Marco Belinelli and other basketball stars offered congratulations on Twitter.
''I always follow them and it's nice to see that now they're following me, too,'' Paltrinieri said.
Paltrinieri has trained at the Roman seaside venue of Ostia for several years. He can move back home next month when an Olympic-sized pool built specifically for him opens in Carpi. His father, Luca, a former swimmer, will manage the facility.
The 20-year-old Paltrinieri is in the process of taking over the mantle of Italy's top swimmer from four-time world champion Federica Pellegrini, who is competing in her final worlds. The pony-tailed Paltrinieri is a sharp contrast from the glamorous and attention-seeking Pellegrini, Italy's most popular female athlete.
When his parents were forced to live in a tent after an earthquake rocked Carpi and the Emilia Romagna region in 2012, Paltrinieri dedicated his preparation for that year's London Olympics - where he finished fifth in the 1,500 - to his family and hometown.
His parents have since moved back into their home, and now they're in Kazan awaiting Sunday's race.
Andrew Dampf can be followed at www.twitter.com/asdampf