Gregorio Paltrinieri won’t be surprised again by Sun Yang.
The Italian swimmer recovered from his initial shock over his Chinese rival’s last-minute no-show to win the longest race in the pool at this year’s World Championships.
For next year’s Rio de Janeiro Olympics, Paltrinieri is already considering the possibility that Sun won’t enter the 1500m freestyle at all.
“It would be great if for once I could really race him stroke for stroke. I’m not afraid of a showdown with him. In fact I would relish that,” Paltrinieri said in a recent interview with The Associated Press.
“But I’ve also got to realize that he might not enter,” Paltrinieri added. “I’ve got to keep the option open in my mind that if he doesn’t race I’m going to be the favorite in an Olympic final and all eyes are going to be on me just like everyone was watching Sun Yang before.”
At the World Championships in Kazan, Russia, in August, Sun created chaos in the ready room when he failed to show up for the final of an event that he had dominated for five years.
Sun attributed the no-show to a heart problem but he also got into an altercation with a Brazilian swimmer in the warmup pool on the day of the final.
There were already questions over Sun’s form since he served a three-month doping suspension last year for a banned stimulant. And he didn’t dominate as usual in the 800 free, coming from behind over the last two laps to narrowly edge Paltrinieri for gold.
Three months later, Paltrinieri suspects Sun was afraid of losing.
“It could have been that he was ill. I’m not doubting that. But he was definitely tense and nervous. I had finished this close to him in the 800,” Paltrinieri said, holding his hands less than a meter (yard) apart. “And in the 1500 heats I had beat him by a lot. So I think he just wasn’t so sure anymore that he could win the 1500. And that must have been a factor.”
Since neither Sun nor the Chinese team told organizers that he wasn’t racing, his lane remained empty for the final and reserve Pal Joensen of the Faeroe Islands was denied a chance to compete.
“I still don’t understand what happened and I don’t think we ever will,” said Stefano Morini, Paltrinieri’s coach. “The Chinese are a fairly enigmatic people and they don’t really express themselves too much. And that can be a good thing. We Italians talk too much.”
Read NBC Sports