Reigning Olympic champion Federica Pellegrini says she is comfortable with her “sexy” image as she bids for double Games gold in London.
The precocious and often temperamental talent is a huge star in her homeland and her face, and figure, are a staple diet for advertisers in print and on screen.
Champion in both the 200m and 400m freestyle at the last two World Championships, Pellegrini will be looking to achieve a similar double during the Olympics, in which she is reigning champion in the 200m.
A household name and an instantly recognizable face, Pellegrini insists her fame is no distraction to her primary aims.
From appearing nude in print to dating a string of her male teammates, Pellegrini is an advertiser’s dream.
Pretty and feminine despite the big shoulders needed to be a champion swimmer, she says she was not always such a knock-out.
“I would never have imagined I’d be a sexy icon, when I was young I was a tomboy,” she told women’s magazine Grazia.
“Now, however, I consider femininity to be a priority: I see myself as a woman and not just an athlete. But of course, sensuality should never descend into vulgarity,” she added.
The 23-year-old has certainly pushed those limits as far as she can, posing nude for Vanity Fare while also becoming the body of underwear maker Yamamay.
That is something she is more than comfortable with.
“Am I allowed to say that I’m a free woman,” she added. “I’ve made my peace with my body, I accept myself as I am.”
Pellegrini has always been destined for stardom since winning Olympic silver in Athens as a 16-year-old.
That talent in the pool coupled with her looks and her choice of partners has ensured she has never since been far from the limelight.
Her sporting rivalry with France’s Laure Manaudou, herself a marquee name in her homeland, spilled out of the pool and into the dressing room.
Pellegrini dated Manaudou’s ex Luca Marin, an Italian swimmer, before ditching him for another teammate in Filippo Magnini, a twice former world champion who is now past his best at 30.
Pellegrini did not stop at pinching Manaudou’s ex boyfriend as she also employed the Frenchwoman’s former coach, Philippe Lucas, although that partnership lasted only 18 months.
It is her appetite for male swimmers that has ensured she is as popular with gossip-magazine journalists as the sporting ones, although she denies she has done anything out of the ordinary.
“I’m not a man-eater, I’m just a young 23-year-old girl who can change her mind,” she says in her defense.
Defending herself is something she has had to do a lot of recently, not least after some poor form and her refusal to carry Italy’s flag at the Olympic opening ceremony.
After coming in for criticism for that move, she took to her personal blog to angrily explain her reasons, claiming the ceremony would impinge on her athletic preparation.
“Whoever doesn’t understand that for me to stand up for eight hours the day before my Olympic race is impossible, isn’t blessed with very much intelligence, either that or they don’t know what standing up for eight hours feels like,” she wrote on her blog after coming under fire in the media.
“It’s not my fault if swimming is the first sport following the opening ceremony. I hope I’ve been clear enough,” she said.
However, then came a dip in form and her failure to reach the 400m final at the European Championships in May, something she has passed off as a blip caused by fatigue.