Gregorio Paltrinieri held off Hungary’s David Betlehem on the final leg as Italy claimed its first gold medal of the World Aquatics Championships - Fukuoka 2023. In an upset finish, Australia out-touched pre-race favourite Germany to win the bronze medal in a skirmish of a finish.
Coming into the 4x1500m mixed relay on Thursday, Germany was the heavy gold medal favourite by virtue of Leonie Beck and Florian Wellbrock sweeping the gold medals this week in the 5km and 10km individual races. But Germany elected not to put Wellbrock on the relay this morning, resting him for the 800m and 1500m races next week in the pool, leaving the gold medal up for grabs.
Germany was still considered a favourite, but it wasn’t going to be a slam dunk as Hungary and Italy, last year’s silver and bronze medalists at the World Championships, had strong teams capable of challenging the defending champion Germans.
The Italians were able to swim away with the gold medal with the team of Barbara Pozzobon, Ginevra Taddeucci, Domenico Acerenza, and Gregorio Paltrinieri winning their first team event World title at 1:10:31.2.
The team celebrated poolside with coach Fabrizio Antonelli embracing the quartet immediately after Paltrinieri exited. Both Paltrinieri and Acerenza won their second medals of the week after winning silver and bronze in the 5km on Tuesday.
“It was big,” Paltrinieri said. “We spent hours yesterday but also during the season trying to fix this relay. We won many times at the Europeans but we’ve never won the relay at the Worlds so that was our goal to try to win the gold.
“Germany probably was the favourite but we knew other teams were really strong. Everybody had a job and we did it perfectly so it was good to come out of the water and find everybody close to me.”
“It was big,” Paltrinieri said. “We spent hours yesterday but also during the season trying to fix this relay. We won many times at the Europeans but we’ve never won the relay at the Worlds so that was our goal to try to win the gold."
Hungary won its second straight silver with the team of Bettina Fabian, Anna Olasz, Kristof Rasovszky, and David Betlehem at 1:10:35.3 as Rasovszky picked up his second silver medal of the week after getting second in the 10km.
“We changed the tactics from last year and I was the last swimmer,” Betlehem said. “Last year, I was third and it was a little bit easier, not too much pressure on me. But this year was great. I was the last one. I went with Gregorio and he went to a really good place and I was able to be on his feet but I couldn't go next to him and beat him in the last meters. That's why I'm a little bit sad, but I'm very happy with the silver medal.”
The race for the bronze medal went the way of Australia with the team of Chelsea Gubecka, Moesha Johnson, Nicholas Sloman, and Kyle Lee at 1:11:26.7 in a photo finish over the pre-race favourite Germany at 1:11:26.9.
“Today, I was actually more nervous than my individual swim,” Gubecka said. “I was really looking forward to putting together a good performance and really lifting for the team and I am glad we could execute the best race we could today.”
Lee dove in with the lead on the final leg and was swallowed up by the likes of experienced champions Paltrinieri and Betlehem, as Lee was left to fight with 10km bronze medalist Oliver Klemet in the final 1500 meters.
It appeared as though Klemet had gotten the angle on Lee in the final straightaway, but Lee had one last push left in him and came out over the top on the final stroke, giving Australia its first medal in the team event since winning silver at the 2011 World Championships in Shanghai.
“I didn’t know that I was going to get my hand on the touchpad first but I tried to time it as best as I could and I’m pretty happy to get that,” Lee said.
With the European teams going with two women up front and two men on the end, the other nations elected to switch up their orders to try to gain an early advantage.
Spain led the race early with male World Juniors pool champion Carlos Garach Benito gaining some distance between himself and the field with a 16-second lead over second place China and a 59-second lead on the WWMM field led by Australia’s Gubecka and Hungary’s Fabian.
The water was cooler than it was for the 5km on Tuesday, with the temperature reported to be at 26.7 degrees Celsius by the race organizers, and the air was reported to be at 25.4 degrees Celsius. The conditions were much wavier than the individual races as well, causing some noticeable differences in the presentation of the race than from Tuesday. But the teams from Australia and Italy were hardly fazed, training in such conditions in their home nations.
“I got really excited when I woke up at 5 in the morning and looked out the window,” Gubecka said. “Coming from Australia, we have to battle a little more of the elements being so far away and mostly swimming in the ocean. I had to trust my lines a little bit more and I saw a lot of people going wide and I tried my best to sight the buoys as best as I could and that did pay off with me getting a little bit of a gap from the rest of the women in that field.”
The Australian women Gubecka and Johnson swam superb legs up front, gaining a sizable lead of 13 seconds on the European nations at the halfway mark. Gubecka won silver in the 10km to open the competition while Johnson had finished tenth in the individual 5K on Tuesday, and they put the Australians in a great position to challenge the European nations for a medal.
“I couldn’t have asked for a better start (from Gubecka),” Johnson said. “I come from a pool background so to have clean water was the best start I could possibly have for that relay. The choppy conditions worked in our favor - we have done a lot of choppy swims in Australia. We thrive on the excitement and adventure of wild conditions and I think that worked for us.”
As the third leg got underway, Australia took over from Spain at the 3700m mark with Sloman holding a 16-second lead on Germany’s Rob Muffels, Italy’s Acerenza, and Hungary’s Rasovszky.
At the final exchange, Australia was in a position to pull a huge upset as Kyle Lee entered the water with a seven-second lead on living legend Gregorio Paltrinieri and rising star David Betlehem.
Paltrinieri quickly took over the lead on the final leg and it would become a battle between the two dominant water nations Italy and Hungary. Betlehem put pressure on the defending champion in the pool 1500m freestyle, but Paltrinieri showed why he is a future hall of famer by holding off the 19-year-old at the very end. The 28-year-old Italian kicked away on the final straightaway and won Italy’s first-ever gold medal in the team relay.
“We knew we would have been a little bit far away from the top (in the first legs) but our girls were fantastic at keeping the gap as (little) as possible,” Paltrinieri said. “Then Dominico did a great leg which was super good. He gave me a chance(to be) in the right position so I could do whatever I wanted to. It was great.”
Australia’s Lee fought with Klemet on the final leg and claimed Australia’s first team relay medal since 2011.
“I had a look last night (at our medal chances) coming into this race and I know in the last 10 years with me being on the team I haven’t seen a medal produced for team Australia,” Gubecka said. “So for me personally it is very special and I think this whole team can agree we have created history today for our country and we are super proud of that.”
France finished fifth overall at 1:11:40.6 ahead of Brazil (1:13:07.4) and host Japan (1:13:38.5). Early leader Spain finished eighth (1:13:41.8) ahead of the United States (1:13:58.6).
The open water swimming portion of the World Aquatics Championships has come to an end as pool swimming will get underway Sunday morning at Marine Messe Hall A in Fukuoka at 10:30 a.m. local time.