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Italian swimmer redefines records and racial stereotypes

Sara Curtis is making waves as she prepares for Paris Games

Updated: 2024-05-09 09:39
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Sara Curtis is one of Italy's brightest swimming prospects, qualifying for the Olympics in March with a junior European record of 24.56 seconds in the 50-meter freestyle. OSPORTS

SAVIGLIANO, Italy — Sara Curtis will be among Italy's youngest athletes at the Paris Olympics, but the teenage swimming sensation is a confident figure, unconcerned about reactions to her biracial background.

The 17-year-old, whose performances in the pool have led to comparisons with former Olympic and world champion Federica Pellegrini, was raised by an Italian father and Nigerian mother in the Piedmont region of northwest Italy where race, ethnicity and identity are key political battlegrounds.

In a country now led by the far-right government of Giorgia Meloni, racist abuse of sportspeople is a long-standing problem.

But, confident Curtis, a four-time gold medal winner at the European junior championships, tells AFP she is unflustered by being a rare black face in her sport.

"I consider myself lucky, as I've never had anything like that (racist abuse) happen to me," Curtis says.

"But, if I were to ever meet someone who saw what I am as a problem, I wouldn't make a big deal out of it.

"It wouldn't make a big difference to me, because it's not my problem, it's theirs.

"If you look at my sport, there is this element regarding Black athletes. There just aren't that many of them.

"But, honestly, it's not something I'm too bothered by. They can say what they want, that I'm a Black girl, that it's strange. But it's strange for you, not for me."

Curtis views as laughable the likes of Roberto Vannacci, an Italian Army general who said in a bestselling book The World Upside Down that volleyball star Paola Egonu, whose parents are Nigerian, has features that "do not represent Italian-ness".

Despite being the subject of three separate investigations — including one for allegedly inciting racial hatred — Vannacci was named last month as a candidate for June's European Parliament elections for Italy's hard-right League party.

"When I hear those sorts of comments, it makes me laugh to be honest, it makes you think that we've been a bit left behind the times (in Italy)," said Curtis.

"But, what an athlete does is independent of their skin color. Those comments don't affect me and they won't ever affect me."

Olympic aims

Curtis, who also tried her hand at basketball, despite being "completely uncoordinated", "basically grew up in water" after her parents took her to the pool when she was two years old.

"The only thing I can remember from when I was little was that it was really cold and I actually hated it, to be honest," jokes Curtis.

She has since become one of Italy's brightest swimming prospects, qualifying for the Olympics in March with a junior European record of 24.56 second in the 50 meters freestyle.

It was also a new Italian record, comfortably beating the 24.72 sec set by Silvia Di Pietro, 14 years Curtis' senior, in the 2022 European Championships in Rome.

A month later, Curtis then swam a junior world-record time of 26.08 sec in the short course backstroke, shaving 0.05 off the mark set by American Olivia Smoliga, an Olympic gold winner in 2016 and multiple world champion.

"I didn't expect it at all. I thought I was going to have a mediocre timing in April, even though I was feeling good. It was really unexpected, because it was a very quick time. I was flying, it was really great," said Curtis.

Publicly, she is not talking up her chances in Paris, with her coach Thomas Maggiora telling reporters during one of Curtis' training sessions in her hometown of Savigliano that the Los Angeles Games in 2028 are her real target.

"I'm aiming to develop, both physically and mentally, because the Olympics were always a dream of mine," she said.

"This year's Games were a goal, but one I really looked at as being quite far off. Just taking part will be brilliant.

"I'm kind of superstitious, so I'm going to keep my personal ambitions to myself. Maybe it's a bit early to think about winning a medal. I have a bigger aim further down the line, but for now a semifinal or a final could be something to aim for."


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