Waiting for the queen
Spain's most talented swimmer has yet to win a world or Olympic medal
Draped over a sofa in the lobby of the Sheraton Shanghai Hotel, Mireia Belmonte studiously examined every centimeter of her hands, while playing incessantly with her hair. She was, at the age of 20, the undisputed queen of the Spanish swimming team at the 2011 FINA World Championships, but Belmonte only reached one final, the 400-meter medley, in which she finished fourth.
A year later, the Olympic pool in London awaits Belmonte, who is taking on the most ambitious program of any female athlete at the Games. "Before me there were Spanish swimmers, like Nina Zivanevskaya and many others, who had a lot of pressure on them," she says. "I try not to think about it and to turn pressure into motivation. I think I can do it."
Belmonte looks the other way, suddenly bashful. But all of those surrounding her, starting with the Spanish Swimming Federation, know that she is the most talented swimmer the nation has ever produced. She is so versatile as to be considering competing in five separate events: the 200m and 400m medley, the 200m butterfly and the 400m and 800m freestyle. At the European short course Championships in Poland last December, Belmonte won gold in the first four of those.
While Belmonte concentrates on trying not to think about the Games, her boss, federation president Fernando Carpena, is busy thinking about the golden opportunity that lady luck has presented the national team, and rubbing his hands together with glee: "We can win five Olympic medals!"
The fervor surrounding Belmonte is nothing new. The wave of optimism breaks from time to time ever since she became world junior champion in the 400m freestyle and 400m medley in 2006. She evolved from the great promise at the 2008 Olympics, to an established medal prospect at the 2009 World Championships in Rome and the standard-bearer in Shanghai.
Until now, however, the expectations have been excessive. Although she has not won a world or Olympic medal, her times - she broke the Spanish 400m medley record in finishing 14th in Beijing and later the same year broke the world record in the same event - especially in short course competitions, showed that the volcano was set to erupt at some point.
In 2011, she was elected the best swimmer at the European Short Course Championships in Szczecin. Now 21, the age when swimmers begin to reach their peak potential, everything is in place for something grand to take place.
"It makes it difficult for her," notes her coach, Fred Vergnoux, of Belmonte's proposed schedule in London. "But last year she showed she can beat anybody in the world. When she broke the 400m world record she did so without a body suit and with [Federica] Pellegrini on one side and Lotte Friis on the other. Two of the best in the world. She has that ability and it's what I tell her: 'You can beat anyone'."
Belmonte trains more than any other swimmer in the world; eight hours a day, six in the pool and two in the gym. The Spanish swimmer's body would be a medal-winning machine were it not for one detail. She lacks faith when going one-on-one with opponents. "She has to change this part of her mentality," says Vergnoux