Italy’s latest Para swimming superstar Simone Barlaam has an admirably simple recipe for success: “my aim is just to have fun”. It has worked so far. The Milan native may only be 18 years old but he is already a two-time world champion, a four-time European champion and a European record holder.
“If you would have told me four years ago about these last two years I would have not believed you,” Barlaam laughs. “It is a good starting point.”
The teenager has in fact identified the exact moment everything started pointing upwards for him and intriguingly it had nothing to do with the pool or even the gym.
“The turning point in my life was spending my year 11 of high school (2017-18) in Australia,” Barlaam says firmly. “It was the first time I had left home, my parents, my sister, Italy. I went to a country that is 22 hours’ flying time away and I didn’t know anyone.”
The challenge of “starting from zero”, as Barlaam puts it, transformed the youngster’s perspective and outlook.
“Going out of my comfort zone helped me grow up as a person and to start understanding how to achieve things,” he explains. “I met so many people from other countries, from Iran, Persia, Asia, Europe. It opened my mind up. Now I define myself as a citizen of the world.”
Learning from the best
This growth outside of the pool undoubtedly helped Barlaam’s development in it. The then 17-year-old, who was also using his time abroad to prepare for the 2017 World Para Swimming Championships in Mexico, made sure he took full advantage of the multitude of sporting opportunities that came his way.
“I trained one morning with Ellie Cole (the six-time Paralympic gold medal winner) because I was swimming in her former club,” Barlaam says, the awe still evident in his voice. “And I trained with Timothy Hodge (2018 Commonwealth Games silver medallist in both 100m breaststroke SB8 and 100m backstroke S9).
“And I got to compete against Jacob Templeton, Brenden Hall, Logan Powell (all Australian Paralympians) – I was a bit of a fan boy to be honest. I had a lot of fun. I think they learned something from me and I certainly learned something from them. We understand each other, we go through the same pain. So it was nice to exchange opinions.”
Gold in both the 50m and 100m freestyle S9 at the 2017 Worlds confirmed both Barlaam’s arrival as a major new name in Para swimming and the undoubted success of relocating down under.
Buoyed by being crowned the world’s best in his category, Barlaam, who was born with an under-developed right leg, flew into last season full of confidence. It culminated in a rampaging display at the Allianz European Championships in Dublin, Ireland. The Italian set a European record en route to winning gold in the 50m freestyle before also topping the podium in the 100m freestyle and the 4x100m medley relay 34 points. But there was one result that stood out above all else.
“The 4x100m freestyle relay, I would say, is one of my best moments ever,” Barlaam says. “The result was so unexpected. We knew our opponents, like Ukraine, were so strong and that they had more experience compared to us in relays.”
But Barlaam and his friends relegated Ukraine and everyone else to a fight for second place as they triumphed by 3.06 seconds. And, according to Barlaam, there is one reason why.
“If you have fun and everyone likes each other then everything is easier,” he says. “You give less importance to things, you get less stressed, you help each other and everyone performs better.”
Barlaam’s next opportunity to showcase his skills comes next week in Indianapolis, USA, where the year’s second World Para Swimming World Series event takes place.
Life lived to his philosophy certainly sounds attractive. The sprint king is currently deciding between taking on technical engineering, physics or medicine at university when his school studies finish later this year, but whichever he chooses you can be sure he’ll make sure he has a blast.