Sports Gazette have sat down with three-time Olympic swimmer Raphael Stacchiotti from Luxembourg for an interview which took place in the country’s National Sporting and Cultural centre, better known as ‘the Coque’ in what was a rainy day in the country’s capital.
January and the new year were only in its infancy while the lazy mood of the Christmas period and the New Year’s celebrations were still in the system, yet the 25-year was eager to get off to the new year talking about swimming. As he has always done. He is one of the country’s most famous sons alongside tennis star Gilles Muller, politician Jean-Claude Juncker and former football player Jeff Strasser. And his fame is down to his incredible swimming skills.
Stacchiotti opened his heart to discuss the past eleven years, ranging from his early beginnings to his sweetest memories, via his role models and the inevitable fear of the looming end of his prosperous career.
The robust swimmer also believes that ‘ Winning Olympic Gold is possible’ at the next Olympics in Tokyo before he will officially call it a day in 2021.
They say that if ‘you believe you can, you are almost there’.
Yet, unless your name is Michael Phelphs there is no magic wand and without the hard graft Stacchiotti daily puts in, it would be complicated to even dream of it.
But boosting his confidence is the fact that more often than not he achieves what he sets out to accomplish.
Who was your idol growing up and who is the greatest swimmer of all time?
My idol was, is and always will be Michael Phelps. He is undoubtedly the greatest swimmer of all time.
Legend has it that, when you start becoming successful ‘idols turn into rivals’. Does this apply to Phelphs in your case?
No, because I am not up to his level. I am still working to reach his heights although he is retired now. Unfortunately I won’t have the chance to face him again like in the past when we faced each other on numerous occasions, when he was my direct rival. But I have to admit that he was on another galaxy compared to myself.
What’s the difference between Stacchiotti and Phelps except for the fact that he outtrains you?
I don’t know if he used to train more than me. I hope that one day I can bridge the gap that exists between us, although I am aware that it will be tough. But let’s not forget that he is one of the greatest of all time, if not the greatest. He has 23 Olympic Gold medals to his name and belongs in the same bracket as Michael Jordan and Muhammad Ali. It’s anything but a walk in the park to match his success…
You once said that the 2008 Olympic Games are the greatest thing that ever happened to you. How did those games change your life for yourself and your public perception?
The 2008 Olympics changed my life to the point that swimming became my life. Despite the fact that I was only 16-years old and a junior, I took part in my first-ever senior race and being part of such a huge event by carrying Luxembourg’s flag in front of 80000 people was something great.
I was there when Phelps made history by winning gold on eight occasions and when set new records, which still stand today.
That summer, I met people who are still my friends today. Thanks to Bejing 2008, I later moved to Marseille. The memories from that summer and the buzz I felt during those weeks became a massive motivation for my career afterwards. It’s still in me.
Did you feel any pressure?
The pressure was huge, very huge. As I said, I carried Luxembourg’s flag in front of 80000 fans. Yet, in the wake of the games, many Chinese fans sent letters to my home as I became their favourite due to my young age.
Thus, I lost the focus on the race which didn’t go as planned. But the highlight had come one month previously when I went to the Junior World Cup. Going to the Olympic Games was a surprise. The fact that I didn’t succeed nine years ago is of little importance. Being there was everything. Especially if you are only 16.
In 2012 you went there to achieve something.
Yes, in 2012 my goal was to advance to the next round, to achieve the semi-final and to improve my record.
And it all started off well I improved my record in crawling for half a second although that wasn’t my initial target.
My target was to improve the crawl at the 200m race but I finished 17th while only 16 would progress to the next round. I missed my target for 0,1 seconds which upset me big time.
At my best I would have been 13th or 14th in the world. This, of course, was tough to take. But I have moved on from it as I can’t change it anymore.
The same old story. Despite my personal improvement, the opposition didn’t sleep. Again I missed the 16th place which, compared to four years previously, improved by half a second. Unfortunately, I couldn’t make up that 0,5 seconds and wrapped up only the 20th place. But something is sure, in 2020 it will change.
How many Olympic games do you still eye?
One. My intention is to finish my career after the Olympic Games of 2020. Maybe I will add a few more months to it, but at the latest in 2021 I will bring down the curtain.
Bejing 2008, London 2012 or Rio de Janeiro 2016. Which of the three cities caught your heart the most?
Definitely Bejing. In terms of history and monuments the Chinese capital is unbeatable. I loved their culture, everything had a ‘wow-effect’. And the organization was spot on.
London was very emotional, the public was amazing and it has to be said that the Brits love sports so much. Whatever the sport and whoever the athlete in question, he was cheered on as if he was one of their own. Besides, the atmosphere and the public transport were really great. We had an Oyster Card and could travel from place to place. People were really nice and they didn’t bother you at all.
However, Rio de Janeiro was a bit disappointing though. The only positive note was the atmosphere among us in the Luxembourgish team. We forged a strong bond. But in terms of the city and the Olympic Games, I expected more.
The joy ahead of such a tournament is huge. But how is it later. Are you happy that it happened or sad that it is over ?
Both, really. Sadly, in swimming you are judged by what you do every four years. You aren’t judged annually. And it’s strange because at a World Cup you have the same level of opposition as at the Olympic Games. But the Games are ‘rarer’ and thus the value is higher.
But yeah, as you said, it’s sad when it draws to a close because you learn people from all over the world, big stars and ex athletes. And then it’s all over for another four years.
In 2016, I took pictures with Ronaldo and also met Michael Johnson. Those experiences are indelible.They will always be with me.
What are your strengths? What are your weaknesses?
My strength is crawling. But I have it all. Needless to say, if you want to compete at the highest level you need to be very good at everything.
In their careers, high-profile stars like Michael Phelphs and Ryan Lochte have dominated every single discipline including crawling and thus they have stood out for so many years in this profession.
Unfortunately, the level of each of the four races has gone up in recent years, which means that every swimmer now has the whole package. You can no longer afford to possess a weakness in this sport, which wasn’t always the case in history. But luckily, I can work on these four things. This is simultaneously my strength and my weakness. I surely have every weapon, I can do everything but I must pull it off when it really counts and that’s the most difficult thing.
How does your life look like in the months leading up to the Olympic Games ?
I train up to thirty hours per week. There are many preparations and races in the months running up to the Games. In 2016, a European Championships had taken place only a couple of months before the Olympic Games.
But I repeat, the most important aspect is the psychological one. The frame you are in determines whether you will fare or not. As you can see, the hard shift will always be put in behind the scenes. The ultimate secret is to be consistent throughout the year and never to give in, even when things don’t look rosy.
In your mind, you know that the opposition doesn’t sleep, thus you need be relentless.
How do you improve half a second or a second?
Fitness is vital. If you’re fit, you’re fit. But to make use of your physical skills in a D-Day you have to be ready mentally, and that’s anything but easy. If you want to win you need to be a lion among lions. Winning keeps you alive and you must be convinced that you are the best, if you think that someone else has the edge over you, it’s over.
They say it’s easier to reach the top than to stay at the top. What do you personally do to stay up there?
There is a saying ‘ competition is good for business’. To behonest, I hate losing more than I love winning.
For instance, I don’t enjoy success as much as I probably should. It’s all about the next race.
Before the Christmas break, I had a great month which was capped off with seventeen titles in the national championship and the bronze medal at the military European Championships. But when it came to an end, you see a big mountain to climb again. Yet, the hunger comes by itself because you know that if you’re not doing it the train will be gone.
Which do you define as the greatest year of your career and why?
The 2015-2016 season was the best by far. Despite my achievements not speaking volumes, I managed not to drink a sip of alcohol, which was a personal goal I set to myself.
My best time was 2.00 in crawling and I promised to myself that I would never do worse than 2:02.99 in the whole season. I wanted to be ready all the time, to be consistent all the time. Thus, I reached the 5th, 6th and 8th place in the European Championships. I fared in both the small and the big pools.
On top of that, I managed to turn my fortunes around in Rio despite my appalling start to the competition. This, was something I define as tremendous success. Despite 2008 and 2009 being great years, 2016 was top of the list.
Are your best years yet to come or are they behind you?
The best years are yet to come. The last are the best as they say.I am 25, which is nearly the end of a career in swimming while in other sports you are in the middle of your career. It’s my 11th international year already, something not everybody can tell of himself at the age of only 25. But I still have three years to go and huge goals.
Is it really impossible that Raphael Stacchiotti wins the gold medal for Luxembourg?
Nothing is impossible. Whether it happens or not, is only down to me and I don’t care if people believe in me or not, it doesn’t have an influence on me. I am fully convinced that 2020 will be the greatest year of my entire career. And why not bowing out by winning gold ?
Are you Raphael or Stacchiotti in Luxembourg?
For those who don’t know me I am Stacchiotti or Mister Stacchiotti while for friends I am Raphael or ‘Raph’ or ‘Raphi’. Sometimes, people ask me for an autograph, but not in the downtown, it happens predominantly after a race, especially when students from high schools, who come to the Coque with their entire class , saw my photo in the newspaper. They then recognize me and ask me for a selfie, which is something I am proud of.
How do you keep your feet on the ground? Let’s not forget that you are one of the three best athletes of the country next to Miralem Pjanic and Gilles Muller the tennis star.
I go to the toilet like everyone else. Being successful doesn’t mean that you are better than other people. I train with people who are up to ten younger than me, and I need to set the right example for them. There’s no way to become big-headed once success comes your way.
Do you love watching swimming as well?
Yes, I love it. It’s my big passion although I prefer swimming myself than watching others do it. I have been watching every single race from the World Cups and European Championships since 2008. When I see myself on television, I am so proud.
How did it all start for you?
The 2004 Olympic Games held in Athenes were so to say the launching pad. While I was watching the games with my parents, my father, my biggest believer and supporter, adamantly said ‘ in four years you will be there’. My mother made fun of him ‘ He will only be 16 by then, are you crazy?’. The rest is history.
When I saw my friend Laurent Carnol qualify it gave me wings. And I really made it, to the pleasure of my parents.
2008 was the year which catapulted me to the top.
What does Luxembourg represent for you?
It’s my home. I was born and raised here, all my friends are here.There will never be another home for me unless it’s a holiday or swimming-related.
Are your scared of the end of your career?
Yes, I am scared because the redeployment and reinvention will be difficult. For every athlete it is difficult but I try not to think about it now. I also study and thus I hope I will be equipped to start another successful chapter of my life. 2020 will be the last page of a book.
Do you have any targets for this year?
I have many, like reaching the Top 8 or top 5 at the Euros.
And the week after, I want to win a medal at the military World Cup. As you can see I am ambitious.