BRESCIA, Italy (Reuters) - Vanessa Ferrari likes Formula One, red is her favorite color and she responds readily when her coach tells her to put her “foot on the gas”.
Like the famous Italian racing car, this 17-year-old who won the first individual world all-round gold in the history of Italian women’s gymnastics in 2006 has the stuff of champions.
She does not tire of people playing on her name: “I’m happy with it. The Ferrari is a beautiful car. It’s great.”
Fronting Italy’s gymnastics team for August’s Beijing Olympics, Ferrari began in the sport when she was seven.
“In the beginning it was like a game,” she told Reuters after performing a routine on the asymmetric bars at her new gym in the northern city of Brescia. But, tumbling and bouncing for more than 30 hours a week, she now knows how serious the game is.
Unlike most girls of her age, she has no time for shopping, let alone dating. “I’d like to go out with friends but I train twice a day, then I go to school and at night I go home,” said the softly-spoken gymnast.
“Love? No, not now,” she whispered. “Now there’s gymnastics. It’s a very important moment in my life. I try to focus on training.”
“I’m very excited, I’m preparing myself as best I can, but I’m not thinking about that yet,” she said, sitting barefoot.
Despite a recent spate of medals, Italy do not have a long tradition of winning in gymnastics, which makes national coach Enrico Casella doubly proud of his team’s results.
“Our first important success was the bronze team medal won at the European championships in 2002. Then came the European women’s team title in 2006,” he recalled.
A year later, Ferrari, already 2006 world champion, clinched the all-round title and a second gold on the floor at the European championships in Amsterdam, while her fellow Italian Carlotta Giovannini took gold on the vault.
Casella, a former rugby player and a nuclear engineer, has drawn up a training programme with personalized charts for each athlete on each apparatus, and constantly updates them.
“Our athletes are different from each other. We also have fewer gymnasts than other countries,” he said, tapping away at his laptop. “I have to do my best with these athlete-machines.”
Like every sport, gymnastics has its ups and downs. Last year at the world championships in Stuttgart, Ferrari passed on her world crown to American Shawn Johnson, after a fall relegated her to a tie for third place.
Medical examinations later showed she had been suffering from a fracture in her left foot. She is still coping with the aftermath of the injury.
“The last scan showed my foot has completely healed,” Ferrari said. “Sometimes it hurts but I can take it.”
Endurance is one of Ferrari’s strengths, Casella said, while scrutinizing her performance on the balance beam. Fans call her “the cannibal” for her competitive drive, a nickname which sits uneasily with her slight, 33-kg frame.
Ferrari has grown up at the Brixia gym, which takes its name from the Latin for Brescia, the town where she trains.
Founded two decades ago, the gym was housed in a swimming pool until last year, when medals finally drew sponsors and the team moved to modern facilities.
At the new gym, Monica Bergamelli, 24, is warming up for her third Olympics. Nearby, Paola Galante, a bouncy 16-year-old girl and Vanessa’s best friend, is performing on the vault, eagerly awaiting this week’s European championships in Clermont-Ferrand, France, which start on Thursday.
“You’re not reeds in the wind,” Casella shouted at her, quoting a famous Italian novel, when the gymnast failed to make a steady landing.
In the evenings, Ferrari and her team mates return to their families.
“Gymnastics is a demanding sport and they are at such a vulnerable age. Some athletes give up,” said the Brixia team choreographer Michela Francia.
Ferrari, whose family are her biggest fans, is happy with the choice she has made. “I make a lot of sacrifices but they pay off.”
Editing by Clare Fallon