It was perhaps fitting that Leonard Fabbri broke the Italian indoor shot put record in Satra on the outskirts of Stockholm earlier this year.
It was in the Swedish capital – at Stockholm’s Globe Arena, just a 15-minute drive from Satra – where Fabbri’s coach, Paolo Dal Soglio, had won the European indoor title some 24 years prior.
And, by coincidence, Fabbri also has a connection with the previous national indoor record-holder, Alessandro Andrei, as both men are from Florence.
“I really wanted the Italian indoor record,” said the 23-year-old. “Alessandro Andrei comes from my city Florence and this makes my record even more special. I grew up watching videos of Andrei. He has always been my role model.”
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After ending the 2019 season with a best of 20.99m, Fabbri wasted no time in surpassing the 21-metre barrier in 2020, doing so in his first competition of the year. While in South Africa for a training camp in January, he threw 21.32m in Parow, just outside Cape Town. The performance elevated him to second on the Italian all-time list, one place ahead of his coach Dal Soglio, and one place behind Andrei, the 1984 Olympic champion whose best of 22.91m in 1987 was a world record at that time.
Little more than two weeks later, Fabbri added five centimetres to Andrei’s 33-year-old national indoor record with 21.59m. He backed it up with victories in Sabadell (21.44m) and at the Italian Indoor Championships in Ancona (21.45m).
“I enjoyed a great month in February,” he says. “The good results did not come by chance. I worked very hard with my coach during our warm-weather training trip in South Africa, and the hard work paid off. I watched the video of my Italian record in Stockholm every morning at breakfast for a few days.
“Even though I won the Italian indoor title with 21.45m, I was not entirely happy with my result,” he adds. “My previous coach, Franco Grossi, taught me that I shouldn’t settle for the results I have achieved so far. I know that I can do much better and get close to 22 metres. I beat many good athletes during the 2020 indoor season, which has given me more confidence and motivation.”
The coronavirus pandemic meant Fabbri, like many athletes, had to delay the start to their outdoor season, but fortunately he was able to pick up where he left off. In the space of two weeks, he won competitions in Vicenza (20.58m), Savona (21.15m) and Castiglione della Pescaia (20.37m).
The meeting in Savona marked a turning point for many athletes in Italy, one of the hardest-hit countries during the early stages of the coronavirus pandemic. Along with Fabbri’s shot put victory, there were inspired performances from Larissa Iapichino, who set an Italian U20 long jump record of 6.80m; Davide Re, who clocked a world-leading 45.31 over 400m; and Filippo Randazzo, who sailed out to a PB of 8.12m in the long jump.
“I am happy with my performance in Savona, throwing beyond 21 metres is always a good result,” said Fabbri. “I felt like a caged lion during lockdown, but I continued training hard. I’ve realised I shouldn’t take anything for granted.
“I want to continue to improve in my next competitions,” adds Fabbri, who is also set to compete in Trieste, Padua, Ostrava, and at the Golden Gala Pietro Mennea in Rome. “I want to recapture my indoor form in time for the Italian Championships in Padua at the end of August. My goal is to get close to 22 metres, but what matters most is to be consistent at the 21.50m level.”
From idols to rivals
Born in 1997 in Bagno a Ripoli – a town near Florence where Italian pole vaulter Claudio Stecchi is also from – Fabbri was inspired to try athletics by his father, Fabio, who was a 10.9 100m sprinter.
After trying several disciplines, Fabbri focused on throwing events in 2011 under the guidance of Stefania Sassi. He also tried other sports, including football, gymnastics, basketball and tennis, but athletics remained his No.1 passion.
Fabbri made his international championships debut in 2013 at the World U18 Championships in Donetsk. Although he missed out on making the final there, he reached the podium at the European Youth Olympic Festival in Utrecht nine days later, earning the bronze medal. The following year, he finished seventh at the Youth Olympic Games in Nanjing.
During his time with Grossi, a former discus thrower, Fabbri split his time between the discus and shot put. In 2016 he started to work with Dal Soglio, who finished fourth in the shot put at the 1996 Olympics, and he became Fabbri’s sole coach from October 2018. Earlier that season, Fabbri’s achieved his first international triumph when winning the Mediterranean U23 title in Jesolo with 19.40m, a PB at that time.
“I owe everything to Dal Soglio,” says Fabbri. “We have a very close relationship. Paolo has helped me grow. We have worked a lot on technique, but I still have room for improvement. I am now in a new stage of my career.”
Dal Soglio is one of several throwers to have inspired Fabbri.
“I have always looked up to David Storl and Robert Harting and Italian throwers Nicola Vizzoni and Hannes Kirchler,” he says. “A few years ago I watched Ryan Crouser and Joe Kovacs on television; now we compete together and we are good friends.”
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After making his Diamond League debut in Rome last year, Fabbri became a regular on the international shot put circuit and went on to earn the silver medal at the European U23 Championships in Gavle with 20.50m.
“I enjoyed a good 2019 season and I was very happy with my silver medal in Gavle,” he says. “I was calm because I knew that I was in good shape. I had a very consistent season in 2019 and I really deserved the medal. The podium was the icing on the cake. I wanted to break my PB (which, at the time, was 20.52m), but I produced three attempts beyond 20 metres and I was quite happy with that.
“I thank Paolo, my parents and my girlfriend for their support. I made many sacrifices, as I moved to Bologna to train with Dal Soglio.”
Fabbri narrowly missed making the final at last year’s World Championships, but his 20.75m effort in qualification is the best ever non-qualifying mark at a global championships. At the four World Championships from 1991-1997, that throw would have earned a medal.
“The shot put has reached an impressive level,” he says. “I want to stay in the mix with the big guys. A release of 20.75m at the World Championships means a lot for me. My coach finished fourth at the Olympic Games in Atlanta with 20.74m. I have room for improvement. I have to be confident in my coach. What he says is true. I thank him a lot.”
Focused on the future
Doha was just the beginning for the young Tuscan athlete, who is aiming to become just the second Italian shot putter to throw beyond 22 metres.
Tom Walsh, the 2017 world champion, had kind words to say after Fabbri’s record throw earlier this year. “Leonardo has improved a lot,” said the New Zealander. “I hadn’t managed to reach 21.32m at his age. He must continue working hard. If he succeeds he will be an opponent in the coming years.”
The postponement of the Olympic Games in Tokyo until 2021 could be a blessing in disguise for Fabbri, who will have one more year to be in top shape in the Japanese capital.
“I want to be in the best possible shape in Tokyo, but next year’s Olympic Games are not my big goal. I am focusing more on Paris 2024,” he says. “For Tokyo I want to reach the final and then have fun. My dream is to get as close to the podium as possible and become the first Italian to reach 23 metres. It’s tough but I like impossible challenges.”
Fabbri, who goes by the nickname ‘The Fabbrino’, is a big football fan – he supports Fiorentina – and, like many athletes, enjoys relaxing by watching TV series on Netflix and listening to music. In fact, he says it’s this relaxed approach that has helped him to succeed in the sport.
“I always want to be a role model for the new generation of athletes who want to start an athletics career,” he says. “I like to train with a smile on my face.”
Diego Sampaolo for World Athletics