This is arguably the hardest race of Filippo Mondelli’s life. Harder than the countless hours of training and competitions, where sweat and tears were left on the oars. Far away from the spotlight of podiums and gold medals at European and World Championships.

Mondelli was supposed to prepare for defending Italian national colours in Tokyo at the Olympic Games, but the 25-year-old Italian rower is now fighting against cancer after being diagnosed with a stage 4 osteosarcoma bone cancer in his leg.

If Mondelli can’t place a finger on the day he morphed into a professional canottiere, he knows that the love for rowing has always been in his veins. His grandfather was president of a rowing club at Lake Como and this is where first rowed. His passion for the sport grew more and more rowing on the clear blue waters of Northern Italy.

 “Everything started as a game, but then it became a passion and a job, for the Fiamme Galle in Italy. Above all the passion is what I always carry in my heart” says Filippo.

Twelve years on, Mondelli is a star in the making. His career highlight for the Azzurri? His first continental win, at the 2017 European Rowing Championships in Racice, where he and teammate Luca Rambaldi claimed their first gold medal in the men’s double sculls.

 “It will be the most beautiful memory that I will always carry in my heart, mainly because it was all unexpected” says Mondelli.

In 2018, Mondelli was crowned World Champion in Plovdiv in the men’s quadruple sculls – something that had not been achieved by an Italian boat in two decades.

“The first World Championship win is always a beautiful thing. We started as favorites on that occasion, but the heat didn't go well. And then we gave everything we had to win the race. I only realized that I was a World Champion two days after the race.”

The 25-year-old Italian phenomenon seemed on his way to competing for Olympic gold, until, as Mondelli calls it, the -lightning bolt-.

As training progressed with the national team in Sabaudia, 100 km south of Rome, earlier this year, his leg started to bother him; A pain in the knee area, something every professional rower has experienced through intense training.

 “I thought I had a muscle tear, Mondelli remembers. Instead, following an ultrasound exam, it turned out to be a more serious disease. The doctor directed me to a specialised clinic to do a CT scan and the radiologists assured me that the problem was only in the left femur. The chief doctor then explained the path to recovery.”

The diagnosis? A stage 4 osteosarcoma bone cancer. In other terms, a very aggressive primary bone tumor that is treated with chemotherapy and surgery to remove a part the diseased bone. This means the end of Mondelli’s Olympic dream and the beginning of a new journey – the fight against cancer.

Mondelli is currently receiving treatment and he will undergo surgery on his leg to remove a part of the bone. He also receives chemotherapy. Mondelli will then begin a long, uncertain path, where the finish line hopefully ends back in a rowing boat.

“Being away from rowing is very hard, I miss everything. But my family is always close to me and is fighting with me to beat this cancer. My friends are helping me to fight, they put a smile on my face. My teammates are very close to me, they make me feel that I am still a part of the team.”

 His teammate in the double sculls, Rambaldi visited him a couple weeks ago, and left with a simple message on his social media network: “Daje Filippo, sarà lunga ma sei forte” which can be translated as, “Come on Filippo, it will be long, but you are strong.”

Mondelli knows it will be a battle to get his health back. But, as with rowing, he knows how to push against the wind. Mondelli has made a choice, a choice to not quit in the hardest race of his life. Hoping that each day will mark the beginning of a new race - a race toward recovery.

“Winning this battle will be my Olympics”, he says, with his eyes set on Paris 2024.