Romina Armellini - cancer survivor and Olympian

Born of Italian parents and raised in Johannesburg, she attended Crawford College and swam with the Wanderers Club. She graduated from UNISA in 2016 with a bachelors degree in Psychology.  

At the 2000 South African Short Course Championships in Cape Town she beat Charlene Wittstock into second place by winning the 50m backstroke. 

In 2002 she was diagnosed with a cancerous tumour in the thyroid gland, which was soon confirmed to be stage two thyroid cancer. After treatment she resumed competitive swimming, and in 2003 she was part of the South African team to the Mare Nostrum Series in Canet and Barcelona. 

In 2004 Romina moved to Verona where she was coached by Italian national coach Alberto Castagnetti at the Circolo Canottieri Aniene swimming club. She won seven national Italian titles between 2004 - 2011. In 2007 she swam for Italy at the 24th Universiade in Bankok. 

In 2008 she set an Italian national record for 100m backstroke in short course. 

At the European Swimming Championships in 2008 in Eindhoven, Romina made the final of the women's 200m backstroke. In 2008 she also broke the Italian record for short course 200m backstroke.  At the Beijing Olympic Games  in 2008 she competed for Italy in the 100m backstroke and the 4x100m medley relay. 

 Today Romina is married to Christian Caravello and lives back in Johannesburg, where they run an Italian delicatessen called Mafiosi.  

They told me that going back to swimming at a competitive level was impossible. because during the surgery to remove the tumor, I had also removed part of the back muscle, and they found traces on the lungs and breathing would be more difficult.

I wanted to swim, I was wondering if I should die today, what do I want to do?

Born in Johannesburg South Africa, like most swimmers I had started swimming at a young age and had a progressive and successful junior career until the age of 17years: a point where I was ranking 2nd globally in my event/age group and already competing in finals at World Grand Prix’s. It was a point in my athletic career where my potentials were just starting to show.

On a routine visit to my GP due to flu, my life changed from being an athlete to being that of a patient: I was sent immediately for further testing and investigation into swollen glands around my throat. Five days later I was diagnosed with stage 2 thyroid cancer. Two days after the diagnosis I was on the operating table scheduled for the removal of my thyroid however, once in theatre the cancer revealed itself not to be stage 2 but stage 4. After ten hours of operating I was left without a thyroid; 3 parathyroids; a piece of my back muscle and doctors had to scrape pieces of cancer off my lungs.

One of the hardest things about cancer is the endless trips in and out the hospital, for constant treatments and controls; my story was no different to other cancer patients: I underwent radiation therapy a few times with increasing intensities until they had found that the cancer had spread to the liver as well. At this point (5months after the first diagnosis); I was diagnosed with about a 20% possibility of surviving. At this point I had chosen to stop treatment and enjoy the quality of life on a day to day basis.

A month later I went for a control scan and the doctors were shocked to find that the cancer had completely disappeared. All were in shock except for me because while I was going through this whole experience I continued to swim (even though doctors said it was physically impossible) but in a completely different way: I no longer swam for the medals; I swam for love of the water and felt the miracle that exists behind every breath. Living in this way I no longer feared death.

My love and passion for sport gave me discipline and taught me how to believe even against the odds. I continued swimming in this way; moved to Italy (as I was offered sponsorship opportunities) and managed to achieve many of my dreams: University Games; European Championships; World Championships and Olympics in 2008.

Since 2009 I have retired as a swimmer and have continued as a life coach; motivational speaker and volunteered in many non-profit projects; first in Italy and now here in South Africa:

  • 2x Guinness world records year 2009 and year 2012; for longest continuous swim relay
  • Spokesperson for “Citta delle Speranze” (“City of Hope”) A paediatric hospital specialising in treatment for cancer, in Padova; Italy. From 2008- 2012.
  • CHOC ambassador since September 2013.

My intentions and approach to life coaching is about being fearless (you don’t need to have experienced cancer) we all have experienced fear, doubts, shames and negativity in our lives. It’s about learning the skills of how to embrace theses aspects so that it can make you a master of your life and goals, so that you live to your truest and fullest potential… FEARLESS! This is my mission statement.


Just seventeen years old, in 2002, you look in the mirror at a suspicious swelling in the neck that hides the most dramatic truth, a thyroid tumor. How did you deal with such a pitiless diagnosis?

"Let's say that after a week of analysis and tests it was normal to imagine what it was, so it was not a surprise when the doctor told me I had cancer and my first question was' When can I go back to the water?

This thing has come to me so suddenly. I am not genetically predisposed, I have always led a healthy life, without going out, eating well, practicing physical activity, always as a good girl. I wondered if I was bad to deserve this.And then, I have also asked deeper questions, about what death was, if there was an afterlife, but I also thought it was not the end. I gave myself many answers."
What are these answers? "Today the society imposes us various roles, that of mother, of wife, also of swimmer. I realized, however, that Romina can do anything in life. If you want to follow a road, sometimes you do not need to think too much. You must first let yourself fall into the void to fly. I no longer fear anything, I let myself fall, I follow my heart and so far I have always flown ".

"I had already started swimming for Italy at the age of 17, because I wanted so much, having a Veronese father and a Roman mother, and in South Africa the swimming world is linked to politics, only the athletes want color athletes and my origins Italians took away all my support, but with the disease everything was left unresolved, only then I arrived here, at first it was difficult: a culture and a language that I did not know and then I was alone. I found my environment ".