The Devil and Miss Manaudou

by Casey Barrett

Comeback Success For the French Olympic Queen

A warm welcome back to the lovely Laure… Yesterday at the French Olympic Trials, Laure Manaudou sealed her return to the Olympic stage with victory in the women’s 100 back. Her time – 1:00.16 – was no joke. Just tenths off her lifetime best, and fast enough to put her back in the game for the medals in London. An Olympic champion eight years ago in Athens, with a lifetime of celebrity and scandal stuffed in between, one of the greats of her generation is back.

It’s become tiresome to preface every race result with that fast-suit disclaimer (we all know everyone was faster in the warped years of ’08-’09), so let’s keep the suits out of it. The sport is a more interesting place with Laure Manaudou in it. Compared to what she’s been through, times on the clock are boring and incidental.

To review: From 2004 to 2007, Manaudau was arguably the greatest female swimmer on earth. In Athens, she won gold in the 400 free, silver in the 800 free, and bronze in the 100 back. Her victory in the 400 made her France’s first woman ever to win Olympic swimming gold. It also made her a massive celebrity across the pond. Two years later, she broke the unbreakable – Janet Evans’ world record in the 400 free. A record that had stood untouched for 18 years. A year after that, at the 2007 World Championships, she broke the world record in the 200 free too. At the Worlds in Melbourne, she also defended her world title in the 400, and added silver in the 800 and the 100 back.

Then the wheels came off.

A month after ’07 Worlds, Manaudou announced that she was making a traitorous move – she was leaving her longtime coach, Phillipe Lucas, and she was leaving her country. She was off to Italy. She was chasing a guy. The man in question: an Italian lothario named Luca Marin. A fellow World Champs medalist (bronze in the 400 IM in Melbourne), Marin held the keys to Laure’s heart. He also held some very compromising pictures of his girlfriend.

That December, at the short course Worlds in Budapest, Hungary, the lovers had an ugly public quarrel. A ring was thrown, a break up was announced. And that very day, those pictures surfaced online. (I’ll resist the impulse to provide a link; if you haven’t seen them, go ahead and Google it…) Marin denied having anything to do with it. Sure, buddy, so did Rick Salomon… (Paris anyone?)

Regardless of who pulled the trigger, the damage was clearly done as far as Manaudou’s psyche was concerned. She showed up at the Beijing Olympics a broken swimmer. She flat out quit in the final of the 400 free, fading to a hard-to-watch 8th in the 400. She added a lackluster 7th in the 100 back, and didn’t bother to make it through the semi-final in the 200 back. And then she was gone. Retired at 21.

Fortunately, that was not all she wrote. What’s the best revenge for a broken heart? Why, shacking up with a better man, of course. Manaudou soon did just that. Marin was a pretty good swimmer, a World Champs medal is nothing to sneeze at, but he’s nowhere near in the same league as the guy who replaced him. A guy named Fred Bousquet: former world record holder in the 50 free, and one of the fastest men on earth for many years now. (The guy is also as ripped as a cartoon superhero…) In April 2010, the French power couple had a baby girl named Manon.

Any wonder why Manaudou’s comeback has been a success?

She flew across the pond to States, moved to Auburn, where her man Bousquet had achieved such soaring success for the Tigers. And it all came back.

As we’ve seen in Australia, the fate of the comeback crew has been pretty grim. Thorpe, gone. Klim, out. Huegill, no show. Trickett, a semi-success, an alternate on the Aussie relay. The coming track record of others on the trail will likely be just as grim. It’s tough to comeback.

But when you retire at 21, before you’ve even reached your peak, when your personal life comes full circle to a family and a happily ever after… Is it any wonder Miss Manaudou is back on the Olympic stage?