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The towering face of French swimming

August 22, 2013
Yannick Agnel after winning the 200-meter freestyle at the world swimming championships. ‘‘To be an Olympic and world champion is something really special,’’ he said. (Josep Lago/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images)

Yannick Agnel after winning the 200-meter freestyle at the world swimming championships. ‘‘To be an Olympic and world champion is something really special,’’ he said. (Josep Lago/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images)

It seemed inevitable heading into the final that the U.S. team featuring Ryan Lochte would win the 4×100 freestyle relay on the first day of the swimming events at the World Aquatics Championships. And up until the 300-meter mark in Barcelona, the U.S. squad was leading the pack, followed by Russia and Australia. France was a distant fourth.

Watching on the sideline was Yannick Agnel, the 21-year-old French sensation, who swam the first leg of the final in late July. He saw his friend Jérémy Stravius complete the final 100 meters with such speed that France won the gold, relegating the United States to silver and Russia to bronze.

For Agnel, the current world-record holder in the 400 short-course freestyle and a three-time Olympic medalist (two golds), the results in Barcelona were a flashback to the 2012 Games in London, when France scored an upset to win gold in the 4×100 relay.

In London, the U.S. team had another weapon, this one by the name of Michael Phelps. The underdog French team beat a champion team to win the gold at the Games, and it was Agnel’s final rush that sealed the deal.

“To be an Olympic and world champion is something really special,” Agnel said in a telephone interview. “However, I don’t want to stop here.”

And to push himself further, Agnel has hired Phelps’s former coach, Bob Bowman. The results have worked so far for the man that many regard as the new face of French swimming.

Agnel is not just the world 4×100 relay champion; he won the 200-meter freestyle at Barcelona with ease, finishing almost a second ahead of the silver medalist, Conor Dwyer of the United States.

That result, too, was a repeat of the London Olympics, where Agnel won the 200 with an even faster time. Lochte, a five-time Olympic gold medalist, was fourth on both occasions.

In a sense, Agnel, who was named after the tennis great Yannick Noah, is leading a renaissance in French swimming. He is the European record holder for the 800-meter freestyle short course event and was voted European Swimmer of the Year in 2012 by Swimming World magazine.

The Frenchman’s swimming is characterized by long strokes, thanks to his towering height of 2.03 meters, or 6 feet, 8 inches. Because of his exploits in the pool, and the subsequent media attention, it is not unnatural for fans to compare him to Phelps and Lochte. But he shrugs them off.

“I am Yannick Agnel,” he said. “I am neither Lochte nor Phelps. I don’t swim as much as Lochte does. Those two are phenomenal swimmers. They are Olympic legends. While I am happy I did well against some all-time swimming greats, I cannot compare myself to them.”

Statistics back up his opinion. Phelps has won a world-record 18 gold medals and 22 over all at the Olympics, while Lochte has 11 over all. Agnel has age on his side, so he could approach Lochte’s mark, though Phelps’s seems unreachable. Both Phelps and Lochte made their Olympic debuts in 2004, while Agnel did so in 2012. Phelps has retired from the sport, and Lochte is 29, almost a senior citizen in swimming. Agnel is 8 years younger.

Phelps often gave his coach, Bowman, a lot of credit for his success, and now Agnel is learning from Bowman’s guidance, too. And while the decision to train with an American coach generated some criticism in France, Agnel contends it is the right thing to do. “The Barcelona results have shown it was the right decision,” he said, “something I was sure about right from the beginning.”

Bowman sees a lot of similarity between Phelps and Agnel. “They are very similar, particularly in the way they approach competition and training from a mental standpoint,” Bowman said in a telephone interview. “They are very strong mentally. They know exactly how much energy to put into a certain swim depending on how important it is. They both have immense physical talent. The mental aspect is where they are most alike.”

Bowman believes Agnel’s main challenge now is to deal with outside expectations. “That’s because he has done so well at such a young age. People sometimes tend to go backwards when they give attention to what other people think they should do. Yannick, though, has a very clear picture on what his goals are and how to achieve them,” Bowman said.

Agnel said Bowman’s coaching style is different from what he had been used to. “We do about the same mileage per day as I used to do in France,” he said. “But his technique and approach are really different. I am doing lot of other strokes. It’s really intense compared to what I used to do in France. We will see how the results turn up in the next season. At the moment, I am having fun.”

One of Agnel’s objectives in teaming up with Bowman is to expand his repertoire and do well in the 100, 200 and 400 freestyle at the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro.

Bowman thinks Agnel can excel in the 100- and 400-meter freestyle events. “He has the physical skills. He just needs to put in some more training for the 400. For the 100-meter freestyle, he needs to be more experienced and add some muscle so that he has the power to compete against the best swimmers in this event,” Bowman said.

Agnel said he was aware of his impact on French swimming; he was the first from his country to win more than one gold medal in the same Olympics.

“An entire new generation of French swimmers is doing well,” Agnel said. “We train really hard by putting in lots of kilometers in our practice sessions. I hope the French are proud of what we are doing.

“I see a lot children getting attracted to competitive swimming,” he continued. “I hope more people discover that though there’s a lot of hard work involved, it is a really fun sport.”

Swimming, though, is not the 21-year-old’s sole focus. He is taking a correspondence course in economics and political science at the Paris Institute of Political Science.

“I am interested in learning new things, be it economics, math or science,” Agnel said. “This attitude has played a big role in my success in the swimming pool. I don’t swim for nothing. I always like to learn and try new moves, get new sensations.”


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