Yannick Agnel

Yannick Agnel

A star retires, another rises. After reigning over the international swimming world for more than a decade, American Michael Phelps won the final six Olympic medals of his career in London last month—for a grand total of 22 in all, 18 of them gold—before retiring, he says, for good. But his title of “best swimmer in the world” might not go unclaimed for long. The nascent star of the 2012 Olympics was a 20-year-old French swimmer named Yannick Agnel. The “French dolphin” was discovered with a shock by the worldwide Olympic audience when he caught up with American favorite Ryan Lochte in the 4x100m relay final, passing him in the last few feet of the race. The next day, he outperformed all his competitors in the 200m freestyle final to clinch a second gold medal, a feat never before achieved by any French swimmer. But his sudden sweep was not over: in the 4x200m relay, the French team won the silver medal, with Agnel swimming almost a second faster than Phelps in the last leg. “I didn’t think I could swim that fast,” he said, smiling after the race. “Phelps told me he was impressed, and that it was one of the five best performances ever. If he says so….”

Agnel is not a 22-medal Olympic champion, at least not yet. But his career has just begun. Born in Nîmes, in southern France, in 1992, he began swimming at the age of 8, after trying football and judo. At 14 he left home, moving to Nice to join Fabrice Pellerin, who has been his coach ever since. Soon he won his first major races: in 2009, he swept three titles at the European Junior Championships. That same year, at the French Championships, he was the only swimmer to stick with a regular swimsuit, while all the other competitors preferred performance-enhancing polyester bodyskins. “I’ve always worn a swimsuit, I don’t know why I would change now,” he said. The next year, bodyskins were banned, and Agnel clinched his first European crown in the 400m event, beating the world-record holder, German swimmer Paul Biedermann.

A dolphin among sharks

At the 2011 World Championships in Shanghai, Agnel was unable to win a solo medal, finishing fifth behind Lochte and Phelps in the 200m. The defeat stung his pride. He did manage to win silver with the French team in the 4x200m relay, but his expectations were higher: “My swim was good, but I hoped for more”, said the angel-faced predator, who defines himself on his Twitter account as a “municipal-pool shark”. (The New York Times described him, like a superhero, as “lantern-jawed”.) Despite his own definition, Agnel actually looks more like a dolphin among the fishes. The 6’ 8” pool prodigy bears little resemblance to other swimmers on the deck. Unlike most of them, he has no tattoo, no tanned skin, not even huge muscles. He’s also hailed as an intellectual, despite his youth. Fond of novelist and poet Vladimir Nabokov, he learned Russian to read him in the original. While in Switzerland for sports training, he also did classes with ballet master Maurice Béjart. And during interviews, business school student Agnel often cites Baudelaire, Freud or Montesquieu, with quotes like the latter’s “gravity is a fool’s happiness”.

Agnel is known for his smile and his laid-back attitude, and if his independent character occasionally got on other swimmers’ nerves over the past few years, no one would choose to find fault with him today. His performances in London, along with those of his teammates (see below), led the French national squad to unprecedented success. Over the last 60 years, French swimmers won a total of only three gold medals; now they have won four in the London Olympics alone, making France third on the swimming gold-medal scorecard, behind the US and China, but ahead of traditional winners Australia and Russia.

Now Agnel hopes to conquer the 100m freestyle, an event he has begun to swim only recently, and in which he finished fourth in London. “I haven’t mastered this prime event yet, but I’ll keep working on it,” he said after the final. “Now I know how much I still have to work to be the best.” The 100m will surely be one of his main goals at the World Championships in Barcelona next summer, when he will be 21. He is already a champion, but his future lies ahead. In French, dolphin is dauphin—the title of the heir to the throne.

Camille Lacourt

At 27, the tall, blue-eyed playboy born in Narbonne is one of the oldest members of the French team, and one of the most admired by the female audience for his impeccable looks, but he only recently reached world-class level in competition. European record holder for the 100m backstroke since 2010, Lacourt became the first French world champion last year, literally in a dead heat with teammate Jérémy Stravius; the two swimmers finished in precisely the same time in the Shanghai pool. Considered a favorite in London for this event, Lacourt failed to win a medal, finishing fourth behind American duo Matt Grevers and Nick Thoman. Maybe his mind was focused on the imminent birth of his first child, expected this month, with his companion, former Miss France Valérie Bègue.

Camille Muffat

Despite her obvious winning qualities, Muffat had a hard time coming along in the shadow of French Olympic gold medalist (2004) and world champion Laure Manaudou. But she finally broke through into the limelight during the London Olympics. Shy but determined, she decided to forego swimming medley and concentrate on freestyle. Branded a favorite, the 22-year-old Niçoise didn’t crack under pressure, and she set a new Olympic record-winning gold in the 400m freestyle. In the 200m she took the silver medal, behind American Allison Schmitt. And to round off her own private podium, she won a team bronze medal for the 4x200m freestyle relay, making her only the third Frenchwoman to win three medals in the same Olympics. Like Agnel, she is coached by Fabrice Pellerin, and she has the potential to keep right on winning for a quite a few years.

Florent Manaudou

Born in Villeurbanne, near Lyon, in 1990, the younger brother of swimming star Laure Manaudou proved to be one of the biggest surprises of the London Games. Though praised as an upcoming talent for last two years, the 21-year-old Manaudou was expected to get only as far as the final in the 50m freestyle event. But his furious start allowed him to top his competitors, including US favorite Cullen Jones, who finished second, and the world record holder, the Brazilian César Cielo, who took third. With an unexpected time of 21.34, the young Frenchman won France’s fourth swimming gold, and its first ever in the short-distance event. After his surprise win Manaudou threw his arms around his sister and later, in a televised interview, said “For the final, I told myself that I had already succeeded in my competition and that now it was only pleasure. I think that was the right idea.”

Originally published in the September 2012 issue of France Today

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