When the world thinks of French athletes, the sports that tend to come to mind are soccer, cycling, rugby, fencing and maybe marathons (if you count endless café discussions as an Olympic event). But that may all change now that France’s swimming contingent is turning heads around the globe by snatching up a trio of gold medals early on in the events schedule. Suddenly la natation française has become synomymous with winning.
That may not change too fast, given how things are shaping up. On Tuesday, two members of the French team that stunned their American rivals to win the gold medal Sunday in the 4 x 100 meter freestyle qualified for the semi-finals of the individual 100-meter freestyle event. Leading that French charge is breakout youngster Yannick Agnel, who anchored France’s victorious relay team. On Monday Agnel struck gold again on his lonesome in the 200-meter freestyle. Although previously unknown to the general public, Agnel has become a French hero virtually over night. On Tuesday the daily le Parisien called Agnel “A Giant”, while the headline of French sports paper l’Equipe purred with “Agnel Ecstasy”.
Yet the surging 20 year-old–who has already had a big hand denying American stars Michael Phelps and Ryan Lochte much Olympic glory thus far in London—is far from the only soggy French athlete thrilling French hearts. On Sunday, compatriot Camille Muffat claimed the gold medal in the women’s 400 freestyle. On Tuesday, Muffat qualified in the third spot for the 200 freestyle final. And that pair hadn’t even been considered France’s best medal shots coming into the Games.
That vast potential of chlorinated victory proved a bit too much for France’s usually soft-spoken President François Hollande. While visiting London—and Monday’s swimming finals–Hollande used France’s medal grab to dish out some playful payback to British Prime Minister David Cameron’s controversial comment in June that he’d “roll out the red carpet” to welcome rich people from France moving to the UK to escape tax hikes.
“The British have rolled out the red carpet for French athletes to win medals,” Hollande said shortly after watching Agnel win the 200. “I thank them very much for that, but the competition isn’t over yet.”
Swagger, from low key Monsieur Normal? In jest, to be sure—but still reflecting a “we be bad!” sentiment much of France is feeling just now, thanks to the country’s new aquatic stature.
France has had its international swimming stars before—including Athens gold medalist Laure Manaudou, and Beijing triple medalist Alain Bernard. But French swimmers have rarely sparkled so abundantly and brightly as they have in the early days of the London games. Part of that eye-popping start, French officials note, is rooted in the London schedule playing to the strength of France’s swimmers.
“We knew a big part of our Games were riding on how these first three days went,” France’s technical swimming director, Christian Donzé told le Parisien Tuesday. “It’s gone better than planned, but it’s not over. We have to remain ambitious.”
Ambition—and discipline–is a major reason why France has turned its swimming fortunes around. After coming home with no medals from the 1996 Games in Atlanta, France’s Swimming Federation adopted a tougher regime to whip its overly complacent swimmers into shape. New requirements for training programs, participation in lower-level competitions, and engagement in national team selections set higher levels of commitment and behavior. Those strictures were also applied to the country’s biggest stars, who previously enjoyed exemptions from the rules of mere mortals.
The result of the more rigid set-up: only nine French swimmers met Federation criteria to participate in the 1998 World Championships in Australia. That group, however, came home with three medals. France’s improved performance on the international level has been risen consistently since, with the London games being the biggest pay off so far.
The new icons of that success are Muffat and Agnel, who train for the same team in Nice. Both have endured seven day per week workout regimes (with only Saturdays and Sunday afternoons off), and have demonstrated the same refreshing surprise at having finished atop the Olympic platform they viewed as virtually unattainable.
Agnel is a particularly ripe target for peaking media interest in French nageurs—a playful group that has reportedly nicknamed the bookish, quirky Agnel “the intellectual”. Agnel’s tall, lanky build also serves as a visual contrast for the bulkier, buffed bodies of most modern swimmers—including his Hulk-like former France teammate Bernard. Even earlier, Agnel long stood out in national and international meets as the guy clad only in briefs or jammers, while most of his fellow finalists were wedged into then-legal bodysuits. That kind of defiant individualism is probably a key asset to Agnel’s success—and a common trait explaining why French swimmers have clawed to the top of the international pack.
There may be no more self-centered, inwardly focused sport than swimming, where even teammates and coaches are usually cut off by the water isolating swimmers most of the time. Practitioners hear nothing, see little more, and have zilch to rely on to keep them going and focused apart from their own pride, ambition, and individualist agenda. In a sport where you can’t hear cheering crowds (much less shouting coaches), swimming is absolutely—at times dismally—all about you. The individualist character required for such a mindset doesn’t get much stronger than in France—arguably a nation and society of 64 million, resolute individuals.
Yet their growing habit of winning—all on their lonesome—is also making French swimming champions better, wiser losers as well. Earlier this week, former gold medalist and French swimming darling Manaudou crashed out of the 100-meter backstroke—and the London Games—with a disappointing race in the heats. Hopes across France had been high for a Manaudou comeback, especially with memories still vivid of the Athens champion weeping after disappointing performances in Beijing led her to consider quitting the sport with one event still remaining. On Sunday, by contrast, Manaudou regally demonstrated the limits of individualism in both swimming and life.
“I get the feeling some of you are more disappointed than I am,” Manaudou told French journalists following her elimination in heats, before telling them about her two-year old daughter waiting for her at home. “When you have a family, you put your counter-performances into perspective. My daughter watched me swim on television. She doesn’t know what my time was, but she doesn’t care. She’s happy to have seen mommy on TV.”
On Sunday, Le Monde’s Olympic blog saluted that reaction, headlining “Laure Manaudou’s Real Victory Is Elsewhere”. Which is true enough. Though thanks to Muffat, Agnel, and the host of French swimmers waiting to take to the blocks, France’s real chances for more Olympic gold in London are still in the pool.