Florent Manaudou, France’s swimming icon, eyes one last Olympic splash and dash

Florent Manaudou
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PONTE VEDRA, Florida — Florent Manaudou is training another two years in hopes that his Olympic career, which already includes a gold medal and three silvers, lasts about 64 more seconds in the swimming pool.

Manaudou, a 6-foot-6, 220-pound sprinter, took surprise gold in the 50m freestyle at the 2012 Olympics, then silver in 2016 and 2021 in the event dubbed the splash and dash.

“My body’s quite tired at the moment,” Manaudou, 31, said in a sitdown interview while in Florida for the Jax50 competition last week. “I cannot do the same things in the water [as in the past]. I cannot work the same way. And so I have to find the pathways to swim fast. But it’s difficult.”

The 50m free, an often breathless dance of maintaining technique while maximizing power, takes 21 seconds. Factor in rounds of preliminary heats, semifinals and the final, and it’s a little more than a minute of competition total at the Games for the athletes who specialize in it.

Manaudou said he probably would have retired after Tokyo, where he was runner-up to Caeleb Dressel, if not for what happened in the summer of 2017. Paris was awarded the 2024 Olympics.

Now, Manaudou will attempt to become the oldest French swimmer to win an Olympic medal, and one of the oldest French swimmers to ever compete at the Games, according to Olympedia.org.

Should he qualify in two years, he plans to make it his final competition in a 50-meter pool. He may hang on for short-course racing.

Manaudou, once labeled “the swimmer who doesn’t like to swim,” has a few goals between now and then. He would love to be an Opening Ceremony flagbearer on the Seine River after coming close to receiving the honor from his fellow athletes in Tokyo.

In the pool, he would like to set a personal best, which he has not done since 2015. He would like to stand on top of a podium and hear the national anthem, which he has not done since 2016.

“I want to feel that I’m better than before,” he said. “And not just my feeling, but also in the water.”

That rarely happens for swimmers in their 30s. But of all the events, it’s most likely in the 50m free, the shortest race on the program. Experience, mechanics and acumen come into play where medals are decided by the smallest margins.

In 2016, Manaudou took silver, one hundredth of a second behind 35-year-old American Anthony Ervin, who like Manaudou later did, left the sport for years. Dara Torres came back from two long breaks to earn 50m silver at age 41 in 2008, also one hundredth of a second shy of gold. She joked that she shouldn’t have filed her nails before the race.

Years ago, Michael Phelps‘ mom called on the 28-time medalist to come back for a quick event, like the 50m or 100m free.

Manaudou’s fiancee knows the required mentality. Denmark’s Pernille Blume took 50m gold by two hundredths over Simone Manuel in 2016, after swimming thousands of meters, day after day for four years, with the primary end goal being a 24-second Olympic final.

“I guess when you put it that way, it makes it sound a bit crazy, you know, crazy people doing this,” she said. “At the same time, I like the intensity. Sprinting is being aware of what you’re doing at all times.”

Recent Olympics have not been kind to legends trying to squeeze out one more Games to compete at home.

In 2016, the chest-slapping Cesar Cielo, a former rival of Manaudou’s, missed the Brazilian Olympic team by nine hundredths in the 50m free and was in tears afterward.

Japanese wrestler Kaori Icho, a gold medalist in 2004, 2008, 2012 and 2016, did not qualify for the Tokyo Games.

At the moment, Manaudou has less internal competition for an Olympic spot. A nation can send a maximum of two swimmers to the Olympics in an individual event. and Manaudou is one of two Frenchmen in the world’s top 50 in the 50m free this year.

Manaudou could swim a second event at the 2024 Olympics — the 4x100m freestyle relay. France memorably took silver in 2008 (behind American Jason Lezak‘s anchor), then gold in 2012 (Yannick Agnel ran down Ryan Lochte) and silver in 2016 before dropping to sixth last year.

Manaudou was part of the final quartet at the last two Olympics, but he prefers that a better team be fielded without him in 2024.

“I’m not a 100m swimmer,” he said. “I’m here to help. If I’m faster than other guys, of course, I’m going to swim it. But I really hope that young French swimmers are faster than me. If I’m in the relay, it means that it’s going to be difficult to have the medal.”

In France, the pinnacle sports moments are associated with those more or less representing their country, within the country, more than a club. Everyone remembers where he or she was when the men’s soccer team won the 1998 World Cup final in Paris, said Manaudou, who was a 7-year-old growing up near Lyon at the time.

Yannick Noah winning the 1983 French Open. Alpine skier Jean-Claude Killy‘s three golds at the 1968 Grenoble Winter Games. In 1894, Frenchman Pierre de Coubertin led the re-establishment of the Olympic Games at a congress at the Sorbonne in Paris.

In 2004, Manaudou’s older sister, Laure, authored another one, but in Athens, becoming the first Frenchwoman to win an Olympic swimming title (at age 17). Manaudou noted that happened on a national holiday, live on primetime TV. A French magazine then offered to fly the family to Greece for Laure’s final races of the Games. Her fame was compared to that of soccer star Zinedine Zidane.

“If you’re good, you’re kind of a swimming god in France,” Manaudou said. “But if you lose, you’re like shit, so you have this kind of pressure around you. And you’re more focused on the result than swimming.”

So Manaudou had a unique perspective on Dressel. The Frenchman specifically remembers seeing the look on the American’s face after his first individual Olympic gold in the 100m free.

“I was like, this guy is living a hard time with all the pressure,” Manaudou said, noting the four years after Dressel’s first world title in 2017. “Everyone was waiting for him to win all these races, and of course, he’s a good swimmer, and he’s the best in the 50m, 100m [freestyles] and 100m fly. But when you have to win on the day, it’s different.”

Even with his goals, Manaudou stressed enjoying the lead-up to Paris. Afterward, he may go back to handball. He left swimming after the Rio Games to play professionally, then returned to the pool because he missed it.

“When you run, when you bike, when you swim, you’re focused on having pain in your body,” he said. “When you do a team sport, it’s different.”

He may continue to live the fast life. Manaudou dreams of skydiving. He has driven five different Porsches, including his dream car, the 964 Turbo made famous in the 1995 film “Bad Boys.”

“I cannot just lay on my couch and watch TV,” said Manaudou, who was once given the nickname Lazy Boy to describe his affinity for training. “I need to feel alive.”

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