Manaudou: Doubt It And Be Damned
Craig Lord
Confidence, belief, momentum have all been lost in the storm of an unsettled life. Can the Olympic and world champion bounce back? The question is ever present in Manaudou's mind

Under a front page banner headline 'DOUBT' and beside a picture showing the swimmer half in shade and shadow, a look that borders on fear on her face, L'Equipe questions Manaudou's ability to stand up in Beijing and go for gold.

'After her disappointment in the 400m on Monday, Laura Manaudou pulled out of the 200m ... Worried just three months and half months out from beijing, her only consolation was victory in the 100m backstroke,' said the paper.

There is talk of the suit - what to wear - etc, but in Manaudou's case that is a red herring. The fact is, she is an athlete who has had four coaches in the past year, has endured an unsettled life, mostly self-imposed, has suffered the poisonous treachery of whoever it was who felt it appropriate to post pornographic images of her on the internet, has lined up on a podium to promote a suit alongside the man who's genitals are on the photos. What a way to approach an Olympic Games.

The L'Equipe editorial that runs along side an interview with her - in which she explains that she wanted to end the day with a 100m backstroke win and that (and the fact that she was 'not feeling good on freestyle) was why she had withdrawn from the 200m freestyle - gets into some of the issues but misses a fundamental point. What we are seeing is the crumbling of an edifice built by coach Philippe Lucas. There is no going back. Manaudou wore a new TYR Tracer Rise suit, not her Arena R-Evolution, just to test the waters (it made no difference to her in terms of avoiding finishing third in a 400m race at her own Olympic trials). She is also, doubtless, looking for explanations as to why her form has suffered. The answers rest in the decisions she has taken.

Manaudou is, as the paper suggests, full of doubt. She might, she said, regret her decision to drop the 200m. Why wouldn't she? She's world champion and record holder. Might? No might about it. She will regret it unless there's a way back for her. Where are the senior minds, the years of experience, the words of wisdom that ought to have been whispered and screamed in Manaudou's mind for the past year? Perhaps they were there all along and she just did not heed them.

'I'm asking myself lots of questions,' Manaudou tells Jean-Baptiste Renet at L'Equipe. 'But once again, I say, I cannot always be at the very peak of fitness and there are lots of reasons why I'm a little off at the moment. It's not like I was beaten doing a 4:03. In that sense, it's not that serious.'

Time will tell whether Manaudou is working through and can bounce back from this, and I would not wish to put money against her, though the signs are not good. Confidence, belief, momentum have all been lost in the storm, it seems. Swimming history is littered with the names of world record holders who stumbled at the worst moment, just as it is loaded with the names who stepped up to the mark just at the right moment.

The 400m freestyle in Beijing will be won exactly in the manner that Lucas predicted two years ago: golden guarantees live inside 4 minutes, medals rest just a touch beyond it. If Manaudou can get there, she is still in the frame. The question is, does she truly believe she can? The runes say not but Manaudou knows her mind and her body better than anyone. She has proved herself time and again when it has counted.

But Beijing will be bigger than anything she has faced before. And she knows it well. 'In 2004, I was just 17,' the Olympic champion tells L'Equipe. 'I churned it up in heats and finals ... I was fresh and I did it all without thinking too much about it. I didn't think about doing well or not, I just got on with it. Now, I'm thinking a little too much and I'm getting stressed about it. And its four years on and the next generation is arriving.'

Thinking too much indeed. We are just a year beyond the dizzy heights of Melbourne 2007. Who'd have thought it? Lucas, that's who.