By the time she retired for the first time aged 22, France’s Laure Manaudou had already been one of the world’s top swimmers for half a decade, having won gold at Athens 2004 when she was just 17.
Born in 1986 in the Rhone region of France, Laure Manaudou grew up in a sporting family. Her father Jean-Luc was a handball coach, while her mother Olga was a top badminton player. However, it was in the pool that the youngster flourished. She did so well at her local club that when she was 14 she was ‘headhunted’ by top coach Philippe Lucas, who persuaded her parents to let her relocate to the outskirts of Paris, with the promise: “I’m going to make your daughter a champion”.
Immersed in an intense training programme, Manaudou’s teenage years were entirely taken up with swimming. The hard work soon paid off, as she started to make her mark at national level, excelling at both freestyle and backstroke in all of the distances. In 2003, she won five titles at the French swimming championships, setting four new national records. The following year, she was crowned European 100m backstroke and 400m freestyle champion in Madrid, before taking the world by storm at Athens 2004. On 15 August, Manaudou won the 400m freestyle gold to become the first French swimmer to win an Olympic title since Jean Boiteux, who prevailed over the same distance back in 1952. She went on to win two further medals in Athens: silver in the 800m freestyle and bronze in the 100m backstroke. Instantly transformed into a national icon, she struggled to cope with her new-found celebrity status. Over the next three years she racked up three World Swimming Championship titles (and six medals in total), nine European titles (13 medals in total) and 36 national titles (55 medals in total). She also set several world records in the 200m and 400m freestyle.
From 2007 onwards, Manaudou’s career was erratic. After parting company with her old mentor, Philippe Lucas, she failed to add to her Olympic medal haul at Beijing 2008. The following year, aged just 22, she announced her decision to retire, taking time out to have her first child with her partner, Frédérick Bousquet, the former 50m freestyle world record holder. However, she returned to the pool in 2011, and was selected to compete in the 50m, 100m and 200m backstroke at the 2012 Games in London. Unfortunately, she failed once again to emulate her performances of Athens 2004; but she did provide London 2012 with one of its most memorable images, when she jumped ecstatically onto the back of her younger brother Florent, as he emerged from the Olympic pool having won the 50m freestyle final. More generally, Manaudou’s achievements in the pool paved the way for a new generation of French success on the international swimming scene.
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