By David Rieder
Sure, Florent Manaudou only just touched out Andriy Govorov for the European title in the 50 free. And the Frenchman’s winning time of 21.73 was not terribly impressive as he’s already swum three tenths faster this year‒and more than a half second faster in his incredible 21.19 that won the World title last summer in Kazan. On the other side of the world, Cameron McEvoy actually put up a faster time earlier in the day with his 21.61 at the Japan Open.
But that doesn’t change the reality of the status quo: Manaudou is the sprint king until otherwise dethroned.
The rise to superstardom began at the Olympics four years ago in London when the then-21-year-old shocked the world by upsetting reigning Olympic champion Cesar Cielo for the gold medal in the 50 free. Manaudou had not even competed in the 50 free at the World Championships the year before, and he had to swim his best time (21.80) to qualify sixth for the Olympic final.
But on the biggest stage, Manaudou delivered, swimming a 21.34 from lane seven before sharing a hug on deck with his previously-more-famous sister Laure, whose gold medal in the 400 free eight years earlier in Athens had been France’s first in swimming since 1954.
Manaudou finished a surprising fifth at the World Championships a year later. Despite qualifying first for the final in 21.37, he ended up falling back as Cielo, Vlad Morozov and George Bovell swept the medals from lanes six, seven and eight, respectively, amid rumors of a current favoring swimmers on that side of the pool in one lap races.
But since then, Manaudou is undefeated in the splash-and-dash. His European title on Sunday was his second straight, and he also has proven his ability in sprints outside of freestyle‒he won the 50 fly World title a year ago and also took first in the 50 back at the 2014 Short Course World Championships. His 100 free lags behind the 50, but just an hour after his 50 victory he anchored France’s medley relay to a silver medal with a 47.55 split.
None of his Olympic competition in the 50 free has been within two tenths of his winning time from Kazan last summer‒an enormous margin in a race that short. So even if he’s not at his best right now in May, just wait ten weeks until the Olympic Games. Manaudou has proven over and over again that when it’s time to race, he will deliver.
*Japanese duo ready to wreak havoc on women’s 200 breast. A year ago, Kanako Watanabe established herself as one of the best young breaststrokers in the world with her three medal performance at the World Championships in Kazan. Just 18 at the time, Watanabe won a silver in the 200 IM and bronze in the 100 breast before ascending to the top of the podium in the 200 breast with a swift 2:21.15.
She is headed to her first Olympics this summer as a teenager, something Rie Kaneto knows all about. After all, she was just 19 when she qualified for the 200 breast final in Beijing eight years ago, but her swimming took a dip as she failed to qualify for the London Games for years ago.
But what Kaneto has done in 2016 has been remarkable‒she has twice broken the Japanese national record in the 200 breast, first with a 2:20.04 in January and a 2:19.65 in April that made her just the fifth woman ever to crack the 2:20-barrier. She backed that up with a swift 2:20.93 Sunday at the Japan Open, a mark nobody else has surpassed this year.
Few countries have the luxury of two supremely-talented gold medal threats in one event‒Britain comes to mind with Andrew Willis and Craig Benson in the men’s 200 breast, along with Australia in the women’s 100 free (Cate and Bronte Campbell) and women’s 100 back (Emily Seebohm and Madison Wilson). The 200 breast final at the Olympics could shape up to be an all-time high moment for Japanese swimming.