As of yesterday, it is unclear whether Yannick Agnel will compete in this summer’s Olympics. If you had a time machine to travel back to 2012, and told a swimming observer that Agnel would not return to defend his 200 freestyle title, they would be dumbfounded. Most likely there would be questions, such as “has he been seriously ill or injured?” or “did France miraculously sprout two younger middle distance swimmers that are even more amazing than Agnel?”. The answers would be “sort of” and a deafening “no” respectively.
Setting aside the touchpad fiasco, even an adjusted time would put Agnel’s swim yesterday in the range of 1:46 mid. That is over three seconds slower than Agnel swam to win London gold, just freshly 20 years old at the time. In an era when more and more swimmers peak later in their careers, Agnel’s decline really stands out.
To be fair to him, he did seem to have a serious illness last summer that prevented him from swimming in the 2015 World Championship. It was not the first time that Agnel has pulled out of a meet or race due to those circumstances. Before that however, Agnel had seriously struggled to replicate the form that made him look so impossible to beat in 2012. So how did we get here? To begin, we need to watch Agnel’s big moment, when he crushed a stacked field in London to win 200 freestyle gold:
Agnel’s achievement was the culmination of an outstanding junior career, where he gained praise not only for his fast swimming but also from the anti-bodysuit fetishists because he raced in just a brief.
Forgotten in the wash of both Agnel’s individual victory and France’s 4×100 Freestyle relay was that Agnel had declined to pursue the 400 freestyle at the meet. His personal best would have won a bronze, but one can only wonder how fast Agnel could have swum in the longer freestyle at a meet that he also did such a great 200.
Post Olympics, it looked as if Agnel (and Sun Yang) might soon upset the 1-2 stranglehold that Lochte and Phelps had on the world’s top swimmer. He ripped a 3:32.25 in the 400 freestyle (short course), breaking one of the “impossible” suited World Records of Germany’s Paul Biedermann. He put up a 1:39.70 in the 200 freestyle at the same competition.
Agnel’s performance, along with those of the late Camille Muffat, had put Nice on the map in international swimming. It was incredibly abrupt then when in May 2013 he decided to abandon longtime coach Fabrice Pellerin for the United States and Bob Bowman. If things were going so well, why leave? On the other hand, moving to train with the coach of the greatest of all time surely couldn’t be a bad decision.
Agnel got off to a decent start in Baltimore. The following summer he won the world title in the 200 freestyle and helped France to once again take gold in the 4×100 relay. He was, however, a second slower in both the 100 and 200 freestyle than he had been in London. At the time, all of that could be chalked up to a tumultuous year and adjusting to an entirely new coach and training system.
If that were true, than 2014 would be the year that Agnel regained his pace. Instead, the opposite happened. Agnel slipped above 49 in the 100 freestyle and only managed a 1:45.63 in the 200 free. That swim came back home in France, by the summer’s European championship, he managed a 1:46.65 that earned him bronze. France didn’t use him on their 4×100 relay.
With nothing seeming to work, Agnel decided to return to France while there was still time to right the ship. He announced in September of 2014 that he would leave Baltimore and train with Lionel Horter in Mulhouse.
In 2015, there were signs of life. Agnel managed to get a 48.68 at the French Elite Nationals, putting him back in relay contention. He won the 200 freestyle there too, still well back of his best at 1:45.97. Even so, if Agnel could have repeated that time yesterday, he would find himself looking forward to a title defense in Rio.
The situation with his touchpad is an unfortunate circumstance, but it’s one he once seemed so unlikely to find himself in. Perhaps he can move on from this disappointment and fight his way onto the 4×100 Relay later this week. Otherwise, we could be looking at the end of a career.