Throwback Thursday: Laure Manaudou Smashes Barriers at 2007 World Championships
The 2007 World Championships in Melbourne will be foremost remembered as the meet where Michael Phelps won seven gold medals, five of them coming in world-record time. It was that effort, which would surely have been eight-for-eight if not for the prelims disqualification of the U.S. men’s 400 medley relay, that showed his march for perfection at the Beijing Games would be possible.
Phelps overshadowed nearly every other swimmer racing that week at Rod Laver Arena, but it was the site of the finest performance that Laure Manaudou ever produced during her fleeting period of dominance. Over the previous three years, Manaudou had grasped control of the women’s 400 freestyle, first winning Olympic gold as a 17-year-old, then backing it up with a world title one year later.
In 2006, Manaudou claimed the world record, and this was no normal mark — American legend Janet Evans had owned the top spot at 4:03.85 for 18 years before Manaudou swam 4:03.03 at the French Championships in May and then 4:02.13 at the European Championships in August.
On the first day of the 2007 global meet, Manaudou won another 400-meter gold medal, her time of 4:02.61 setting a championship record and coming in more than one-and-a-half seconds clear of Polish silver medalist Otylia Jędrzejczak, but then the world got a chance to see Manaudou show off in other events.
In the 100 backstroke, an event in which Manaudou had achieved some success as the Olympic bronze medalist two years earlier, the French swimmer broke 1:00 for the first time in Melbourne. That doesn’t seem like a big deal anymore, not in an era when 13 women broke the barrier in the semifinals at this year’s World Championships, but in that race, Manaudou became only the second swimmer to do so after Natalie Coughlin. As Coughlin snapped her own five-year-old world record, Manaudou came in with a groundbreaking time of 59.87 for silver.
Just over one hour after that 100 back final, Manaudou swam in the 200 free semifinals and placed fourth in her heat in 1:57.30. Two lanes over, though, Italian teenager Federica Pellegrini had broken the world record with a time of 1:56.47, edging out a five-year-old mark held by Germany’s Franziska Van Almsick. Manaudou was seemingly an outside medal contender in the final, but instead, she took over the lead on the second lap and held off Germany’s Annika Lurz for gold, with both swimmers beating Pellegrini’s world record and moving into 1:55-territory for the first time. Manaudou’s 1:55.52 was 95-hundredths clear of the previous standard.
Those Worlds marked the only time in Manaudou’s career she would win a relay medal at a meet of that caliber, anchoring the French women to 800 free relay bronze, and she finished off the meet with an epic duel in the 800 free with American Kate Ziegler. Manaudou held the lead for most of the race, briefly surrendering the top spot just after the halfway point but then building up a 46-hundredth advantage entering the final lap. That lead would not hold up, unleashing a 28.80 final split to come over the top, but the two swimmers both recorded times in the 8:18-range that made them the second and third-fastest women ever, respectively, behind Evans.
So Manaudou concluded her meet with two gold medals, two silver and one bronze, and the accolades would help her earn Female World Swimmer of the Year honors, making her the only French swimmer, male or female, to ever reach that pinnacle. But Manaudou, seemingly poised for stardom at the upcoming Beijing Olympics, never reached those heights again.
Shortly after Worlds, Manaudou announced she was splitting with longtime coach Phillipe Lucas and moving to Italy to be closer to boyfriend Luca Marin, who had won silver in the 400 IM at Worlds. But Manaudou and Marin had a very public breakup less than one year later at the European Short Course Championships, and after several rounds in the tabloid headlines, Manaudou changed coaches again in the final leadup to the Games.
And Manaudou would not perform well in Beijing, falling to eighth in the 400 free and seventh in the 100 back. She missed the final of the 200 back and did not even swim the 200 or 800 free, and by the end of the meet, her world records over 200 and 400 meters belonged to Pellegrini.
After that, Manaudou would never reestablish herself as an international force. She briefly retired and then attempted a comeback in time for the 2012 Olympics, but she failed to qualify for any finals in London, which would turn out to be her last major competition. She did, however, take part in one heartwarming moment as she embraced younger brother Florent when he upset world-record holder and defending champion Cesar Cielo for gold in the men’s 50 free.
As it turns out, those 2007 Worlds marked the final time the elder Manaudou sibling would make headlines for results in the pool rather than personal turmoil on land, but that should take nothing away from her performance in Melbourne, where she added to an already-historic 400 free world record with barrier-breaking swims in three other events while recording a four-individual-medal haul surpassed only by Phelps.