Yannick Agnel: France’s prince of the pool
Frenchman Yannick Agnel was one of the stars of the pool at London 2012, serving up a victory in the 200m freestyle that Michael Phelps described as “one of the top five in history”.
Swimming against the tide
Named as a tribute to French tennis player Yannick Noah, Yannick Agnel began swimming competitively at the age of eight. From 2006 onwards, he was coached by Fabrice Pellerin at the Olympic Nice Natation, alongside another future star of French swimming, Camille Muffat.
Already 2.02m tall at the age of 16, he rose to national prominence at the 2009 French Swimming Championships in Montpellier, where, in an era of buoyant polyurethane swimsuits, he was the only competitor to wear swimming trunks. “I’ve always worn trunks; I don’t know why I would change things now,” he said at the time. In 2010, FINA banned the full-body suits, which were believed to provide those that wore them with an unfair advantage. During the same period, Agnel began to make waves in the 100m and 400m freestyle, winning a total of eight gold medals at the 2009 and 2010 European Junior Championships.
In the main pool
Agnel subsequently made his elite international breakthrough at the 2010 European Aquatics Championships in Budapest (HUN), where the 18-year-old won the 400m, breaking his own French record in the process. In December of that year, the Nimes-born athlete earned his first FINA World Championship medal, as he joined forces with Fabien Gilot, Frédérick Bousquet and Alain Bernard to claim gold in the 4x100m relay (short course) in Dubai (UAE).
After enrolling in business school in September 2011, Agnel made a name for himself in the USA, triumphing in the 200m and 400m at the Winter National Championships in Atlanta. “Whatconstantly keeps me going is the enjoyment I get,” he stated at the time.
Plaudits from Phelps
In 2012, the Frenchman arrived at the London Olympic Games full of confidence, boasting the fastest 200m time of the year (1:44.42). On 29 July, he got his campaign off to a stunning start in the men’s 4x100m freestyle relay, obliterating the half-second lead that had been opened up by the USA to overhaul Ryan Lochte in the anchor leg and provide France with its first ever Olympic title in the event.
The next day, Agnel landed his second gold medal with an astounding performance in the 200m freestyle, finishing almost two seconds ahead of Park Tae-Hwan (KOR) and Sun Yang (CHN), who finished in a dead heat for second. A watching Michael Phelps did not hold back when assessing the winner’s display: “I’ve seen a lot of great races and great performances, especially by Ian Thorpe, but that 200m was probably one of the top five in swimming history.” “If Phelps, the master, says that, who am I to argue?” responded Agnel with a smile. To cap off a highly successful few days, he later anchored France to a silver medal behind a US quartet featuring both Phelps and Lochte in the 4x200m relay.
Double world champion
In May 2013, he moved to Baltimore (USA) to train with Bob Bowman, the coach who had guided Phelps to success. At the World Championships in Barcelona that summer, Agnel was in irresistible form, prevailing in the 4x100m relay with Gilot, Florent Manaudou and Jérémy Stravius, and also in the individual 200m, upping his game in the final after initially failing to impress in his heat and semi-final. After experiencing a dip in form at the 2014 European Championships in Berlin, where he was forced to settle for a bronze medal in the 200m, his association with Bowman came to an end and he returned to France, choosing Lionel Horter as his new coach and Mulhouse as his new base.
Still in his early twenties as he gears up for his next Olympic campaign, Agnel is likely to remain at the top for many years to come, taking maximum pleasure from the sport that he loves. “Enjoyment is what motivates me to put in even more effort in training,” he says. “It’s what keeps my interest up and makes me hungry for success. I can’t imagine sport without pleasure.”