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Building Backstroke, Beauty & Racing Beast

Aug 10, 2010  - Craig Lord

A marriage of efficiency, aestheticism and athleticism: Camille Lacourt. A poignant presence in the race pool at a time when the tide turns in favour of swimming, that word used with meaning, for swimming is what we are now watching once more. Swimming as it was, a sport in which excellence is all about, but in which the extraordinary stands out. Lacourt stood out today. Peaked in pursuit of perfection, he put on a show that shone beyond the shiny past being put to rest.

On 52.11 - out in 25.43, home in 26.68 (not far shy of the opening split of the slowest man home) - Lacourt, 25, is the fastest swimmer we have ever seen over 100m backstroke. That assessment is not intended to slur the 51.94 world mark of Aaron Peirsol, an American who proved himself to be the best backstroke ace of the decade past long before poly put the kettle on. The assessment is intended to reflect the enormity of what Lacourt achieved at the Alfred Hajos pool here on Margaret Island today. On February 11, 2008 as the world of swimming awoke to news of polyurethane panels and whispers of speed inspired by NASA, Peirsol was king on 52.98. 

More on what Lacourt's win means in terms of European championship history here.

There is not a little poetic justice in the progress of Lacourt - who went through prep and honing with coach Richard Martinez at Font Romeu, then the hard conditioning regime of Philippe Lucas, mentor to Laure Manaudou, a couple of years before a significant switch to the Marseilles programme of Romain Barnier - to the helm (and how) of the 2010 world rankings and all-time textile list. He was not suited to the shiny suits. 

Of the 15 best times he ever set, 11 have been clocked in 2010, one in 2007, none in 2008 and three in 2009, when his build, his strength and strengths lent themselves to being washed away in the buoys around him. Best shiny time: 53.57, in 2008 he struggled on 56.27, and in world titles '07 year he clocked a best of 55.39. 

Height he has: 2m. Weight he has not: the French handbook (197cm is what it says but 3cms are missing) is missing the figure but suffice it to say that, until I can fill in the box [filling the box at 85kg, a touch up on a year ago], Lacourt has legs "like a giraffe's", in the words of a French colleague. Skinny as a rake. A late developer too ... and so on. In the water, he is now a mature, moving, flat-lining tribute to Peirsol and Japanese rivals Ryosuke Irie and Junya Koga. As I noted after heats yesterday: smooth, streamlined, head high, no hint of a dead zone in his perpetual motion.

Barnier told SwimNews: "Perpetual motion is one of our key phrases. We have strong beliefs, we have taken a different approach. We've set out to create a whole model." The coach then proceeded to list the influences that have gone into building the perfect beast to fire back at those who have influenced his success: "The Peirsol magic: not just his technique but his personality, how he prepares for races, he is so brilliant, how he turns himself into a fish before getting into the water. I had the pleasure of swimming at the same time in the US [as an athlete for France based in the US]."

The head position of Irie, the overall approach of Koga, and the help of Aussie coach Ian Pope, who worked so well with Matt Welsh. At the 2009 Mare Nostrum Tour, Pope spent some time with Barnier who describes the benefits of that encounter thus: "In one week I picked up the knowledge that it might take 20 years to get ... information about breakouts and stroke count. Ian was a strong influence on our programme."

Barnier then talks of the "secret ingredients" that have gone into making Lacourt the competitor he now clearly is, the coach hinting at the work that goes into marrying the swimmer's personality and body type with his mission in the water. 

An example: in shiny suit year, the gangly talent often got hammered coming out of turns. "There were swimmers who were a lot faster than him coming off the walls. He just got lost. But that year taught him to fight to come back from way back. He kept that information, took it with him. Coming into this season he said 'this is going to be a different year. I'm going to have fun'."

It did not take long for him to start to build a new picture, said Barnier: "The first race of the year was an important moment. By the first race at French nationals he had started to put all the pieces of the puzzle together."

Here's the sequence of the king of consistency in 2010:

  • 54.52 Feb Nimes final
  • 56.02 Mar Amsterdam heats
  • 55.41 Mar Amsterdam final
  • 54.40 Mar Montpellier final
  • 53.35 Mar St Raphael nationals heats
  • 53.83 Mar St Raphael nationals semis
  • 53.29 Mar St Raphael nationals finals
  • 53.97 Jun Monte Carlo Mare Nostrum final
  • 54.00 Jun Canet Mare Nostrum final
  • 55.33 Jun Paris Open heats
  • 53.73 Jun Paris Open final
  • 53.27 Aug Budapest heats
  • 52.58 Aug Budapest semis
  • 52.11 Aug Budapest final - European title and record/fastest textile time ever

Next stop: Dubai world s/c titles. "He's not as good at short-course as long-course," said Barnier. "So I'm going to set him a high goal there."

Asked what Lacourt was like to coach, Barnier replied: "He's fun, smart in training. He's capable of telling the coach what he thinks and when he thinks we are heading in the wrong direction. He's always in a good mood. Sometimes he's too much in a good mood. We work on many aspects of the whole [entity], the whole man, what he needs to do to make him a better swimmer. He makes the boring things, the routine things fun for himself. He plays with it. For example if he is doing a stroke count set he will create something out of it, find some way to make it fun, so that it's not boring and he gets far more out of it than others swimmers."

Lacourt, tall but explosive but of a slight build not apt to have benefitted as much as many in a race buoy of 2009, is also physically blessed in terms of what water decreed might be best if you want to look and move like a swimmer. Barnier notes: wide shoulders, skinny hips, no bum to speak of or get in the way of excellent water fluid dynamics. All natural gifts but his body position on backstroke, a splendid thing to behold - even when, as today, he brushed the lane line too many times, particularly on the way out (room for improvement) - is, like those of Coughlin and others who stand out in the streamlining stakes, honed. The gift combined with the graft, Roland Matthes style, head fixed, fish roll, timing tuned to  cut out the momentary dead zones that can lead to lumpiness and a resistance from that merciless element in which no prisoners are taken among those who offend.

Lacourt is more apt to thrill. To watch him is a great pleasure for anyone who loves swimming and appreciates what it is to swim. Barnier and his team of coaches know it. Lacourt's guide notes: "It can be so boring to stand on a poolside and watch swimmers train, go through a routine but it can be everything too. With Camille, we watch him train and it's a pleasure. Sometimes, he will be doing something, a set, and everything stops. All the coaches gather round to watch." That's entertainment.

Barnier pauses, smiles and then steps up to the confessesional: I was a fan of shiny suits. Good grief man, how could you! Get a grip! He does: "The part I enjoyed the most about the shiny suits was that mostly the work we do is to spend life in routine training, then there was the shiny life, the show. It's not fun to stand at a pool n January at a meet somewhere and they are tired and they race but its like training. Suddenly they could put on a show, that's what it felt like." 

He exploited the situation and made sure that his crew always had the latest suit, responded to the latest knowledge on how to get the most out of them. And that became part of the fun. Part of coaching too, of course, in many a varied way. But with props, a game too. He said: "It's like you get a new car. It's exciting."

We boys tend to tire of toys and since then Barnier has seen the light. He has on his hands a swimmer of Lacourt's suitability to swimming, and he rooms with Fabrice Pellerin, mentor to Yannick Agnel and Camille Muffat, charges also suited to swimming without the need for props. 

Barnier, a suits convert, is more than happy to acknowledge how much it means to see a swimmer stand out, as Lacourt, like Agnel, clearly does. Even training is "more fun now", he adds. In 2009 he had had "swimmers who didn't deserve it" step up and win medals. They were athletes who worked the least but gained the most. That caused tension and friction in the group. "The situation was unfair," says Barnier, who has around 15 world-class talents in his midst, including the likes of William Meynard, Fabien Gilot and Gregory Mallet. "They get along a lot better now ... there's less tension." 

Among the sprinters, he adds hastily, "there's still a bit of tension ... and that's a good thing".

Of Lacourt's breakthrough, Barnier noted: "When he came to us, basically he had the talent, the technical work and the base training all in place. We then had the fun of  putting it all together. That's what we saw here. Not a day, a year but a whole sequence of choices that he has gone through. They came together at the right moment."

Lacourt himself told the assembled media here: "I'd been swimming for a long time but never found the link with the coach that I found with Romain Barnier. I lacked maturity and didn't really know how to apply myself in training. I was not consistent. I knew I was talented but a lot of people had to help me to achieve this."