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Gaul's Gladiators Set For Strasbourg Arena

Mar 21, 2011  - Craig Lord

French nationals and world-championship trials get under way in Strasbourg this week at a five-day meet that boasts a firepower in men's freestyle events that is hard to find just about anywhere else in the world. 

Consider the tip of a sprint iceberg: Alain Bernard, Fred Bousquet, Fabien Gilot, William Meynard, Gregory Mallet - and Yannick Agnel, the 200m and 400m danger and bridge to a phenomenal outcome at European championships last year. In winning the 800m and 1,500m crowns in Budapest last year, Sebastien Rouault ensured that France took gold in all freestyle events barring the 200m in which Agnel did not take part because of a selection policy that dictated tough time targets be met in heats, semis and finals. 

That format is gone this year, the risk of big misses lessened because of it. But where four per nation can qualify for Europe's showcase, it is back to a two per nation cut for world titles in Shanghai this year.  While Agnel and Rouault are pretty certain of their places in solo races, some of the world's best sprinters are looking at being confined to relays. 

The edge going into the race often rests with those who exude the greater confidence. Fred Bousquet tells L'Equipe this morning that he is a "rebuilt" and ready to blast. All the sprinters want a solo berth but a relay place is no bad thing in a France context: such an honour comes with a golden chance to keep the world at bay. 

That thought extends to medley these days, Gaul ending last year at the helm of the world rankings in an event boosted by the leap of Camille Lacourt on backstroke to world-record-threat efforts of 24.07 and 52.11 in Budapest. 

Among women, much will be on Agnel's Nice training partner Camille Muffat, world s/c 200m free champion, and others pressing down on freestyle standards in the wake of the legacy left by Laure Manaudou. The question of whether Muffat can connivery short-course speed to equivalent long-course pace, also applies to Alexianne Castel, a world s/c champion over 200m backstroke last December and now facing a new test in the big pond this summer.