Camille Muffat roared to the helm of the world rankings with a 4:01.13 French record past the best of 2004 Olympic champion Laure Manaudou and into uncharted waters as the fastest ever in a textile suit at French trials and nationals in Dunkirk.
Victory and the time granted Muffat a ticket to a London 2012 showdown that will include defending Olympic champion Rebecca Adlington in front of a home crowd in the British capital in high summer and world champion Federica Pellegrini (ITA).
The textile standard had been held by Federica Pellegrini since she took down Manaudou's world mark on 4:01.53 in 2008 on the way to Beijing 2008. The Italian did not make the podium in China but went on to claim the 2009 and 20011 world titles and, in shiny suit, became the first woman inside 4 minutes. That barrier remains to be broken by a swimmer unaided.
In Dunkirk in the wake of Muffat came Coralie Balmy, of Toulouse, also inside the Olympic cut, on 4:05.45. Muffat, coached by Fabrice Pellerin in Nice, had already topped the world rankings this year with a 4:03.21 last month. That time, the Frenchwoman's best ever in any suit, was surpassed by the 4:02.35 of Adlington at British trials two weeks ago.
Muffat is now back on top, her latest effort and those two bronze medals over 200m and 400m at world titles in Shanghai last year confirming her among title favourites at the Games in London.
"The French record was not my aim. I was happy and surprised to get it. I just did what was necessary today. I knew I had made good progress," Muffat told reporters in Dunkirk. She believed that it would take 4:00 to win gold at London 2012.
The splits compared show an interesting dynamic to the battle building:
Among the best 10 performances in the world this season are three from Muffat and three from Adlington, while the London 2012 stakes are steadily taking shape but have some way to go:
The top three raced in peak form at domestic trials this month.
At 15, Muffat was European junior medley champion and took silver over 100m freestyle at the same continental youth level. Her firsts senior appearance as a French senior was at the Budapest 2006 European Championships, where she raced in the 4x200m freestyle relay. That same year in Helsinki at the European short-course championships she claimed her first international senior medal, silver in the 200m medley.
It would be March 2008 in Eindhoven that she would win her first senior European long-course medal, bronze in the 200m medley. At French trials for Beijing 2008, she claimed both the 200m and 400m medley crowns and took down Manaudou's Franch 200m medley record in 2:11.15. She also raced the 4x200m free in Beijing.
By then, Pellerin had already begun the to change the canvas: Muffat would be a world-class freestyler. From a 4:18.20 400m best in 2007, she stepped up to a 4:06.68 at Scottish nationals in her 19th year in the June before the Games in Beijing. In Shanghai last year, she took bronze in both races won by Pellegrini, her experience of what it will take at London 2012 as good as the next medal favourite in the field.
In Dunkirk today, Manaudou, who had held the French record at 4:02.13 since 2006, was present to see it all unfold but was not only a spectator. In heats, Manaudou, of Auburn and Marseille, showed her intent with a 1:00.42 warm-up in the 100m backstroke ahead of Alexianne Castel, on 1:01.04.
In the semi this evening, Castel struck back in 1:00.34, with Manaudou on 1:00.58. All to play for, with the Olympic bronze medallist of 2004 in loin to confirm herself among those on the comeback trail ready to step up to Games selection once more.
The 100m backstroke final for men will feature joint world champions Camille Lacourt and Jeremy Stravius, with Ben Stasiulis out to make mischief: Lacourt booked lane 4 in 53.17, Stasiulis was next through in 54.10, with Stravius biding his time in 54.28.
The 200m freestyle final will be a heated affair tomorrow. After European champion Yannick Agnel, of Olympic Nice, clocked 1:47.73, inside the London 2012 cut, in the first semi, Amaury Leveaux, of Lagadere Paris Racing, went 1:47.63, pressed by Agnel's training partner Clément Lefert, on 1:47.79, and GrégoryMallet, of Marseilles, on 1:47.89.
In finals today, Justine Bruno took her first French title with a 59.55 victory in the 100m butterfly but the time of the 17-year-old from Beauvaisis Aquatic Club fell shy of the 58.70 required for a London 2012 ticket. In second, seasoned international Aurore Mongel clocked 59.71.
There have been several such near misses at French trials so far. Today Giacomo Perez Dortona, of Marseilles, claimed the 100m breaststroke crown in 1:00.86, 0.1sec shy of his target ahead of American visitor Mark Gangloff, on 1:01.94, with Olympic medallist Hugues Duboscq third in 1:02.11.
On the first day of action in Dunkirk, the only qualifier for London 2012 Lara Grangeon, CN Caledoniens, on 4:40.12 in the 400m medley.
The time for the 400m freestyle men was 3.48.92. The win went to Sébastien Rouault, Mulhouse, in 3:49.15, ahead of a 3:50.15 for Anthony Pannier, of Sarcelles.