Laure Manaudou, just a year ago the queen of Gaul and heading towards the greatest French Olympic performance of all-time, progressed to the semis of the 200m backstroke tonight. She was here in body but her heart and mind are off somewhere in a landlocked desert far from the Water Cube. Better still, far from water.
The rot set in the moment she abandoned Canet and coach, Philippe Lucas, in favour of a life with lovely Luca in Italy. Things didn't work out, malicious photos of the fastest middle distance swimmer the world had ever seen appeared on the internet, Manaudou moved back to France, Luca turned his attentions to Federica Pellegrini. The club where Manaudou landed in hot water in Italy is no more. Gone to the knacker's yard of outfits that run out of the stuff that makes the world go round. The boyfriend stolen, the world record in the 400m followed soon after and Pellegrini arrived in Beijing as favourite for the eight-length crown. She blew it. 4th. So did Manaudou, 8th. The Italian then stole Manaudou's world record in the 200m and lifted the crown by lowering the mark a second time. Manaudou bombed out of the 100m backstroke. It would be a French farce if it wasn't all so tragic. But this was a drama of Manaudou's own making.
After the 100m backstroke, the Frenchwoman was ready to pack her bags and head off on a long holiday in a pool-free zone. "After the 100 metres backstroke, I considered leaving. I could see no point in going on like this," she said tonight. There were no tears. She is resigned to the fate that has unfolded. Nothing she can do about it. Empty vessel. Her mouth opens and closes. Her eyes look at the floor, the ceiling, the notepads, the lights. Anything but eye contact.
Manaudou said she had changed her mind. She stayed in town so that she would have "no regrets" later. "At the French championships, I also started poorly and I recovered so why not here? I have the third time this season on the 200 metres backstroke and I can have ambitions," she said. From high up in the stands, the eagle-eye view suggests that she is in no shape to challenge the likes of Kirsty Coventry and could even come a cropper at the hands of teenagers from Britain, the USA, China and elsewhere. The Water Cube is no place to be half-hearted.
She knows it well. "The results speak for themselves," said Manaudou. "I'm going to take a long break. One month or six or a year, to think back on what happened in 2007 and what happened here." That journey may be just as painful as the one she is enduring here in Beijing. Closure and a brighter future depend on one thing: her ability to listen to sound advice. There are those, like her parents, coaches and others, who have offered sage words. Most of those have fallen on the deaf ears of a young woman who may well know her own mind but is apparently unable to work out where that will lead her.
Manaudou is 21. She is said to earn upwards of 2.5 million euros a year. That could buy an awful lot of help. She's going to need it.