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The rise and fall of a champion in Beijing

Aug. 11, 2008, 9:13 a.m. (ET)

BEIJING (AP) An inevitable rule of life is that time eventually catches even the greatest champions, whose triumphs and failures at the pinnacle of sports are measured in fractions of a second. On Monday, at the Beijing Olympics, the clock caught one of swimming's once-brightest stars, Laure Manaudou of France.

Tick, tick, tick.

The rise and fall of Manaudou, who came to the Summer Games as defending champion in the 400-meter freestyle, is a story of speed and precocious talent but also of treachery, of the follies of love and of negotiating the passage from carefree adolescence to womanhood. Somewhere along the line, as the months and days were counting down to her rendezvous in Beijing, the once unbeatable Manaudou got lost.

Tick, tick, tick.

In the Athens Olympics in 2004, aged just 17, Manaudou had brought home France's first swimming gold since Jean Boiteux in 1952. She added a silver in the 800-meter free and a bronze in 100 backstroke. The next year, she became the 400 free world champion, a title she defended in 2007. In between, she broke the 18-year-old world record of Janet Evans, and then improved on her own mark again just three months later.

France loved her - the butterfly tattoo on her shoulder, her soft brown eyes, her rage to win at a time when the country was fretting about its depressingly sluggish economy and declining influence in the world. The stop-clock was her friend, not her enemy. It was the measure that proved her domination in the pool.

Tick, tick, tick.

In Melbourne, at the 2007 worlds, Manaudou took two golds and five medals in six races. But then, the Manaudou machine began to hiccup. She was no longer a teenager, and had started to hunger for other passions in life. That April, she split from Philippe Lucas, the long-haired and longtime coach who mentored her rise to the top. Manaudou said she was tired of swimming, and her heart was elsewhere. She had fallen in love with a Sicilian swimmer, Luca Marin.

Manaudou had taken to writing the word "amore" - love - on her left palm before races, and flashing it after her victories. She moved to Italy to be closer to her beau and train with a new coach. French media quoted her as saying that she wanted to have a child. But like many soap operas, this one finished badly.

The couple split. Manaudou moved back to France. They squabbled in public: The Italian press reported that Manaudou threw a ring into a training pool when Marin asked for it back, and that one of his teammates had to dive to get it. The lowest blow came last December, when photos of Manaudou naked - seemingly taken in an intimate moment by a lover - appeared on the Internet. Marin told the Italian press he had nothing to do with the posting.

"I've been to hell," Manaudou later told Paris-Match magazine.

Of the nude photos, she added: "I no longer dared wear a swimming costume. ... Whenever I typed Laure Manaudou on the Internet, it was horrible. I felt humiliated."

She fell back on her family to recoup her strength. Finally, to try to get her preparations back on track for the Olympics, she moved to the French town of Mulhouse to train with a new coach, Lionel Horter. But the big question remained: Could the champion make back the lost months and get ready in time?

Tick, tick, tick.

Eight swimmers, with Manaudou leading the way, filed out at exactly 11:15 on Monday morning for the final of the 400 free in the "Water Cube" Olympic pool with its distinctive bubble-wrap exterior. Manaudou knelt at poolside and splashed water over her face and chest, like someone trying to keep themselves awake.

In lane 4, Italy's Federica Pellegrini turned her back on Manaudou while they readied for the race. Pellegrini is dating Marin, Manaudou's ex, took away the Frenchwoman's 400 free world record this March and stole her 200 free record in heats on Monday.

Final adjustments of swimming caps and goggles. Then - beep! - the buzzer and they were off.

Swimming in lane 8, Manaudou made the strongest start and led for the first 150 meters. But then, just as quickly, she dropped back to next-to-last, and then last, where she stayed for the second half of the race. It wasn't even close; she was more than 8 seconds slower than the winner, Britain's Rebecca Adlington, a lifetime in an Olympics where the record books are being rewritten.

"When everyone accelerated, I saw that I couldn't," Manaudou told French reporters. "I gave up a little bit because I thought to myself that no matter whether I finished fifth or eighth, it wasn't important for me."

Tick, tick, tick.

About an hour later, a ghostly Manaudou walked silently out of the swimming center. She was sniffling and her eyes were red. She pulled the white hood of her team France tracksuit tightly around her ears when reporters asked her questions. Her current boyfriend, walking beside her, didn't say a word either. They climbed aboard an athletes' bus and were gone.

French officials were at a loss to fully explain what had happened. A medical staffer on the team said Manaudou's shoulder, a recurrent problem, still bothered her. Other team officials said Manaudou had put too much pressure on herself, that years on top have worn her mentally, that she was stressed, that she had taken her foot off the gas because she realized halfway through that she could not win.

"A champion," said the French sports minister, Roselyne Bachelot, "is a very fragile thing."

Manaudou has other chances to redeem herself, on Tuesday in the 100 backstroke final and in the 200 back competition later this week. But whether she can recover mentally in such short time is a genuine question.

Again, the clock is ticking.