A couple of weeks ago, while I was on a delightful but rainy training trip to Spain, I woke up to the news that sent shockwaves through international swimming. Yannick Agnel was leaving France as well as not competing individually in this summer's world championship. Then, swiftly afterward came reasons why: tales of a frayed relationship with coach Fabrice Pellerin and a desire for some time to reflect after his Olympic triumph. The news is a bummer for swimming fans everywhere- after all they were anticipating a good Sun Yang/Agnel rematch in Barcelona this July. For swim coaches, the story has another angle. In many ways, the story of Agnel and Pellerin was what coaches dream about: taking a swimmer from age group to Olympic champion. The ultimate example for this was of course, Bob Bowman and Michael Phelps. So why did the dream come to an end for Pellerin? The following is complete speculation on why.
First, a refresher on the major points of each story. Bowman began coaching Phelps at 12, and he promptly put together one of the most remarkable age group careers ever, made the Olympics at just 15, and went on to become the greatest Olympian ever. Bowman coached him through all of it (more on that later). Pellerin/Agnel grew famous partially via (esteemed? reviled?) British swimming journalist Craig Lord, who often cited that Pellerin had refused to allow Agnel to race in full body suits while he dominated the junior levels.
Flash to 2012, and Agnel has helped Pellerin to form one of the most powerhouse professional swimming groups in the world. As cited on Nice Swim's page, Pellerin's swimmers would have been 5th on the Olympic medals table alone. Since that time, they added Danish Olympian/World Championship gold medalist Lotte Friis to the squad. It seemed that nothing could go wrong in Nice.
Maybe nothing did, but its kind of weird to hear that Agnel wanted "warmth, sharing, sincerity". I mean, Bob Bowman has never seemed to be the leading US coach in any of those categories. To me, Bob Bowman always seemed more like the svengali type coach. Remember when he bitched to the media that Michael wasn't training seriously enough? Or when he threatened to take his toy(s) home from the playground unless FINA banned body suits?
In my opinion, we should be more shocked that Agnel stayed with the same coach for so long. Consider the coach-swimmer relationship, starting in the "age group" days (12-14 years old). The swimmer will change a lot from age 14 to age 20. The coach probably won't as much, but they will have to change their relationship to keep up with their protege. Which brings me back to Bowman. What he accomplished was amazing, keeping Phelps as a swimmer for that long of a period of time. My cynical side says that we will someday have a big reveal that Phelps was miserable continuing with Bowman but didn't know how to break it off. My optimistic side says that he was actually able to change alongside Phelps, that their relationship didn't stay locked in the Bob as adult with 12 year old Michael stage.
Which brings me back to Agnel and his departure. I've often wondered, how did Agnel feel about his coaching having him race in briefs against the body suited swimmers? Was he happy with it? Agnel was generous in his praise- "I'm a double Olympic champion and I owe him"- of his former coach. Is it possible, however, that their relationship was stuck at some level that really worked for 17 year old Agnel but that the now 21 year old Agnel really couldn't stand?
Suffice to stay, I'm less surprised at Agnel leaving his coach than him staying with the same coach all the way through, regardless of how good that coach is.