Standouts struggle, France’s Muffat wins 400 free

Camille Muffat entered the Olympics with the fastest time in the

400-meter freestyle this year. Somehow, she still managed to fly in

under the radar.

This race was supposed to be a duel between defending champion

Rebecca Adlington of host Britain and two-time defending world

champion Federica Pellegrini of Italy, the world-record holder.

There’s no mistaking who the star is now: It was France’s Muffat

who led from start to finish Sunday and edged Allison Schmitt of

the United States to set an Olympic record.

Inspired by her home fans, Adlington came from behind to finish

third for Britain’s first medal in the pool, while Pellegrini

settled for fifth, then announced she would take a year off after

these games and reconsider her future as a swimmer.

”It really hasn’t sunk in. I know that I won, which is rare for

me at an international meet,” Muffat said. ”It’s one of my first

victories, and it’s the one that had to be won.”

At the 2008 Beijing Games, Muffat was an individual medley

swimmer. Over the last couple years she has changed her focus to

the 200 and 400 free. Her coach, Fabrice Pellerin, felt it would be

better to focus on a single stroke.

The first signs of Muffat’s transformation came when she won

bronze in both the 200 and 400 at last year’s worlds in

Shanghai.

”When I changed from the medley I wasn’t sure it was the right

move,” Muffat said. ”Now I know it was a good decision.”

At the 2004 Athens Games, Laure Manaudou won the 400 free to

become the first French woman with an Olympic title. Manaudou is no

longer a leading contender after coming out of retirement, but she

is at these games.

”I was happy to see Laure see me win,” Muffat said.

Adlington was happy just to get a medal.

”My target has always been the 800,” Adlington said. ”But I

am pleased with that swim. … Another Olympic medal is just

unbelievable. There is not an ounce of disappointment in me.”

Adlington trailed for much of the race before pulling into medal

contention.

”The crowd definitely lifted me to get that bronze medal,” she

said.

Pellegrini also still has her best race to swim, the 200

freestyle, which she won in Beijing. But she’s already made up her

mind to take a year away from the sport. She’ll be 24 by the time

these games end. She’s been at the elite level for nearly a decade,

having won a silver in Athens at the age of 16.

”Tomorrow I’ve got the 200, which I won’t enter in great

spirits,” Pellegrini said. ”At this point I think I need a year

off, then a year from now we’ll see if I still have the desire to

swim.”

The 200 free heats begin Monday and Muffat enters with the

second-fastest qualifying time behind Schmitt.

”I’m not going to party, it’s just the first day,” Muffat

said. ”But I certainly achieved what I wanted to achieve. It’s an

Olympic title and that’s any athlete’s dream.”