As Roland Garros hands over to the Euros this weekend and as the tennis legacies are written on the clay in Paris, and as the home nations attempt to make local history around Europe, we turn to a rivalry between France and Sweden, that is being honed at Loughborough University and is currently in Mallorca.
The two swimmers, students and training partners lined up together in the final at the European championships last month and returned home with gold and bronze in the 100m butterfly. In the French corner is the newly crowned European champion Marie Wattel, 24, and six months younger than Sweden’s Louise Hansson, a world silver medallist in the medley relay who finished third behind Wattel in Budapest.
“It’s a challenge to coach two potential medal winners in the same race,” says Ian Hulme, former international swimmer and now head coach of the university swim programme, whose elite group are on a training camp at the BEST Centre this week.
“All our athletes are chasing international medals and they can be self-critical when they don’t perform, but there is no doubt this pair are raising each other’s performance since Louise arrived this year.”
The girls echo their coach. “We help each other to be better,” says Wattel. “We push each other.”
Hansson adds, “Racing Marie was a big reason to come to Loughborough. We are big rivals but she’s one of my closest friends.” Hansson is very tall and built like a human greyhound. She did her undergraduate degree in business at one of the top swimming schools in California and walks and talks like a confident American as words gush out.
“I came here, like, seven years ago with my club Helsingborgs, you know my dad right, they come here all the time, and as soon as I walked in I remembered it, it’s such a great place to train, everything’s so close, the atmosphere is great, good vibes...”
Hansson has a younger sister, Sophie, who won gold in the 100m breaststroke at the Europeans.
“It is great having her there. We have always been on teams together but we don’t room together.”
Wattel, tall and strong with a classic swimmer’s physique, grew up in Annecy then moved to train with the elite programme in Nice. It wasn’t the best experience. She had a disappointing Rio and the training group in Nice was breaking apart. “My coach told me I didn’t know how to swim ‘fly. I didn’t want to be there and I wanted to give up. But in Rio I saw how the British swimmers were performing and I thought I would go there and try it for a month.
I am still there five years later.” Wattel has just finished her degree in sport management and in the final few months some compromises in the pool had to be made to finish all the coursework before the European championships in May.
“I was finishing my dissertation in the taxi on the way to the airport to Budapest,” she said. “I was more stressed about that than winning the medals at the Europeans.”
Moving from the French Riviera to a small industrial town in central England was a big change and the only thing Loughborough town centre has in common with the Côte d’Azure are the pictures in the travel agents’ windows. But it was clearly the right move.
Both athletes talk about the high-performance environment in Loughborough, how the cutting edge of sports science is applied at an individual level and how everyone around you is focused on how to win Olympic medals. There is nowhere like it. Even the big US college programmes are more about the team rather than the bespoke programme you get in Loughborough.
The focus is now on Tokyo as the best in Europe challenge the best in the world. The lack of fans has not been an issue. “We are used to it now,” says Hansson. “The swimmers and coaches make the atmosphere.”
“I just focus on the race,” says Wattel. “In Rio I was stressed by the crowd, so now I have the chance to re-adapt for Paris. But for now the focus is on Tokyo.”
Now she is graduated, after Tokyo Wattel will return to France and the sunshine of the elite programme based in Marseille to prepare for a home Games.
Hansson will complete her Masters next year and then who knows. But first it is Tokyo, and when the pair line up again, it’ll be, ‘first one back is Olympic champion.’