France's Manaudou laps field in 400-meter freestyle

Updated: March 25, 2007, 1:06 PM ET
Associated Press

MELBOURNE, Australia -- Laure Manaudou powered through the water, the butterfly tattoo on her right shoulder barely visible to the swimmers she left in her wake.

Manaudou, who won the 400-meter freestyle at the world championships Sunday, was nearly a half-second under record pace early in the race but faded at the end to finish in 4 minutes, 2.61 seconds -- 0.48 seconds off her world mark.

Manaudou, the 2004 Olympic champion, broke American Janet Evans' 18-year-old record last May in the French championships, then took it even lower three months later at the European titles in Budapest, Hungary.

With about 8,000 spectators in Rod Laver Arena sensing she might break the mark, they cheered as she distanced herself from the other swimmers -- by about half a body length after the first lap, one length after 100 and nearly two body lengths by 250.

At the end, she let silver medalist Otylia Jedrzejczak of Poland close the gap, but still finished nearly two seconds in front to successfully defend the title she won in Montreal two years ago.

"I wanted to exceed my own expectations, so I prepared for this competition intensely," Manaudou said after picking up her gold medal. "So [the lead] came from that preparation. I swam hard and knew that it would come down to a good set up at the beginning that needed to continue right to the last lap."

Manaudou swam the 100 backstroke, 200 individual medley and 400 and 800 freestyles at Budapest, winning them all. On Sunday morning, the first session of qualifying in the eight-day meet, Manaudou decided against swimming the 200 IM.

"I had other things I wanted to prioritize," the Frenchwoman said. "I qualified for it and I knew it was always an option. This kind of work load is not new."

The extra rest must have helped. American Katie Hoff, who finished fourth in the 400, was impressed.

"It's amazing how she takes it out so hard and so fast," Hoff said. "I think it's a great strategy."

Manaudou realizes that as No. 1, she's also everybody's target.

"The competition is fierce," she said, looking ahead to the 800 free. "There are more competitors who are getting close to my times. This win has reassured myself but I am not confident, especially in the 800 meters. The USA are very good. They could beat me, but I do not feel any pressure because I am not the 800-meter world champion."

Her boyfriend, Luca Marin, will attempt to defend his silver medal in the 400 individual medley.

Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press