No regrets as French swim star relishes US adventure
French triple Olympic medalist, swimmer Yannick Agnel adjusts his cap during a trainning session in the Meadowbrook Aquatic and Fitness Center on October 17, 2013 in Baltimore, Maryland
So much so that the towering 21-year-old Frenchman, a three-time Olympic medalist and the 400-meter freestyle short-course world record holder, is open to the idea of staying in Baltimore after the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.
"What's for sure is that I'm here for at least three years, at least until Rio," said Agnel, perched on a poolside picnic table after a vigorous afternoon of successive 50-meter laps under the eye of Baltimore's legendary swimming coach Bob Bowman.
"I don't want to say that, after three years, it'll be over and I'm going. One never knows what might happen," he said.
"What I do know is that I really love to swim and I really want to train more. I love what I do. I love this environment. So no, I certainly don't rule out doing more than three years here."
Agnel stunned the French swimming world when, in the aftermath of his dazzling Olympic debut, he packed his bags, bid his family and girlfriend adieu and moved to Baltimore, a blue-collar American port city nicknamed Charm City.
"I told myself: America? Why not?" he said. "Even better, Bob Bowman? Why not?"
Bowman, famous for guiding Baltimore native Michael Phelps to an astounding 18 gold, two silver and two bronze medals over four Olympic Games, welcomed him with open arms.
It was Agnel, the 48-year-old coach said, who first contacted him -- via Twitter.
Emails and a two-hour face-to-face meeting later, and Bowman added Agnelto his posse that also includes Conor Dwyer, Tom Luchsinger and Baltimore-bred Paralympic star Jessica Long.
"He's really quite similar to Michael in several ways -- his mental approach, his dedication to training, those sorts of things," Bowman told AFP.
"But he's also quite different and I think he can stand on his own. He doesn't need a comparison to someone else ... He's the first Yannick."
Situated by an old cotton mill that now houses a Starbucks and a Whole Foods organic grocery, Meadowbrook was built in 1930 as a popular hilltop refuge for Baltimore residents fleeing the summer heat.
"It's always been a neighborhood pool, and it's a Baltimore landmark. Did you know that F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote about sitting on the beach at Meadowbrook?" said Bowman, referring to the "Great Gatsby" novelist and the sandy side of the pool.
When they acquired it in 1987, owners Murray and Patricia Stephens set out to turn Meadowbrook into a swimming training center of national and international ranking -- without sacrificing the family-oriented character that makes it so distinctive.
Hanging on its walls are images of the champions it has produced -- people like Theresa Andrews (its first Olympic medal-winner in 1984), Anita Nall, Beth Botsford, Katie Hoff, Allison Schmitt and Phelps, now retired, who still drops by regularly to work out.
But the real action, even this late in the year, is out by the outdoor pool, where anyone from small children to senior citizens can share the water with some of the best swimmers in the world.
"It's history in itself. Just watching Olympians (swim) in the lane before me, it's incredible," said high-school swimmer Korby Simpson, 17, as she waited for Agnel and his counterparts to finish their laps.
"Nothing compares to this pool," added Will Cosgarea, also 17, who's been swimming and competing in local meets at Meadowbrook since he was five years old.
It's that informality that Agnel -- who lives in a sparsely-furnished apartment a short walk away, and who has yet to get a US driver's license -- finds so appealing.
Americans have "an entirely different" approach towards sports, he said, fielding reporters' questions in the T-shirt and sneakers of two of his French corporate sponsors.
"Everybody hugs each other, cheers each other on, encourages each other to the end... The motto here is, we train seriously, but we don't take ourselves seriously."
Around the pool, Agnel -- who after hours is working on a master's degree from the elite Sciences Po university in Paris -- has a reputation for being approachable, down-to-earth and funny.
"Oh my gosh, he's so humble. Even though I'm a Paralympian, he treats me as an equal," said Long, 21, winner of 12 gold Paralympic medals, as she put on her prosthesis legs after training alongside him.
Coming off the world championships in Barcelona, where he led France to its first-ever victory in the 4x100 meter freestyle relay, Agnel is looking forward to a series of meets that includes the US v Europe all-star Duel in the Pool in Glasgow in December.
But with Bowman on his side, fine-tuning a training program to get the very best out of his talent, he said he's taking things step by step.
"What's changing is that we have a plan and we can put it into action," he said.
"As Bob said this summer, we'll play it by ear on the way to Barcelona, and then learn the sheet music. Now we have three years to Rio (and) a road map" to get there.