Alain Bernard (1 May, 1983) is a French freestyle swimmer and is among the fastest sprinters in the world at the 50m and 100m distances.
Bernard’s rise through the international swimming ranks started as a relay swimmer, winning successive medals – first a gold and then two silvers – in the 4x50m freestyle at the European Short Course Championships in Vienna (2004), Trieste (2005), and Helsinki (2006). He also won his first international individual medal when he placed third in the 100m freestyle in Helsinki.
In 2007 he continued his medal-winning ways with the French relay team by taking bronze in the 4x100m freestyle at the World Championships in Melbourne, before picking up his first French titles in 50m and 100m freestyle at the National Championships in Saint-Raphaël. He then finished the year in fine style by winning his first international gold medal in the 100m freestyle at the European Short Course Championships in Debrecen, where he also picked up a bronze in the 50m freestyle event.
As far as breakthrough years go, Alain’s was in 2008. First, at the European Championships in Eindhoven, he won his first European titles in both the 50m and 100m freestyle, setting new world records in both. At the shorter distance, he set the new mark of 21.50s in the semi-finals; in the 100m, he broke Pieter van den Hoogenband’s 8-year-old record in the semi-finals (47.60s), and then promptly broke his own record a day later in the finals (47.50s).
Five months later Bernard carved his name into Olympic history by winning the 100m freestyle in Beijing, beating his rival Eamon Sullivan from Australia by a touch in the final after both of them had set new world records in their respective semi-finals (Bernard’s came first, Sullivan’s second). In addition, in a thrilling 4x100m freestyle relay, Bernard was a member of the French team that narrowly lost out on gold to the US team by .08s, swimming well within the existing world record as they picked up the silver medal. He also picked up third place in the 50m freestyle for an impressive gold-silver-bronze medal haul in his first Olympics. For good measure, Alain finished the year by breaking the 100m freestyle world short course record at the French SC Championships in Angers (45.69s).
It was always going to be difficult to emulate the achievements of 2008, but 2009 was nonetheless successful for Bernard. In April he became the first man to swim the 100m freestyle in a sub-47s time, at the French National Championships in Montpelier. Unfortunately – and many say unfairly – he was subsequently stripped of the record when FINA ruled that the Arena swimsuit he was wearing had not been approved, despite the fact that others made of similar material were deemed acceptable. Three months later at the World Championships in Rome he was narrowly beaten to the 100m freestyle gold by Brazilian Cesar Cielo. As a member of the French 4x100m freestyle relay team, he also picked up a bronze medal.
In 2010 he returned to his winning ways by successfully defending his European 100m freestyle title in Budapest, while also picking up a silver medal as a member of the French 4x100m freestyle relay team. At the World Short Course championships in Dubai at the end of the year, he was a member of the French relay team that won the 4x100m freestyle gold medal, breaking the championship record in the process.
Bernard was disappointed to miss out on a spot for the 100m freestyle at the 2011 World Championships in Shanghai, but he still won a silver medal with the French 4x100m freestyle relay team, and added an individual bronze in the 50m freestyle event. For Bernard, though, the most important event on his calendar lies ahead – the 2012 Olympics in London, where he hopes to successfully defend his 100m freestyle title.
Alain Bernard is a big man. At 196cm (6 ft 5 in) and 96kg (211 lbs), with pectoral muscles that make it seem like he has wings, he is an imposing presence. These are useful attributes to have as you stand on the starting block about to take to the water, and it’s a presence that Alain has transferred into his performances in the pool.
Alain’s stature makes him a natural as an icon, and it’s therefore no wonder his Olympian feat – only France’s second-ever Olympic swimming gold – catapulted him into the public eye. ‘The Shark’ followed as a nickname, perhaps as a result of the shark tattoo on his hip, perhaps from his imposing presence in the water, but it doesn’t sit that well with him. The connotations of a predatory force are counter to his personality, even if he competes with a steely determination. Example – when his great rival Eamon Sullivan from Australia needed a place to train before the Paris Open in 2009, Bernard invited him to his Antibes base. These are not the actions of a swimmer looking to devour the rest of the field, but rather one seeking to compete fairly in a spirit of respect and amity.
As much as he has coped well with the fame his Beijing medals have brought – willingly stopping in the street to sign autographs – underneath it all he is shy, reserved, and treasures his privacy. He has a close relationship with his family, and looks forward to the times he can spend away from the spotlight with girlfriend Coralie Balmy, French freestyle swimmer.
Beyond his tough training schedule and swim meets, he gives his time to charitable causes such as EDF’s La Nuit de l’Eau (The Night of the Water) – a fund-raising event to finance programs for sanitation and the supply of water to schools in Togo – he’s a volunteer policeman, and whenever possible he pursues his other passion, flying. Among his greatest thrills have been flying with world aerobatic champion Ecalle Renaud (who died in a flying accident in 2010), as well as the Patrouille de France, the French Air Force’s precision aerobatic demonstration team. In June, 2011, he appeared in Arena’s Water Experience, a unique perspective of Alain swimming using 3D Mapping to project the images on to Paris’ Cinémathèque Française.
When it comes down to it, by his own admission Alain might be strong in the water, feel free in the air, but most of all he likes to have his feet on the ground. When you listen to those around him, that sentiment is confirmed – he’s down to earth, sensible, and well-balanced. One that knows him as well as anyone is coach Denis Auguin, who he’s been with for over 10 years. But as he reveals, these attributes don’t mean a one-dimensional character – far from it, in fact. He describes Alain as intelligent, thoughtful, instinctive, humorous, self-deprecating, generous and faithful. No faint praise from a man that also has to deal with the other side of Bernard’s personality – his occasional stubbornness and ‘grumpiness’. It’s all part of the package, though, says Denis, who completes an intriguing personality portrait thus: "That is really Alain, this continual ambivalence between knowledge and instinct, between the air (flying) and the earth (roots), the calm and the storm, and a continual search for lightness and purity, while remaining firmly attached to his anchors."