Léon Marchand is France’s new swimming star in perfect timing for Paris Olympics
Two years ago, French teen swimmer Léon Marchand cold emailed Bob Bowman, the longtime coach of Michael Phelps, with a request.
Marchand intended to go to college in the U.S. and asked if there was mutual interest in him joining Bowman’s program at Arizona State.
Bowman had never heard of the kid from Toulouse. He gets plenty of pitches like this from high school swimmers, but this one was different.
First, the last name was familiar. Marchand’s dad, Xavier, swam at the Olympics in 1996 and 2000, won 200m individual medley silver at the 1998 World Championships and spent part of his career training at Auburn. His mom, Céline Bonnet, swam the IMs for France at the 1992 Olympics.
Then Bowman looked up the kid’s race times. At age 17, Marchand broke France’s national record in the 400m IM and was faster than his dad ever was in the 200m IM. So Bowman replied with an emphatic yes -- 15 minutes after Marchand sent the initial email, the swimmer said. Marchand announced his commitment in September 2020 to enroll after the Tokyo Games in 2021.
In the last two years, Marchand progressed from an unknown (to Bowman at least) to the world’s best all-around male swimmer. He swept the IMs at the world championships in June, put a scare into Phelps’ last remaining world record and smiled for photographers with Katie Ledecky at the meet’s conclusion as the event’s standout performers.
He is now on the path to being one of the faces of the Paris Games, if not the host nation’s biggest star across all sports.
“Five years ago I was watching this championships from home on TV ... everything just happened so quickly,” Marchand, now 20, said at worlds in Budapest. “I’m yet to realize it what’s just happened to me here.”
According to French sports daily L’Equipe, Marchand remembered picking up sports around age 7. He did judo (France’s most successful sport at the Tokyo Games with eight medals) because the dojo was near his house. Likewise, there was the Dauphins du TOEC, the century-old swim club in Toulouse where his father formerly trained.
He didn’t always bond with water. He took a year or two off as a kid and, after becoming competitive, felt mentally fried before the pandemic. He enlisted the mental coach of Florent Manaudou, France’s last Olympic swimming gold medalist in 2012, and regained the love of the sport while separated from it during COVID lockdown.
Marchand has said his parents didn’t push him into the pool. In fact, Xavier warned early on about the considerable sacrifices on the long road to possible success. (Phelps recently told the University of Alabama football team that he took zero days off from 2002 to 2008, including training on Christmas.)
Marchand desired the U.S. for the opportunity to combine high-level swimming and studies in the NCAA system and to discover a new part of the world, though his first choice was reportedly Cal, which did not have a full-ride scholarship available.
Other European swimmers previously crossed the Atlantic. Hungarian Katinka Hosszu went to USC before blossoming into the world’s best female all-around swimmer. Frédérick Bousquet, a member of France’s famed 2008 Olympic 4x100m freestyle relay team that took silver to the U.S., had matriculated at Auburn.
When Phelps retired in 2016, Bowman returned to leading the Arizona State program and thought he would never again coach the spotlight swimmer at an Olympics. But there Bowman was on the pool deck at worlds in June, this time in a French federation shirt.
He watched on the first night of worlds as Marchand was under Phelps’ record pace through 350 meters of the 400m IM. The 400m IM is Phelps’ last remaining individual world record and the longest-standing record in any Olympic swimming event (set by Phelps at the 2008 Beijing Games).
Phelps’ world record is 4:03.84. Marchand’s personal best going into the final was 4:09.09, the national record he set in the heats hours earlier. Phelps’ record survived the final, but Marchand chopped nearly five seconds off his best time and recorded the second-fastest time in history -- 4:04.28.
Marchand said after the race that he’s never met Phelps in person, but there have been messages of support, “and [Phelps] is always sending some texts to Bob.”
“I don’t want to be compared to Phelps all the time,” Marchand said before worlds, according to Agence-France Presse. “I’m very, very far from him. And Bowman didn’t just have Phelps, he had a lot of other [star swimmers]. Let’s say I want to create my own path, I don’t want to follow Phelps’.”
But there are striking similarities.
Like Phelps, Marchand’s first major international medals came in the medleys and 200m butterfly (silver at worlds). Like Phelps, Marchand made his Olympic debut as the youngest swimmer in his event and made the final (Phelps was fifth in the 200m fly in 2000 at age 15; Marchand was sixth in the 400m IM in Tokyo at age 19).
Then there’s what Bowman sees. When Marchand rattled Phelps’ world record in the 400m IM, the coach had flashbacks to what he called Phelps’ first significant swims.
In July 1999, a 14-year-old Phelps broke what Bowman remembered as a 20-year-old national age group record for 13- and 14-year-olds in the 200m fly by one hundredth of a second. The following March, Phelps went another five seconds faster, breaking the national age group record for 15- and 16-year-olds. He was still 14.
“That’s what the 4:04 felt like,” Bowman said of Marchand’s 400m IM. “I know where we’re going with this.
“They’re both very good under pressure. They both trained at a high level. Léon had, like, two bad days the whole year. And both of them were when he didn’t sleep all night for some reason.”
Marchand, described by Bowman as a 4.0 GPA student with English skills as impressive as his politeness, has plenty to learn. As did a young Phelps, who mistakenly took roommate Aaron Peirsol‘s credential to the pool for that first Olympic final at age 15.
When Marchand found Bowman after that incredible 400m IM at worlds, the coach gave him a big hug, then offered a lesson: Don’t spend an hour talking to media after the race.
“Dude, you give them 10 minutes, and you leave,” Bowman said. “He’s going to have everybody in the world tell him how great he is after that time. I want him focused on the things that are going to produce the next great time.”
Something that Phelps mastered -- swimming multiple times in one session -- will be honed in Tempe over the next two years. Though Bowman told Swimswam that Marchand’s double in Budapest -- national records in the 200m fly final and 200m IM semifinals in a 50-minute span -- was “as good as any double Michael ever did.”
Marchand’s blood testing at worlds, measuring the metabolic effect that came off altitude training, was “actually on a higher level than Michael on some things,” Bowman said.
“Their demeanor and the way they go about [swimming] are very different,” said Bowman, who picked up Marchand from the airport when he moved to campus. “Léon never gets intense like Michael would be.”
They also race the IM differently. The breaststroke was Phelps’ weakest stroke (though, as NBC Sports analyst Rowdy Gaines said while calling Phelps’ first Olympic 400m IM title in 2004, if he concentrated on it, he would be world class). Marchand won the 200-yard breaststroke at last season’s NCAA Championships.
“Michael was essentially an endurance swimmer who had enough speed to swim some of the shorter events,” Bowman said, according to FINA. “Michael didn’t have Léon’s natural speed, so the endurance was kind of easy for him. With Léon, I’m trying to give him endurance, but I have to be careful not to kill his speed.”
Bowman’s lesson about media time was evidence of another difference. Bowman had zero experience dealing with that kind of situation before Phelps. Now, the coach can take what he learned from the Phelps years (as well as a brief time coaching French Olympic gold medalist Yannick Agnel a decade ago) and use it.
"[Marchand] knows there’s going to be pressure [in Paris in 2024]. We all know,” Bowman said.
Of course, it will not be an apples-to-apples comparison of what Phelps faced, given the U.S. never hosted the Olympics during his career.
“It might be similar, but it’s not going to be the same,” Bowman said. “The pressure in Beijing was absurd.”
Bowman, sitting on the pool deck in Budapest after Marchand’s life-changing week at worlds, recalled an initial conversation with Marchand after that recruiting-pitch email.
“I wanted to know what his goals were,” Bowman said. “His goals were to swim in the Olympics and win a medal.”
Then Bowman corrected himself.
“At the time he said make the Olympics. I’m putting in the win a medal part.”
In more recent interviews, Marchand revised his answer: to win a gold medal in 2024 or 2028.
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Vaderdag inspiratie! Dit weekend zwom Léon Marchand, zoon van mijn generatiegenoot Xavier, een gouden race in Budapest.— Pieter van den Hoogenband (@pvdhoogenband) June 19, 2022
Father’s day inspiration! This weekend Léon Marchand - Son of my former rival Xavier - swam a golden race in Budapest.
Looking forward to #Paris2024. 🏊♂️🇫🇷 pic.twitter.com/sA0ujxFhZr