Léon Marchand is the new star of French swimming at the right time for the Paris Olympics

Two years ago, a young French swimmer Leon Marchand sent by cold email Bob Bowmanlong-time coach of Michael Phelpswith a request.

Marchand intended to attend college in the United States and asked if there was mutual interest in him joining Bowman’s program at Arizona State.

Bowman had never heard of the Toulouse kid. He gets a lot of throws like this from high school swimmers, but this one was different.

First, the family name was familiar. Marchand’s father xavier, swam at the 1996 and 2000 Olympics, won silver in the 200m individual medley at the 1998 World Championships, and spent part of his career training at Auburn. His mother, Celine Bonnetswam the IMs for France at the 1992 Olympics.

Then Bowman looked at the kid’s running times. At 17, Marchand broke the French national record in the 400m IM and was faster than his father 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 register after the Tokyo Games in 2021.

Over the past two years, Marchand has gone from being an unknown (at least to Bowman) to being the best male swimmer in the world. He swept the IMs at the world championships in June, scared off Phelps’ latest world record and smiled at photographers with Katie Ledecky at the end of the meeting as outstanding interpreters of the event.

He is now on his way to being one of the faces of the Paris Games, if not the host country’s biggest star in any sport.

“Five years ago I was watching these championships from home on TV…it all happened so fast,” Marchand, now 20, said at the world championships in Budapest. “I haven’t realized yet what just happened to me here.”

According to the French sports daily The Team, Marchand remembers starting to play sports around the age of 7. He did judo (the most successful sport in France at the Tokyo Games with eight medals) because the dojo was near his home. Likewise, there were the Dauphins du TOEC, the century-old swimming club in Toulouse where his father once trained.

It has not always been related to 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 trainer of Florent ManaudouFrance’s last Olympic swimming gold medalist in 2012, and found a love for the sport again while separated from it during the COVID lockdown.

Marchand said his parents didn’t push him into the sport. In fact, Xavier warned early on of considerable sacrifices on the long road to possible success. (Phelps recently told the University of Alabama football team that he took no days off from 2002 to 2008, including Christmas practice.)

Marchand wanted the United States to have the opportunity to combine high level swimming and studies in the NCAA system and to discover a new part of the world, although his first choice would have been Cal, who had no full scholarship available.

Other European swimmers have already crossed the Atlantic. Hungarian Katinka Hosszu went to USC before becoming the best all-around swimmer in the world. Frederick Bousquetmember of the famous French 2008 Olympic 4x100m freestyle relay team which won silver in the United States, had registered in Auburn.

When Phelps retired in 2016, Bowman took over running the Arizona State program and thought he would never coach the star swimmer at the Olympics again. But there Bowman was on the pool deck at the world championships in June, this time wearing a French federation jersey.

He watched the first night of the world championships as Marchand was under Phelps’ record pace over 350 meters in the 400 medley. The 400 m individual medley is Phelps’ last individual world record and the oldest record of any Olympic swimming event (set by Phelps at the Beijing Games in 2008).

Phelps’ world record is 4:03.84. Marchand’s personal best heading into the final was 4:09.09, the national best he had set in the playoffs hours earlier. Phelps’ record survived the final, but Marchand cut nearly five seconds off his best time and clocked the second fastest time in history – 4:04.28.

Marchand said after the race that he never met Phelps in person, but there were messages of support, “and [Phelps] always texts Bob.

“I don’t want to be compared to Phelps all the time,” Marchand said ahead of the worlds, according to Agence-France Presse. “I am very, very far from him. And Bowman didn’t just have Phelps, he had many more. [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 medley and 200m butterfly (world championship silver). Like Phelps, Marchand made his Olympic debut as the youngest swimmer in his event and reached the final (Phelps was fifth in the 200m butterfly in 2000 at age 15; Marchand was sixth in the 400m individual medley in Tokyo at 19 year).

Then there’s what Bowman sees. When Marchand shattered Phelps’ world record in the 400 IM, the coach had flashbacks to what he called Phelps’ important first swims.

In July 1999, a 14-year-old Phelps broke what Bowman remembered as a 20-year-old age-group national record for 13- and 14-year-olds in the 200 m volley by a 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 years old.

“That’s how I felt in 4:04,” Bowman said of Marchand’s 400 IM. “I know where we are coming from.

“They are both very good under pressure. They both trained at a high level. Leon’s had, like, two bad days all year. And both have been when he hasn’t slept all night for some reason.

Marchand, described by Bowman as a 4.0 GPA student with English skills as impressive as his politeness, has a lot to learn. Like a young Phelps did, who took a roommate by mistake Aaron Peirsolin the swimming pool for this first Olympic final at 15 years old.

When Marchand reunited with Bowman after that incredible 400m individual medley at the worlds, the coach gave him a big hug and then taught him a lesson: don’t spend an hour talking to the media after the race.

“Man, you give them 10 minutes and you’re gone,” Bowman said. “He’s going to ask everyone in the world to tell him how great he is after this period. I want him to focus on the things that will produce the next big moment.

Something Phelps has mastered — swimming multiple times in a single session — will be perfected in Tempe over the next two years. Although Bowman told Swimswam said Marchand’s double in Budapest – national records in the 200m butterfly final and 200m individual medley semi-finals in 50 minutes – was “as good as any double Michael has ever done”.

Marchand’s blood tests at the world championships, measuring the metabolic effect that came from training at altitude, were “actually on a higher level than Michael on some things,” Bowman said.

“Their behavior and the way they go about it [swimming] are very different,” said Bowman, who picked up Marchand at the airport when he moved to campus. “Leon never gets as intense as Michael would.”

They also race IM differently. The breaststroke was Phelps’ weakest stroke (however, as the NBC Sports analyst Rowdy Gaines said when calling Phelps’ first Olympic title in the 400m individual medley in 2004, if he focused on that, he would be world class). Marchand won the 200-yard breaststroke at the NCAA championships last season.

“Michael was basically an endurance swimmer who had enough speed to swim some of the shorter events,” Bowman said, according to FINA. “Michael didn’t have Leon’s natural speed, so endurance was pretty easy for him. With Leon, I try to give him stamina, but I have to be careful not to kill his speed.

The mixed zone lesson demonstrates another difference. Bowman had no experience in this kind of situation before Phelps. Now the coach can build on what he learned from the Phelps years (as well as a brief training stint from the French Olympic gold medalist Yannick Agnel ten years ago) and use it.

“[Marchand] knows there’s going to be pressure [in Paris in 2024]. We all know that,” Bowman said. Of course, this won’t be an apples-to-apples comparison of what Phelps has faced, given that the United States has never hosted the Olympics in his career.

“It might be similar, but it won’t be the same,” Bowman said. “The pressure in Beijing was absurd.”

Bowman recalled an initial conversation with Marchand after that recruiting email.

“I wanted to know what his goals were,” Bowman said poolside in Budapest after Marchand’s life-changing week at the world championships. “His goals were to swim in the Olympics and win a medal.”

Then Bowman corrected himself.

“At the time he said Craft the Olympic Games. I put in the victory a part of medal.

In more recent interviews, Marchand revised his answer: win a gold medal in 2024 or 2028.

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Léon Marchand is the new star of French swimming at the right time for the Paris Olympics originally appeared on NBCSports.com