Former Arizona State star swimmer Leon Marchand is determined to leave mark on Paris Olympics

Jun 10, 2024, 7:30 PM

French Olympic swimmer Leon Marchand trains with his Arizona State University teammates, Tuesday, F...

French Olympic swimmer Leon Marchand trains with his Arizona State University teammates, Tuesday, Feb. 13, 2024, in Tempe, Ariz. With family and friends — an entire nation — watching, the individual medley specialist is poised to be one of the premier faces of these Olympics. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

(AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

BERKELEY, Calif. (AP) — They suddenly began chanting in unison, calling for Leon Marchand to swim once more.

His events were done. Yet several of Marchand’s Arizona State teammates begged for him to get back in the pool for a final race to settle it all: The Sun Devils and Pac-12 rival California were somehow tied at 150 points apiece with competition complete and the diving scores tallied.

Nobody involved had ever seen such a sensational dual college meet — and it will be one Marchand long remembers even now that he has won an NCAA team title and turned pro, shifting his attention from college classes and training in Tempe, Arizona, to the Paris Olympics at home in France.

“It’s the year when I’m having the most fun because there are many different goals and many different challenges,” Marchand said. “That’s what I love, so it’s been fun.”

Even if he didn’t get to race again on that rainy January afternoon in Berkeley.

Marchand, those spirited teammates had hoped, would dive back into the Cal pool and dominate in a final event against one of the best swimmers from the Golden Bears. They all believed Marchand would surely tilt it Arizona State’s way if he had been given a shot.

The two powerhouse programs instead had to settle for winding up even, something Marchand and his decorated coach, Bob Bowman, had never seen before — and this is the longtime coach of Michael Phelps, so you’d figure he might have seen just about everything.

Arizona State would later defeat two-time defending national champion Cal for the program’s first NCAA title just a couple of months later with Marchand again leading the way.

Beaming and standing in the middle of all his teammates, he held the trophy above a smiling Bowman, the coach’s hand in the air doing the Sun Devils’ pitchfork sign.

As a junior, Marchand won his third straight NCAA title in the 200-meter breaststroke, repeated as 400 IM champion, captured the 500 freestyle for the first time and led two relays to victory.

Each college meet provided valuable experience for the 22-year-old from the southern French city of Toulouse. The most decorated collegiate athlete of all time at Arizona State, he waits by the starting block before a race and meticulously adjusts his goggles, shakes out his arms and legs, rubs his hands together and releases a deep breath.

Technically sound in every stroke, Marchand was named the College Swimming Coaches Association of America Men’s Swimmer of the Year for a third straight season, while Bowman earned Coach of the Year honors for the first time in his career before leaving to take over the program at Texas.

The chance to swim in regular big meets under Bowman’s guidance is a key reason Marchand ended up at ASU. He arrived in the desert shortly after the Tokyo Olympics finished, eager to fine-tune his skills and times with results that could be studied and compared.

That’s a benefit of the college swimming schedule, and Marchand made a point to put his mind on each meet on the schedule without setting his sights too far ahead.

Like on Paris.

“We’ve been practicing this a lot, so should be good,” he said.

Marchand announced he was turning pro shortly after the NCAA championships in Indianapolis to continue working with Bowman in Austin.

“Leon has several things that make him a great. First is, he is very consistent in his training. Almost every day. If you had a scale of 1 to 10, he’s kind of like an 8 every day. That’s what I want. I don’t want to see too many 10s, I don’t want to see too many 2s,” Bowman said.

“He’s very good under water, better than anybody ever, by far. … He has speed and he has endurance. So he kind of has the whole package that you want, and so far he’s done well under pressure, which is the other piece of that equation. He has it all really. He’s just inexperienced, he just needs more experience.”

Marchand is about to gain plenty of it on the biggest stage with family and friends — an entire nation — watching.

The individual medley specialist is headed to his second Olympics and poised to be one of the faces of the Paris Games.

Hardly the imposing physical specimen of, say, Phelps or 6-foot-5 Australian star Ian Thorpe, the 170-pound Marchand placed sixth in the 400 IM at the Tokyo Games and immediately realized how close he came to an Olympic medal.

Marchand is determined to leave his mark this time.

“When I came back from Tokyo I was like, ‘Damn, this is like a game-changer, now I can actually beat those guys pretty soon,’” he said. “‘I know I can train better. I know I can improve this, this.’”

And it was Marchand who reached out to Bowman about coming to Arizona State. Of course the coach was all for it, having heard Marchand’s name and the family pedigree of his two-time Olympian father, Xavier.

Bowman knew Marchand committed to putting in the work. From the moment Marchand touched the wall for a world record in the 400 IM at the world championships in Fukuoka, Japan, last year to best Phelps’ longtime mark, he began to ponder everything he could do better.

He clocked 4 minutes, 2.50 seconds, the first ever to finish under 4:03, and shaved 1.34 seconds off Phelps’ 2008 record. Phelps was there to present the Frenchman his medal — the Olympic great using his right arm to hold Marchand’s fisted left hand high in triumph.

The first goal of the year has been accomplished: an NCAA title. Now, Marchand and Bowman refocus.

“Coach Bowman has been to the Olympics seven times already, so I think he knows how to handle that,” Marchand said. “He’s very calm and he knows how to manage all of that. I just trust him, trust the process and trying to work harder and harder every day to get ready.”

Bowman has observed Marchand’s maturity from the day he arrived in Arizona to now. That included the normal college challenges such as balancing time management with school and training.

This is the same young man who as a boy nearly quit swimming when he thought the water was too cold.

“He’s kind of taken the journey that most kids do in college, right?” said Bowman, who witnessed Phelps become the most decorated Olympian in any sport with 28 medals — 23 of them gold.

The coach was impressed with Marchand from Day 1.

“He was pretty independent when he came, but each successive year it’s been fun to see him grow as a man, as an athlete and he’s very serious about the swimming.”

After that record-setting 400 IM last July in Japan, Marchand seemed to surprise even himself, calling it “insane, one of the most painful things I’ve done.”

But he did offer one more message in that moment for the swimming world sure to be keenly watching this summer:

“The best is yet to come.”


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