Leon Marchand Set to Be the Face of the Olympic Games in Paris

Leon Marchand of France celebrates after winning the gold medal in the 200m Individual Medley Men Final during the 20th World Aquatics Championships at the Marine Messe Hall A in Fukuoka (Japan), July 27th, 2023.

Leon Marchand Set to Be the Face of the Olympic Games in Paris

Leon Marchand has accomplished so much in the last three years that his career won’t be solely defined by 10 days in Paris in the summer of 2024, swimming at the Olympics in his home country. But he has a chance to author an unforgettable Olympic moment: as a Frenchman serving as one of the faces of the Paris Olympics…as one of the world’s top swimmers…and as an athlete who can make the events in the pool appointment viewing in Paris.

Leon Marchand was firmly fixed in the present. But it was hard not to have an eye toward the future.

Marchand’s performances at the 2023 World Aquatics Championships in Fukuoka were sufficiently sensational in their own right to wow. But every transcendent moment entailed an obvious corollary—of what this achievement could mean 11 months down the road when the Olympics will open in his home country.

Marchand didn’t have the luxury of such a long view, focused as he was on the imperative of each swim. But those around him didn’t fail to notice, to extrapolate and to hope. Many of those happened to be expert witnesses in the matter of what it takes to face the monumental pressure of the Olympic stage.

“I’m most pleased with how he handled the pressure of the performances,” Coach Bob Bowman said in Fukuoka. “I think the best part about Leon’s week is how he moved from race to race to race—the prelims, the semis and the finals—and improved each time. He handled his energy well, and he managed the outside expectations well. I’m very pleased with that, and I’m pleased with how he put together each individual race.”

THE LONG ROAD TO PARIS

The groundwork for Paris began long before Tokyo, but that Olympics marked an important early step. Marchand had just turned 19 when the pandemic-delayed Games opened, having developed so much in that previous 12 months.

Medals were not the primary objective. Experience was. So he got his feet wet, understanding the spectacle of the Olympics so that he would know at least part of the territory three years later. He got to experience the disappointment of not making semis in the 200 individual medley; the opportunity of swimming a semifinal in the 200 butterfly; and the lesson learned from being tested in his first Olympic final, finishing sixth in the 400 IM, less than a second away from what would’ve been an ahead-of-schedule podium spot.

Most of the steps since then have been managed by advisors who understand what it could take for Marchand to meet his astronomical aspirations. The native of Toulouse is the child of two Olympians, Xavier Marchand and Celine Bonnet. Xavier trained for six months late in his career at Auburn University, watching the Tigers under David Marsh win an NCAA title. Much as they may have lightly dissuaded Leon from following the arduous path of life in swimming, once that became a losing battle, they recognized NCAA competition his best pathway to improvement.

Leon Marchand of France and Michael Phelps attend the medal ceremony of the 400m Individual Medley Men Final during the 20th World Aquatics Championships at the Marine Messe Hall A in Fukuoka (Japan), July 23rd, 2023.

Photo Courtesy: Giorgio Scala / Deepbluemedia / Insidefoto

That put Marchand into the orbit of Bowman, the International Swimming Hall of Famer and former coach of Michael Phelps. Marchand has used his steady diet of racing at Arizona State as a launching pad. It’s a different path than Phelps, who never swam collegiately and was more judicious in when he chose to race. But it has worked wonders for him.

“We wanted Leon to go to a place where he was going to get great training, but also have good guidance,” Xavier said. “We knew Bob would give that to him and would take care of him. He thinks about what is best for Leon, and he’s done this before. He knows what is needed.”

The similarities between Phelps and Marchand are myriad, right down to their chosen areas of specialty. As Marchand swims his way out of commonality with most mortals, Phelps has become something of a mentor, present in Fukuoka on the commentary team to watch Marchand take down his world record in the 400 IM.

Phelps is the most recent analogue to the kind of pressure Marchand will likely feel. The Frenchman won’t be chasing something like Phelps’ eight-in-’08 in Paris, deprived of Phelps’ near guaranteed relay medals. (French fans may have a deserved snicker at that.)

To Phelps, the fact that Marchand has made significant headway on his goals in terms of time and records lessens some of the pressure that will come when he’s behind the blocks.

“It’s going to be important for him to swim the way he knows how to swim,” Phelps said in Fukuoka. “He’s going to get a lot of attention over the next year. It’s almost better that he swam the time he had here (in the 400 medley) just so that kind of pressure is off him. I knew he was going to break it. It was a matter of time. And once you break it, it’s kind of out of your mind.

“You don’t think about doing it again. You think about beating yourself. So if he can do that, the only pressure he’ll have is the pressure he puts on himself.”

THE HOME GRASS ISN’T ALWAYS GREENER

Proximity to home isn’t always a guarantor of Olympic success. Or at least it hasn’t been since the 2000 Olympics in Sydney.

The returns of Olympic swimming medals for host nations this century have been paltry. Greece’s unsurprisingly shutout at the 2004 Athens Games notwithstanding, traditional swimming powers have hosted the last four Games, and their delegations have struggled under the spotlight.

At the 2008 Beijing Games, China won just one gold (Liu Zige in the women’s 200 fly) and six total medals. Contrast that to the four gold and 10 medals a year later at the 2009 World Championships in Rome.

Great Britain’s yield from the 2012 London Games was three medals, none of them gold. (After double gold in Beijing, Rebecca Adlington, the program’s leading light, ended up with a pair of bronzes.) Brazil was shutout in the pool in Rio in 2016 after five medals (two golds) four years prior. Its only swimming medal came via Poliana Okimoto in the women’s 10K open water marathon.

Japan won seven medals at the Rio Olympics. That output fell to three in Tokyo, with only Yui Ohashi’s double medley gold saving the home country significant blushes, as a number of veterans on the men’s side in particular underperformed.

leon-marchand-

Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

Marchand at least won’t chase Olympic glory alone. While he is the French program’s standard bearer, he doesn’t stand by himself at the vanguard. Maxime Grousset is coming off three medals in Fukuoka, winning gold in the 100 fly and bronze in the 100 free. At 33 and 12 years removed from Olympic gold, Florent Manaudou may not be an individual medal threat anymore, but he could aid in the relays and certainly will absorb some of the limelight. Four Frenchwomen made finals at Worlds, though the closest to a medal (distance swimmer Anastasiya Kirpichnikova) faces a daunting field.

If competing was the only criteria, then things would be easier. But that’s not the reality of the international multi-billion-dollar entertainment spectacle that the Olympics are. Marchand will be pulled in many different directions to befit his ubiquity in ads and promotional materials.

But here, too, Bowman will offer more than just his on-deck training to Marchand’s benefit.

“I’m very good at saying no,” Bowman said in Fukuoka, with a smile that indicated he was not joking. “I kind of understand that. I’m maybe uniquely qualified for that.”

Take that message from someone who knows.

“I think he has one really good thing in his corner, and that’s Bob,” Phelps said. “I mean, Bob watched every step of my career, and I think he’s in a better spot than he was with me. He’s more relaxed, more laid back. Bob is the maestro. He’s probably been planning for this for years. He’s not going to miss a step, and he’ll probably do it in a more productive way than we did it. And I don’t mean that in a bad way. We learned so much in the process.”

THE CITY OF LIGHT’S BRIGHTEST LIGHT

Marchand will arrive at the Paris Olympics as the world record holder in the 400 IM, in all likelihood. He will enter as the unquestioned favorite in both IMs. He’ll have his choice of 200-meter strokes, though that’ll require a battle with the best 200 butterflyer in history (Kristof Milak, albeit after a limited last year of competition) and the best 200 breaststroker in history (Qin Haiyang).

That’s a lot of expectation. But he’ll have every step of it mapped out, a process that has included pushing himself to doubles at every chance, including in NCAA college competition.

Leon Marchand of France competes in the 200m Individual Medley Men Heats during the 20th World Aquatics Championships at the Marine Messe Hall A in Fukuoka (Japan), July 26th, 2023.

Photo Courtesy: Giorgio Scala / Deepbluemedia / Insidefoto

One possible pressure valve in this program could be in the relays. France won an Olympic relay medal as recently as 2016, with silver in the 400 free. They finished fourth in the 800 free relay in Fukuoka, with a squad devoid of big names beyond Marchand and his anchor leg of 1:44.89, and fourth in the medley relay. The latter, especially if Manaudou can turn back the clock for a killer anchor leg to complement Marchand and Grousset, may be the best route to a medal.

Even more so than Phelps, Marchand has extensive experience in the relays from his time with the Sun Devils. Having three other swimmers up there with him necessarily spreads out the spotlight. The medley in particular, falling on the final day of the competition, could serve as the light at the end of a long tunnel, the exhale after his individual events are done.

Whatever swirls about him outside the pool, Marchand has one part of this process down. He’s so often provided mind-blowing swims—internationally and for Arizona State—that he knows what it is to carry expectations with him behind the blocks. He’s reached a rare echelon where it can seem a disappointment when his swims end without an NCAA or world record. To say nothing of the pressure of winning, he puts on himself the weight of blazing new frontiers in the sport, professing a desire in Fukuoka to fundamentally change the sport.

That desire burns from within. And in certain moments, it might make the external pressure pale in comparison.

“I feel like I can handle the pressure pretty well right now,” Marchand said. “It’s not perfect. It can be better.”

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mds
mds
1 month ago

Most useful and enjoyable article I’ve seen on Marchand through rehis entire time in the US.

If someone who has been at or near the pinnacle of the sport can truly be prepared for the glare of a home Olympics, Leon seems to be so prepared.

One aspect I’ve noted he has handled well twice already is going from a full year of training and SCY racing in the US and then knowing how to transition to when and where the most major meet is held, both geographically and in time. Two years ago, US training and SCY racing and then returning to Europe to conclude his year at his racing peak with two Golds and a Silver at ’22 Belgrade Worlds. Then in ’23, again US training and SCY racing and returning to France for their Nationals and Worlds qualification and then another significant travel shift to Fukuoka and handling that with three individual Golds and all PBs in his individual events both times, which is remarkable.

Thank you, Matthew de George.

John Lohn - Editor-in-Chief
Admin
Reply to  mds

Thanks for sharing these kind words, Duncan. Matt is a tremendous writer and we are fortunate to have him on the team!

Smiling Steve
Smiling Steve
1 month ago

How can you write about the post event poster child of this year’s Olympics without mentioning Summer McIntosh?

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