Leon Marchand On Track to Make History, Knock Off Legendary Record in 2023

Leon Marchand -- Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

Leon Marchand On Track to Make History, Knock Off Legendary Record in 2023

One year ago, Leon Marchand took college swimming by storm and then turned the World Championships individual medley races into a personal showcase. Now, in just two days of racing this year (at arguably his least significant meets on the schedule for the first nine months of the year), Marchand is showing hints of historic swims to come as the 20-year-old originally from Toulouse, France, could knock off the longest-standing long course world record in swimming.

Marchand arrived at Arizona State University as already an Olympic finalist in the 400-meter IM, and by the end of his first season training under ASU head coach Bob Bowman, he had two individual national titles plus a runnerup finish and an NCAA record, plus he had become a key component to the Sun Devils’ sprint relays. Less than three months later, he swam the second-fastest time in history in the 400 IM on his way to a dominant world title, and he added a gold in the 200 IM and silver in the 200 butterfly.

But after Worlds, Marchand was quiet for the rest of the summer. He skipped the European Championships to reset for the upcoming college season, and at that meet, of course, a legendary world record was broken in a much different event when Romanian teenager David Popovici broke Cesar Cielo’s mark in the 100 free while swimming the quickest time in 13 years in the 200 free. Not that it detracted from Marchand’s accomplishments or his supremacy in the IM events, but his legitimate candidacy for World and European Swimmer of the Year was quickly halted — not that Marchand was the only swimmer overshadowed by Popovici.

At the midpoint of the college season, the reminders of Marchand’s potential began unfurling once more at the NC State Invitational: a 1:39.28 in the 200-yard IM for the 10th-quickest time ever, then a 3:33.65 lifetime best in the 400 IM. After that meet, Marchand would not race again until late-January dual meets at home against Pac-12 rivals, the two dual meets now considered among the most sensational days of back-to-back racing in the college swimming regular season.

A quick recap: against Stanford Friday, Marchand split 23.10 as the breaststroke swimmer on ASU’s 200 medley relay, and then he won the 100 breast (51.15), 200 breast (1:49.16) and 200 IM (1:38.89). Less than 24 hours later against defending national-champion Cal, he clocked 22.99 on the relay, then 51.01 in the 100 breast, 1:48.82 in the 200 breast and then 3:31.84 in the 400 IM, clobbering the NCAA and U.S. Open records of 3:32.88 set by Hugo Gonzalez last season.

Yes, it must be noted that the Sun Devils did wear technical suits in both dual meets, but that 400 IM time is practically inconceivable at any juncture, let alone in a swimmer’s fourth race of the day and two months out from the championship meet.

As for the other races, both 100 breaststroke performances would have been good enough for sixth at last year’s NCAA Championships, and only Marchand and Max McHugh beat his 200 breast efforts. If Marchand opts for the 200 breast at this year’s national meet, Marchand will be expected to break Will Licon’s 2017 NCAA and U.S. Open record of 1:47.91. As for the 200 IM, he was still one second short of his all-time best in the event (1:37.69), but it would be a surprise if that lasts the season.

And in his signature 400 IM, Marchand will be heavily favored in the NCAA rematch with Gonzalez and Carson Foster, and if he’s going 3:31 in January, we cannot discount the possibility of a sub-3:30 performance by the end of this season.

Of course, that is short course talk, a yards format often glossed over by the world outside of the United States for good reason: it does not exist anywhere else. But by comparing Marchand to his own past performances, we can see evidence of significant improvement from this time last year, and that pattern suggest Marchand could knock more people than himself and Licon from record books this year.

Specifically, the 400 IM world record, the 4:03.84 that Michael Phelps set at the Beijing Olympics in 2008. Phelps has owned that record continuously since 2002, and thanks to Caeleb Dressel and Kristof Milak, it’s the last individual world record the 23-time Olympic gold medalist owns. Phelps swam his entire career training with Bowman, the man now guiding Marchand in his rapid ascension on the world stage.

In last year’s 400 IM World Championships final, Marchand crushed Foster on the breaststroke leg while moving ahead of world-record pace. Although he fell back on the freestyle, he was the first man in a decade to pose a serious challenge to Phelps’ mark. For a time, Ryan Lochte looked like a candidate to threaten that mark, but Lochte never got under the 4:05-barrier, even in claiming Olympic gold in 2012. Marchand, on the other hand, went 4:04.28 in his first title-winning swim.

After only two data points of meet data from Marchand this year, the possibility of his breaking Phelps’ record looks more realistic — even probable — than ever. The 200 IM mark could be in danger, too, but Lochte’s 1:54.00 might be a year or so away.

And if you thought it felt surreal when Popovici knocked an oft-challenged-but-never-broken Cielo record from the books this year, just wait until the final time standard established by the great Michael Phelps is finally surpassed, with Phelps’ longtime coach leading the way for the new standard-bearer. Marchand is one step closer to that goal.

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