Outstanding NCAAs By Leon Marchand a Special Moment for His Olympic Family

Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

Outstanding NCAAs By Leon Marchand a Special Moment for His Olympic Family

The whistle piercing the air at the University of Minnesota when Leon Marchand surfaced to breathe in breaststroke last week belonged to Xavier Marchand.

Beyond that and the poster-boarded cutout of Marchand’s face, there was little to differentiate Xavier and Leon’s mother, Celine, from the other Arizona State supporters at the Jean K. Freeman Aquatics Center. Certainly little to betray the fact that the parents of the three-time champion had between them three Olympic appearances and supplied the genes powering one of the most impressive college swimming performances in history.

Instead, like the others decked out in maroon and gold – Celine complemented her ensemble with a devil-horned headband – they were generally left in awe by Leon’s performances.

“This is an incredible competition,” Celine said. “We love it. … We have known since a long time, Leon has been always winning his races, winning his races in France. But we are very happy for him.”

This kind of meet is part of the reason why they wanted to see Leon compete in the NCAA. Both parents were Olympic swimmers – Celine (nee Bonnet) in 1992 in the 100 back and both IMs; Xavier finished eighth in the men’s 200 IM in 1996 and seventh in 2000. That 1992 Games was also the second for distance swimmer Christophe Marchand, Xavier’s brother and Leon’s uncle.

Their history meant they gently tried to dissuade Leon from the toil that a career in the pool brings.

“We told him, no, don’t do swimming, it’s too hard,” Celine said. “No holidays, every day. But he wants to do it.”

Celine never trained in the United States but competed here. Xavier spent six months late in his career, as he chased a third Games, training at the University of Auburn. Twenty years ago this month, he watched a David Marsh-coached Tigers team capture the first of what would be five straight NCAA titles (and the third of eight in 13 years, between Marsh and Richard Quick.)

When Leon showed such promise as a young swimmer, they understood what American collegiate swimming could provide him. Part of that was the ability to study and train under one roof at a place like Arizona State, not having to piece together separate club swimming and university academics in Europe.

“It was wonderful, it’s a big system and a very good country for swimming,” Celine said. “And we saw the very good competition. We think for Leon it’s very good for him to swim here than in France.”

“I think it was a factor, the school and swimming,” Xavier said. “In France, it’s more difficult to have both school and swimming. We know here in the U.S., there is both.”

The benefits in the pool are pretty clear. Marchand had a meet for the ages to cap a historic season. He set the NCAA record in the men’s 200 IM in a dual meet, then lowered both that and the 400 IM at the Pac-12 championships, where he also set the 200 breast record. Just a sophomore, he has the most NCAA titles in program history (five) and went an unbeaten 27-for-27 in races this year in helping the Sun Devils finish second, their best ever placement at NCAAs. He entered NCAAs with a chance to win five or six events, ranging from the 500 free to the 100 breast.

The meet brought a chance for Leon to show his parents, part of 10 relatives and family friends in attendance, just how dominant a swimmer he’s become.

“I’ve been here for two years now in the U.S., and I just want to show them what it’s like,” Leon said after the 200 breast title. “That’s the best part of it, the NCAA finals, so I’m just glad they could see that. And they were all screaming loud so that’s good support for me.”

Marchand is a two-time world champion in the IMs and a silver medalist in the 200 fly. He’s the European record holder in the 400 IM. He’s dashed French records in the IMs, fly and breaststroke, some which belonged to his father’s peers. He got a taste of the Olympic stage at 19 in Tokyo, swimming the 200 fly and both IMs and advancing to one semifinal.

Being in Arizona State serves a dual purpose, helping shield Leon from some of the pressures of home. Those will ramp up as a home Olympics in Paris approaches next summer. But that remains far from his parents’ minds over the weekend.

“We think step by step,” Celine said. “There is a world championship, there is another year, we have time for the pressure next year. Step by step.”

The most important thing to the parents is clear, no matter how many medals Leon accumulates.

“We want him only to swim with pleasure, with a smile,” Xavier said. “It’s more important for us.”

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1 year ago

He’s also an Olympic finalist in the 4IM

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