Feature: With Home Olympics Calling, Leon Marchand Eager to Embrace Challenges Ahead

leon-marchand-200-im-2022-world-championships-budapest

With Home Olympics Calling, Leon Marchand Eager to Embrace Challenges Ahead

The Paris Games figure to come at the perfect juncture in Leon Marchand’s career, when the Frenchman will be at his best physically. The rest, when it comes to being in a position to exploit that strength, is up to how he prepares. And it’s a challenge he’s eager for.

Leon Marchand had barely toweled off the water from the Tokyo Aquatic Center for the final time before he heard the hype.

Here was Marchand, all of 19, having just finished up at the Tokyo Olympics in the summer of 2021. He’d performed well at his first Olympics, finaling in one event, the 400 individual medley, and finishing in the top 20 in two others. More than anything, he’d used his experience to puncture the imaginary barrier he felt that separated him from the world’s elite swimmers.

Marchand understood the convergence that lay ahead—of a French swimmer blossoming internationally ahead of a French Olympics, the first Summer Games in the country in a century. But Marchand also realized he doesn’t have the luxury of zooming out like outside observers do. Getting to Paris requires so many discreet steps that looking that far away is of no use to him.

“After my final in Tokyo, everybody was already talking about Paris,” Marchand said recently. “I was like, OK, we’re going to do step by step, year by year, and we will see.”

The calm that Marchand summoned is an indication of his growth in the last year. As much as his times have improved, entering into terrain occupied only by the sport’s all-time greats, he’s also cultivated a new mental approach. With so much racing in the last year, with a cross-continental trip to a new training base at Arizona State University, Marchand has learned to set limits, mentally and physically.

It’s set him on a path toward achieving records that are among the most sacrosanct in swimming.

“I think my self-confidence has been going up since my final in Tokyo,” he says. “I love that I was able to play with the best, high-level athletes in the world.”

BORN TO SWIM

Swimming is in Marchand’s genes. Born in Toulouse, he’s the son of two Olympians: father, Xavier, swam at the 1996 and 2000 Olympics, winning a silver medal in the 200 IM at the 1998 World Championships; mother, Celine (née Bonnet), swam at the 1992 Games, making a 200 IM B-final. His uncle, Christophe Marchand, represented France at the 1988 and 1992 Olympics, winning relay bronze at the 1993 European Championships.

leon-marchand-200-im-2022-world-championships-budapest-medal-flag

Photo Courtesy: Andrea Staccioli / Deepbluemedia / Insidefoto

Xavier swam into his early 30s, even after Leon was born, having shifted his training base to Auburn University. Leon’s memories of his father’s career are only secondhand, through pictures of him as an infant watching meets.

That history, though, didn’t mean Leon took to water like a duck. He got into the sport around age 7, but he initially didn’t enjoy it. While he had natural aptitude, it took him time—and a lengthy break—before he began to enjoy it. “I started to like swimming when I was like 8, 9 years old,” he says. “I had some good results. I was not going to every practice, but I felt good. I had great teammates, and I started to do more practice.”

He regards having famous swimming parents as an unqualified positive. There’s obvious overlap in their specialties, though Celine was a backstroker. Leon never used his father’s times as an explicit goal, beyond dinner-table razzing that, “Oh, now, I swim faster than you!” His proximity to past generations makes Leon understand how much the sport has evolved since his parents’ heydays.

More important was the guidance they offered, having already excelled on a path he is looking to follow. “I always was like, ‘the son of,’” Leon said. “It wasn’t pressure, it was more an advantage for me because they gave me so much advice about swimming and my career. They knew very quickly that swimming is very hard, and you cannot be so excited by success when you’re very young.”

TOKYO AND BEYOND

By the time the COVID-19 pandemic halted swimming, Marchand was a budding star in the junior ranks. He held solid Olympic consideration times in four events. The previous summer brought hardware via bronze at the 2019 World Junior Championships (and a French record) in the 400 IM plus bronzes in the 200 breast and 400 IM at the European Junior Championships.

The return to the water after COVID, though, set up a year-plus sprint from which Marchand is only now taking a short breather. The most important thing he gleaned from Tokyo was his burgeoning self-confidence. Seeing the world’s best up close helped him realize he wasn’t far behind.

leon-marchand-

Leon Marchand; Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

The 400 IM provides an apt example. Prelims in Tokyo were so jumbled that the top 10 finishers were separated by 1.25 seconds. Marchand went 4:10.09 in prelims to make the finals in seventh place. Had he repeated that time in finals, it would’ve earned him silver. Instead, he went 4:11.16, finishing sixth. He’d gone 4:09.65 at French Trials, just 23-hundredths off American Chase Kalisz’s gold-winning time.

Knowing he was capable of being so close to gold and to a veteran like Kalisz, with whom he now trains in Tempe, was enlightening.

“I went 4:11 in the final, and Chase won with a 4:09, so when I think about it, I was almost able to get on the podium,” Marchand says. “If I keep doing what I’m doing and swimming fast, I feel like I can do something in the next year. It was very cool to think about that and to be able to compete with the best swimmers.”

Marchand went from Tokyo to Arizona State, where he’d signed to train with Bob Bowman and get a taste of collegiate competition. Those first six months of college life flew by the computer science major, growing into an environment that Bowman is trying to turn into one of the elite college training groups. Marchand fielded skepticism about his choice initially, but the influx of talent making a pilgrimage to the desert this summer has vindicated that faith.

“Last year when I chose ASU, everyone was like, ‘Oh, you couldn’t choose something better? You’re a great swimmer—you can go to Cal, Stanford and stuff,’” he says. “And now everyone is coming here. I think we’re doing something special here. We have everything we need…. That’s why I chose ASU, and we are building a team culture, a great atmosphere and everything. We are doing well.”

AN ELITE 2022

Arizona State carries a heavy slate of racing, which is exactly what Marchand wants. As he knew in Tokyo, he’s not the kind of swimmer who can set a target years into the future and single-mindedly hammer away at it. He prefers intermediate markers of progress, and he finds the chance to test himself in races fueling.

katie-ledecky-leon-marchand-swimmer-of-the-meet-2022-world-championships-budapest

Photo Courtesy: Andrea Staccioli / Deepbluemedia / Insidefoto

“Racing is the fun part for me,” he says. “I love training, but I need a goal pretty quickly. I cannot just train for four years without any swimming meets. For me, it was very fun, and that’s why I think I improved a lot, too.”

Marchand was sensational at NCAAs as a freshman, setting a meet record in the 200 IM in becoming the first Arizona State individual male champion since 2000. He added gold in the 200 breast, silver in the 400 IM and silver in the 400 free relay, helping the Sun Devils men’s team to its best finish since 1982 in sixth.

He took his form straight into the TYR Pro Swim Series to set a national record in the 200 IM. That kicked off a busy summer, highlighted by a stellar 2022 FINA World Championships, and also included a national record in the 200 breaststroke before the summer closed.

At Worlds, his first French record in the 400 IM, from the 2019 Euro Junior Championships, was 4:16.37. Three years later, he’d moved that mark forward by decades of progress, to a winning time of 4:04.28, also the European record. He also reset national marks in the 200 IM and 200 fly, earning gold and silver, respectively. He became just the third French swimmer ever—and first not named Manaudou—to win two gold medals at the same Worlds.

A HOME OLYMPICS

Marchand knows the hype will ratchet up as the 2024 Games near. But he’s readying to withstand that. Since he was young, his goal was to win an Olympic medal. It being a home Olympics is a special addition to that dream, but secondary to the main objective. He’s working with a coach who understands what it takes to build swimmers who are mentally and physically elite, to withstand the pressures of the sport’s pinnacle.

“I think it’s perfect for me because I will be at my peak,” he says. “I will be 22 years old. I think it’s when you’re pretty fast at swimming. And it will be in France, so it’s pretty cool. I can’t imagine how much all the French people and the country are going to be excited by it.”

The latest issue of Swimming World Magazine
is now available for download in the Swimming World Vault!

Get Swimming World Magazine and SW Biweekly FREE When You
Become A Member of the International Swimming Hall of Fame

New! 30 Day Membership to ISHOF AND Digital Swimming World Subscription for just $10 a month!

Want more? Get a 1 Year ISHOF Family Membership With Swimming World Print AND Digital Subscription Order Now!

Non-Subscribers can click here to download this issue for only $5.94

Subscribe
Notify of
avatar
0 Comments
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
0
Would love your thoughts, please comment.x
()
x