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Marchand is ready for his moment

French swimmer looks to display the full depths of his talent in home waters

Updated: 2024-06-13 09:32
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French Olympic swimmer Leon Marchand poses for a photograph on Feb 13 prior to a practice session at Arizona State University, in Tempe, Arizona. The individual medley specialist is poised to become one of the faces of the Paris Olympics. 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 the 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 a tied finish, 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.

Marchand trains at the Arizona State University. AP

Arizona State would go on to 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 making the Sun Devils' pitchfork sign.

As a junior, Marchand won his third straight NCAA title in the 200-meter breaststroke, repeated as 400 individual medley (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 conclusion of the Tokyo Olympics, 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 focus his mind on each meet on the schedule without setting his sights too far ahead.

Like on Paris.

"We've been practicing a lot, so it should be good," he said.

Marchand announced he was turning pro shortly after the NCAA championships in Indianapolis, enabling him 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 one 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, 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 — and an entire nation — watching.

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

Hardly the imposing physical specimen of, say, Phelps or 196-centimeter tall Australian star Ian Thorpe, the 77-kilogram Marchand placed sixth in the 400 IM at the Tokyo Games, and immediately realized how close he came to an Olympic medal.

This time around, Marchand is determined to leave his mark.

"When I came back from Tokyo, I was like, 'damn, this is a game-changer, pretty soon I can actually beat those guys'," he said. "'I know I can train better. I know I can improve this thing and that thing'."

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 Olympic swimmer father, Xavier.

Bowman knew Marchand was 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 with his medal — the Olympic great using his right hand 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 have to 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 it. I just trust him, trust the process and try to work harder and harder every day to get ready."

Bowman has observed Marchand's maturity from the day he arrived in Arizona. That included the normal college challenges, such as balancing 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 one.

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

After that record-setting 400 IM in Japan last July, 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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