Does Marchand have a shot at chasing down Phelps?

The Frenchman threatened the legendary American’s longstanding 400m individual medley mark at the World Championships. Born to world-class swimmers and coached by Phelps’ former mentor, the 20-year-old is leaving nothing to chance in his pursuit of the world record

The Frenchman threatened the legendary American’s longstanding 400m individual medley mark at the World Championships. Born to world-class swimmers and coached by Phelps’ former mentor, the 20-year-old is leaving nothing to chance in his pursuit of the world record

Leon Marchand has been making waves in swimming circles for a couple of years now, but if he continues to do what he did at the World Championships in Budapest, he has the potential to become a global star.

The 20-year-old Frenchman registered the second-fastest time in the history of the men’s 400m individual medley (IM) — the closest anyone has got to Michael Phelps’ 4:03.84 in 10 years — to win his first World title.

Ferocious third leg

Indeed, after a ferocious third leg in the breaststroke, Marchand was inside world record pace before fading slightly in the freestyle to stop the clock at 4:04.28, the fastest time in a textile suit.

The record he is chasing has an aura. It is the oldest in any Olympic distance, and was set by the legendary Phelps, widely considered the greatest swimmer of all time, at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, a day before he helped set the second-oldest record in the 400m freestyle relay.

So, the fact that Marchand threatened it so early in his career has excited swimming fans.

“Now I can call myself a good swimmer,” he said. “I really didn’t think I would swim 4:04. I hit the wall and saw the little light that said we were first. It’s really huge, a ‘wow’ feeling. I still don’t realise what I did. I was struggling a little bit in the crawl. But I think next time I could do it.”

If anybody were to have a chance of ‘doing it’, you would struggle to pick a swimmer better equipped than Marchand.

Inheriting athletic gifts

He has inherited exceptional athletic gifts from his parents. Young Leon won his World gold 24 years after his father Xavier took silver in the 200m medley in the World Championships at Perth. And his mother Celine Bonnet held the French records for 100m and 200m medleys.

Being born into a family of world-class competitive swimmers also meant an early immersion, both literally and figuratively, in the sport, with expert knowledge guiding his development.

“My mother always gave me a lot of advice on the 400m medley, my father too,” Marchand said. “They supported me every day and gave me so much advice about just everything. They told me very early that swimming is very hard. To be at this level today, you need to train a lot. You need to be quite serious and just dedicated to swimming.”

The mentality suits Marchand and his family. “Because they had to wake up with me every day to bring me to training,” he said with a laugh.

Perfect guide

Marchand also has the perfect guide in his quest to break Phelps’ 400m medley world record: the very man who guided Phelps to greatness.

After finishing sixth in the 400m IM at the Tokyo Olympics at 19, Marchand left his native Toulouse to move to Arizona State University where Phelps’ former mentor Bob Bowman coaches.

“I’m just very happy to swim with [Bowman] because he has the experience and he knows how to train the 400 IM,” the Frenchman said. “Bob creates an environment for me every day in training that allows me to work really hard and improve, whether it’s mentally or physically. Every workout is interesting. When I come out of practice, I say to myself ‘I improved that’.

“It’s concrete. I don’t do laps for the sake of doing laps. I feel that I am more efficient in what I do. I have improved a lot in backstroke and breaststroke. As I approach competitions, he gives me a lot of serenity, he has a very precise plan.”

With Bowman monitoring his progress, Marchand also has access to precious inside information on where Phelps was at a similar stage of his development and the specificities of how the great man trained when he hit plateaus.

“Bob already told me I look like Phelps as I’m able to give it my all, no matter the circumstances,” Marchand told “If I don’t sleep a lot or I have a bad day, I can still be consistent and do my best in training every day. Sometimes Bob tells me that Michael would have achieved such and such a time. Obviously, I compare myself but it’s not the best thing to do. But it does motivate me. I’m curious to know things like that.”

Bowman credited Marchand’s upbringing and early coaching for the swimmer’s stunning rise.

“First, most of the credit for this swim goes to Nicolas Castel, Leon’s longtime coach in France,” Bowman told Swimming World. “He did a fantastic job of teaching him the skills, gradually introducing him to training and bringing him to the Olympic level. I was very pleased with the way he split the race [at the Worlds] and managed his energy throughout. Leon works harder than anyone else, so he deserves this swim. I’m excited to see him keep progressing.”

Bowman also hailed Marchand’s approach and attitude. “As a person, I was amazed how humble and kind he was. As an athlete, I was amazed how good he was underwater. His kicking underwater was amazing and I didn’t even know how good it was at the time quite frankly.

“As a person, he’s grown a lot, just being independent and having to manage everything by himself. I think in swimming, he’s just taken on every challenge and has got quite a bit of confidence because every step of the way he’s moved to the next level. I think in general he has an open mind and that is a great attribute to have.”

‘Cool’ relationship with Phelps

Although Marchand hasn’t yet met Phelps in person, they already have a “cool” relationship.

“I talked to [Phelps] a little bit by message and he is always sending texts to Bob so I have some news about him,” Marchand said. “He told me that if I have questions, I shouldn’t hesitate to ask. We talk, he helps me — that’s pretty cool!”

Marchand’s time at Arizona State University, where he lives on campus with classrooms close to the pool, has also helped him understand his competitive mentality better. He shone in his first season at college championships in March, when he set an NCAA record in the 200m medley and won the 200m breaststroke.

“The NCAA meet is a very intense meet,” he said. “I think I learned a lot about myself. I need to have fun in racing. At the beginning, I had trouble managing the pressure. It came little by little but now it’s much better than before. My goal is to detach from this challenge, from this pressure, to be at my best level in the water.”

Marchand still is a work in progress; he also needs to prove his Budapest performance (he won the 200m IM gold and 200m butterfly silver) isn’t a flash in the pan.

And while Phelps’ accolades are intimidating — 23 Olympic gold medals, 26 World titles (long course) — Marchand is focusing on himself, careful not to be trapped into comparisons if he can help it. Now that he has a World double, he has set his eyes on the Olympics in 2024.

“The goal is to win a gold medal one day or another,” he said. “I think that Paris would be a great time, because I’ll be 22. I won’t be too old or too young. Since Tokyo, I’ve felt more confident and relaxed in every competition. I feel capable of fighting with the best in the world. Before then I saw them as living gods. Now I belong in this class of swimmers.”

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