Leon Marchand: “I feel capable of fighting with the best swimmers in the world”

The French swimming sensation is now training in the USA with Michael Phelps’s former coach. “Bob told me I look like Michael Phelps,” he told Olympics.com in the lead-up to the FINA World Championships. 

By Guillaume Depasse
Picture by 2022 Getty Images

When it comes to Leon Marchand, there’s no time to get bored.

After reaching a first Olympic final at Tokyo 2020 at the age of 19, the Toulouse-born swimmer has moved to the United States to fulfil his dreams.

“It went by quickly,” Marchand recalled at a camp in the US Training Center in Colorado in May. “After the Games, I returned home and two weeks later I was in the USA.”

The reason he moved abroad was to work with Bob Bowman, the renowned coach of 23-time Olympic gold medallist Michael Phelps, and to add more medals to his family’s collection.

He has the chance to do just that on 18 June when he starts his campaign at the FINA World Championships in Budapest, where he is hoping to win his first senior international medals.

He spoke to Olympics.com about his sporting journey, the records he has broken, his relationship with Phelps and Paris 2024.

Moving to the USA: Taking a risk to avoid regrets

If it began as a dream, things soon became very real for Marchand.

Born in 2002 in Toulouse in the southwest of France, four years after his father Xavier won 200m IM silver in the Swimming Worlds and 10 years after his mother Celine Bonnet competed in the backstroke and medley events at Barcelona 1992, Marchand went from strength-to-strength until his Olympic debut in the summer of 2021.

Having qualified for his first Olympic Games in Tokyo, he finished sixth in the 400m IM final. “If I had set my best time, I would have been among the first [finishers],” he explained confidently in an exclusive interview with Olympics.com.

Indeed, his national record of 4:09:65 set at the French National Trials just weeks before the Games, would have seen him finish second behind the USA’s Chase Kalisz.

But when you compete at the Games, records count for little - you have to perform on the day. It’s partly why he chose to change his environment, after measuring up the risks of a move to the USA with his parents.

“They told me that if I didn’t do it now, I’d regret it later. They quickly understood my decision. As swimmers, they warned me that it wasn’t the easiest sport, we spend lots of time in the water and have to make a lot of sacrifices to guarantee good results. After a while, we have to stop and make changes… unless you are Michael Phelps.”

So why not ride the wave of the most successful Olympian in history?

“Two hours of training, one minute to recover”

Marchand had his answer and joined the University of Arizona to work with Bob Bowman, the coach who led Phelps to his greatest triumphs. 

“A new language, new friends, new school and new training system,” said Marchand. “A new life.”

His life now is akin to an American dream where he lives on campus with classrooms close to the pool and is learning the computer language Java as he works on his swimming. 

It is an environment where you need to give all of yourself to optimise your performance under the tutelage of a man famous for his science-based training. 

“The quantity is less,” explained Marchand. “I used to swim between two and two-and-a-half hours a day but here no session is longer than two hours. But it is more intense. Nothing is easy and there aren’t many breaks. For every two hours of training, we have one minute to recover. We do one thing after the other, which is tough but more fun.”

If Bob Bowman demands a lot from you, he is also known for being understanding. 

“He understands everything it takes to be at the top,” said Jacco Verhaeren, the Dutch coach who is in charge of the French swimming teams for Paris 2024. 

“He makes sure that even though it is a heavy training plan, the environment is good. His strength comes from making things simple and he is focused on what can be controlled. That’s what makes him the best in the world.”

Beating Caeleb Dressel’s record

Marchand didn’t need to wait for long to see results. 

Last March, he was competing in the NCAA FInals with Arizona State, where the country’s best young swimmers face off against each other over distances measured in yards. 

After improving his weakest stroke, backstroke, he headed to the event. However, as a rookie he didn’t know what to expect. In the end, he had nothing to worry about as he beat the record of five-time Tokyo 2020 gold medallist Caeleb Dressel

“Four years ago, my dad showed me videos of the NCAA finals. I was watching Dressel and saying to myself, ‘this is incredible, his laps are crazy.’” Two years later he won loads of golds at Tokyo 2020. The guy was my idol, I didn’t even think about possibly beating his record.

“He congratulated me and was very happy his record had been beaten.”

“Bob tells me I look like Michael Phelps”

After dealing with the media frenzy surrounding his new status and recovering from his exertions, Marchand stepped up his attempts to make the qualifying standards for the Worlds. 

“I came back to earth with a maths class, as simple as that,” he said. “Emotionally, I was spent. For four days, the team gave everything, we didn’t even stop to scream. It was really tough to get back to work in the water.”

But he succeeded, achieving the qualifying standards for the 200m IM, 400m IM and 200m fly at the San Antonio Grand Prix in March. He also beat the French 200m IM record in a time of 1:56:95.

The mental strength he showed is a skill that gives Bowman high hopes, and he sees similarities between Marchand and Phelps himself. 

“He already told me I look like Michael Phelps as I’m able to give it my all, no matter the circumstances. 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.”

However, working alongside the entourage of such a great champion has some benefits, especially when he receives advice from the Baltimore Bullet. 

“We exchange messages. He told me that if I have questions, I shouldn’t hesitate to ask. We talk, he helps me - that’s pretty cool!”

The perfect age for Paris 2024

This type of advice may end up being essential with two years to go until the Olympic Games Paris 2024, because Marchand’s expectations are clear. 

“The goal is to win a gold medal one day or another. I think that Paris would be a great time, because I’ll be 22. I won’t be too old or too young.”

Before that, he wants to “have fun” at his first senior World Championships and to win a medal there after clinching bronze at the World Junior Swimming Championships in 2019 in the 400m IM. 

And he will land in Hungary having gained vital Olympic experience. 

“Since the Games, 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.”

The exam in Budapest is just the right occasion to confirm he has graduated to the next class.

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