Bob Bowman, led by his heir Michael Phelps, wins the swimming title that Phelps never achieved

By | April 1, 2024

Arizona State’s Ilya Kharun and Leon Marchand with teammates after a victory in the 400-yard medley relay at the NCAA men’s swimming championships in Indianapolis. Arizona State won its first national title in the sport. (Photo by Joe Robbins/NCAA Photos via Getty Images)

INDIANAPOLIS – Bob Bowman had been everywhere in swimming, from Baltimore to the top of the world, from the Olympics to the Hall of Fames – everywhere but here, pumping his fists at the IU Natatorium, raising a trophy and then plunge into a swimming poolin honor of an NCAA championship.

He had led Michael Phelps from a club in Maryland to immortality. He had coached Team USA and its members to dozens of Olympic medals.

But to begin what he called his “post-Michael life,” he moved to a remote swimming hole in the state of Arizona in 2015 in search of a prize unlike any other in the sport.

And on Saturday, in a cacophonous arena in Indy, powered by his latest otherworldly protégé, Léon Marchand, he emerged victorious.

He clenched his hands and moved them, fervently, euphorically, as if this were Athens, Beijing or London. He guided Arizona State through this four-day men’s championship meet, which Marchand, world record holder and world champion, called “swimming’s most intense race.” He and Marchand schemed and swam the Sun Devils to their first-ever relay triumphs at NCAAs, and the program’s first national team title.

And it was “special,” Bowman said, “because it’s a team effort.” It wasn’t just him and Michael. It’s not just him and Léon.

“It’s a whole group of people, and it’s not just these guys on this team,” he explained last week while still on the cusp. “There have been many people who have been part of the evolution of this program, who chose to believe in what we were doing, joined us, grew a small part of the program and then passed it on to someone else.

“I think that’s what gives me the most satisfaction: there are so many people who are a part of it,” he continued. “And it’s something that, honestly, in 2015, when I got here, was the furthest along [from what] you might imagine we would.

Bob Bowman’s Arizona State Turnaround

Bowman and Phelps rose hand in hand from the North Baltimore Aquatic Club to the pinnacle of the sport. One of them was an eleven-year-old child prodigy when they met. The other became more than a coach: He was a mentor, ultimately a father figure of sorts who accompanied Phelps on a wild, exhausting, all-conquering ride to 28 Olympic medals, 23 of them gold.

The relationship, of course, defined Bowman’s career. His only venture into college swimming, at Michigan from 2005-2008, produced Big Ten titles but no natty; it was a footnote.

But as Phelps neared retirement, the collegiate environment began to tug on Bowman. “And I wanted to be in a program where we could build something,” he said, where “it wasn’t pre-made.”

He found Arizona State, a program that was briefly shut down in 2008. Before Bowman’s arrival, it was an afterthought, so much so that commentator Rowdy Gaines, perhaps the world’s foremost expert on NCAA swimming, has no memory of it.

After taking the job, Bowman admitted: “This may come as a bit of a surprise to some people – and in many ways I may be the most surprised.”

“But,” he continued, “it’s clear that this could be such a great story.”

In 2015 he started writing it, word by word, set by set, teen by teen. “And it took a lot longer than I thought,” Bowman said recently. At their first NCAA championship meet in 2016, they finished tied for 44th. “In the beginning,” Bowman said, “we didn’t have people on the team who could swim at that level.”

“So we tried to recruit people, but we had some problems,” Bowman continued. “Because it was difficult to convince a number of top swimmers to come and swim in a team where there were no other top swimmers.”

Grant House, a freestyler from Ohio, was the first to take the plunge in 2017. And slowly, both the reality and perception of ASU began to change. House set new standards for Bowman’s practices at dawn. He also lent legitimacy to the coach’s field. And other elite recruits began to follow.

The greatest was undoubtedly Marchand, a Frenchman who initially had an eye on perennial NCAA powers. His first choice was Cal, which has finished in the top two of the NCAAs without exception since 2010. But Cal did not offer a full scholarship. Marchand considered other schools. And “what made the difference,” he would later say, “was the coach” – Bowman.

Marchand arrived in the fall of 2021, as a 19-year-old Olympian, and “when he came in, it took off,” Bowman said of his program. Marchand continued to accelerate toward Phelpsian greatness. Within two years, he shattered and shattered NCAA records; and broke Phelps’ last remaining world record, the longest standing record in the history of swimming.

But he also fully believed in the team concept; included in the ‘Sun Devil family’. He embedded himself in a nascent culture and then worked to build it. He pushed older teammates. He helped attract new people from abroad. He dined with them. He played “Call of Duty” with them. He supported them. He “gave everyone an example of what true excellence is, at the highest level,” Bowman said. And he loved it.

In March 2023 he was a two-time world champion; but last year’s NCAA meet, in which ASU finished second, a new high, “may have been the most fun I’ve ever had,” he said afterward.

This year it’s a step up. Friday night, Marchand said, was “certainly the best he’s ever had in a swim meet.” He cruised to a 400-meter individual medley title — and conserved energy two hours later, sacrificing another record so he could lead ASU to a first relay title in program history.

In between, he stood in a group of teammates and coaches on the pool deck and jumped up and down, cheering on Hubert Kos and Owen McDonald in the 100-meter backstroke final.

“[It’s] It’s very rare for an international kid to come in and be so animated,” Gaines told Yahoo Sports – because swimming at home, in many countries, is a very individual sport. “So when he’s into it and he’s at the level he is,” Gaines said, “it just says something about his character.”

‘Started from scratch… now we’ve made it’

Marchand broke two NCAA records here in Indianapolis. He won his maximum number of individual titles. His favorite, however, seemed to be the relay. He leaned into the pool after Friday and strongly congratulated Jonny Kulow on Kulow’s heroic anchor leg. “Let’s go!” exclaimed Marchand – or something like that; Kulow couldn’t remember. “That was more of a conversation of the eyes,” Kulow said with a smile. “I could see the raw emotion he was feeling.”

Then they all looked up at Section 210, where dozens of family members and fans had gathered all week and been agitating them with noise.

Marchand’s parents, Xavier and Céline; his brother, Oscar; and a family friend, who serves as their lawyer, all traveled from France to attend the show. They took part in every part of the spectacle, waving rally towels and brandishing plastic Sun Devil tridents. Before, during and after every race – even if Léon wasn’t involved – Oscar roared with all his might.

They all roared louder than ever on Saturday as freshman Ilya Kharun finished strong to win the 200 butterfly and capture the team title. (They ultimately won with 523.5 points to runner-up Cal’s 444.5.)

Bowman turned around after an initial pump and seemed to take a few seconds to savor the moment. In the hours that followed, after years of uncompromising work, he made it a point to “participate in the joy of it.” He stood, in his black polo and khaki shorts, on the corner of the pool, immersed in the scene, as colleagues trickled past to congratulate him. “There’s nothing like the first,” a courteous Cal assistant coach told him. “I’m proud of you, dude.”

His students were also proud. As they danced around the pool, they also reflected on the magnitude of their achievement. “When I first committed,” said fifth-year senior Jack Dolan, “we didn’t even think this could happen.”

And certainly no one did that in 2015. When they started talking about national titles, some people scoffed: “Okay, you can’t be serious.”

“But,” Bowman said, “we just stuck with it. And believed.”

Their faith reached a peak Saturday night around 8:52 p.m., when Kulow anchored another relay, the 4×100-meter freestyle, to victory in NCAA record time. Bowman jumped up and down, his arms stretched toward the sky. He hugged his staff with a bear. He beamed with pride. He had put together what Cal’s Destin Lasco called a “super squad”; and up and down the list they had delivered.

A minute later, Marchand summarized the bigger picture. This, he said with his right arm draped around Kulow, was his last “most fun night I’ve ever had swimming.” And then he diverted attention to Bowman. “He started here from scratch,” Marchand said. “And now we’ve made it.”

Bowman smiled. He had been everywhere and done everything, but “this,” the bespectacled coach later said, “is right at the top” of his list of achievements, “right at the top.”

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