The French face of the Paris Olympics is hiding in plain sight

By | March 28, 2024

INDIANAPOLIS – The blond-haired, blue-eyed, boyish face of the Paris Olympics hides amid a sea of ​​broad-shouldered students, at a public swimming pool, in plain sight.

Léon Marchand knows that the spotlight will follow him this summer. But for now, he trots down a nondescript Midwestern staircase, his hands tucked into his jacket pockets, his 6-foot-4, 170-pound frame indistinguishable from hundreds of others gathered here in central Indiana for the NCAA men’s swimming championships.

He spent the last three years of school in Tempe, Arizona, and even there, he says, strangers rarely recognize him.

“We are undercover,” added Hubert Kos, a teammate from Arizona State and fellow world champion.

In a way, they’re just kids playing Call of Duty and going to class. Marchand studies computer science. He has lived in dormitories and dined in dining halls. With sharp French cheeks, a curly mane and a thin build, he is often anonymous.

Until it dips into chlorinated water and explodes.

Marchand, 21, has also shattered many vaunted records over the past three years.

Last summer, he chased down Michael Phelps’ final and longest run in his signature event, the 400-meter individual medley. He has set and reset several all-time NCAA records. On Wednesday in Indy, he opened with a relatively tame breaststroke relay — and followed it up an hour later with a second relay, with an NCAA record in the 200-yard freestyle, his third-best stroke.

By the end of the week he will probably win three individual events here. He could lead Arizona State to its first national title. And then, discreetly, he will turn his unflinching focus on Paris. He will enter the 2024 Olympics as favorite for the gold medal in multiple events on home soil. To the six French reporters who flew to Indianapolis and milled around the IU Natatorium to catch a glimpse of him, Marchand is a megastar in the making.

But no, he won’t lean into the spotlight.

And no, he did not visualize himself on a stage in Paris, with “La Marseillaise” filling his ears and his nation filled with pride.

This soft-spoken boy from Toulouse, an unassuming southern French city, doesn’t even have a fairy tale to tell about how the 2017 announcement that Paris would host the Games fueled his Olympic dreams.

“Not really,” says Marchand. “Because I wasn’t really a good swimmer at the time.”

Leon Marchand of France celebrates winning a gold medal and setting a world record in the 400 IM at the 2023 World Championships. (DBM/Insidefoto/Mondadori Portfolio via Getty Images)Leon Marchand of France celebrates winning a gold medal and setting a world record in the 400 IM at the 2023 World Championships. (DBM/Insidefoto/Mondadori Portfolio via Getty Images)
Leon Marchand of France celebrates winning a gold medal and setting a world record in the 400 IM at the 2023 World Championships. (Mondadori Portfolio via Getty Images)

Léon Marchand’s slow start

He was born into a family of French swimming kings – with a father, Xavier Marchand, and mother, Céline Bonnet, who were both Olympians – but in his early years, Léon Marchand wasn’t exactly a cannonball in the sport.

He stepped inside and shuddered. He was cold. He was bored. So he stopped.

As a child he was also involved in rugby and judo. His parents never pushed him towards the pool. But after about two years of absence, he found his way back to Dauphins du TOEC, the swimming club where his father once trained. And he made friends with the water.

However, he was not a twelve-year-old prodigy like Michael Phelps. He was “small,” he recalls, and “I wasn’t much of a racer. I didn’t really want to win. I was just swimming, a little bit every day, for fun.”

He started getting serious when he started growing. As a teenager with a precocious technique, he threw himself into the sport. At the age of 17, he won a French championship in the 200-meter butterfly; he set a national record in the 400 IM; and he decided to leave the house.

College competition, academics and community drew him across the Atlantic.

Cal was his first choice, but told him “fairly late” in the process that it couldn’t offer him a full scholarship.

So one evening in the spring of 2020, Marchand sent a flurry of emails to other college coaches, essentially asking: Can I swim for you? Bob Bowman – Phelps’ longtime mentor and now head coach at Arizona State – had never heard of Léon, but recognized the name Marchand. So he looked up the child’s times. Bowman emailed back almost immediately: We are very interested.

Marchand barely slept that night. Over the next few weeks, confined to his home by the COVID-19 pandemic, he spoke with Bowman and others via FaceTime and Zoom. He deliberated on various schools. He saw ‘beautiful’ facilities and strong training groups everywhere. “What was decisive,” he said in 2022, “was the coach.”

He chose ASU and Bowman both because of Bowman’s experience and their human connection. He stayed in France to train for the Tokyo Olympics — where he finished sixth in the 400 IM at age 19 — and then enrolled at Arizona State in the fall of 2021. Bowman picked him up from the airport. And it didn’t take long for them to get to work.

Since then, they’ve worked and worked and worked, refining Marchand’s punches and chiseling his body. Marchand has maintained a strong relationship with his hometown coach, Nicolas Castel, but it’s Bowman who spends every day, at 6 a.m. and again in the afternoon, milling around a Tempe pool, mentoring and to encourage.

The days can of course be exhausting. When Marchand was in the early stages of learning English as a freshman, his brain shut down at 5 p.m. Even now, as a junior, with an intentionally lighter course load for the Olympic year, he barely has time to relax – and when he does get some, “I can’t really do anything, because I’m really tired all the time, because of Coach Bowman” , he says, chuckling. He sits back and watches Peaky Blinders, or listens to some music.

However, the work is paying off. As a rising sophomore in 2022, Marchand swept the 200 and 400 IMs at worlds and established himself as the top male swimmer in the world. He seemed blown away by his own meteoric rise – “everything just happened so quickly,” he said that summer. Then he continued to accelerate.

He was already something of a star when he landed in Fukuoka, Japan, last July. Fans even flocked to him – and to his parents and younger brother. However, it was the 400 IM that took their breath away. Phelps called the race live on Peacock and “uh-oh,” he said as Marchand turned around for the freestyle leg. “It’s gone,” Phelps said of the world record he had held since 2002, when Marchand was two months old; and the 4:03.84 that had remained untouched since Beijing 2008. (Phelps cut his own record seven times; then no one broke it for fifteen years.)

A minute later, after touching the wall in Fukuoka, Marchand looked up, saw 4:02:50 and he exclaimed to himself: “What the hell is going on?”

A few weeks later, he returned to Tempe, and to relative anonymity, for a year he recently called his “most fun” yet.

Léon Marchand, left, follows his father, Xavier Marchand (right), to the Olympic Games.  (Photo by DAMIEN MEYER/AFP via Getty Images)Léon Marchand, left, follows his father, Xavier Marchand (right), to the Olympic Games.  (Photo by DAMIEN MEYER/AFP via Getty Images)
Léon Marchand, left, follows his father, Xavier Marchand (right), to the Olympic Games. (DAMIEN MEYER via Getty Images)

The calm before the Olympic storm

Conceptually, it could be quite shocking to see the world’s best swimmer marching toward claustrophobic aquatic centers in places like Tucson, Arizona, and Federal Way, Washington.

It used to be quite shocking Wednesday night to see the stands at IU Natatorium largely empty, and mostly filled only by swimmer friends and family members.

It was shocking to see Marchand’s parents chatting undisturbed next to something called Ben’s Soft Pretzels in the entryway.

It was shocking to see Marchand standing behind two ASU teammates on the second step of a podium, defeated by Florida and then Cal in two relays.

It was shocking to see him walk off the pool deck, next to Bowman and a few teammates, hindered only by a volunteer pushing a cart that almost crashed into Marchand.

But perhaps it’s no surprise that this, NCAA’s, might be his favorite swim meet. Because “swimming is not just something you do for yourself,” he says. “You swim for something bigger than that, for the team.”

That’s stressful. “That makes me quite nervous, because I don’t want to disqualify the team [by making a mistake],” says Marchand. He calls NCAAs “the most intense swimming competition.” But he likes the energy. The competitive camaraderie. That’s part of the reason he came to the United States, where his ASU squad is 40-deep.

“When I go to worlds,” he says, on the other hand, “it’s just me. Just me and myself.”

Him, himself and spotlights.

“What’s hard,” Marchand said last June, “is that I’m never alone anymore. There’s always someone taking a picture of me or filming me.” He spoke after the French national championships and he knew: “I have to get used to it because in Paris it will be even worse.”

Here, for the time being, in the relative quiet of Indianapolis, he could trudge back up the stairs, away from the few French reporters rushing around the media center with their cameras, out of sight.

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