‘Greatest show on surf’: Léon Marchand poised to be ASU’s next superstar

ASU’s Léon Marchand, here representing France in the 2021 European Aquatics Championship, is on the cusp of breaking Michael Phelps’s world record in the 400 IM, but the sophomore swimmer knows there’s room for improvement individually and as a team. (Photo by Attila Kisbenedek/AFP via Getty Images)

ASU sophomore Léon Marchand started the 2022-23 season with a strong showing in individual and relay events. The Sun Devils (2-1) will host Wisconsin on Oct. 22 in their next meet. (Photo by Jacob Flores/Cronkite News)

TEMPE – Arizona State University boasts some impressive names in sports, including baseball’s Barry Bonds and Reggie Jackson, basketball’s James Harden and golf major championship winners Phil Mickelson and Jon Rahm, to name a few.

The next household name to come out of ASU might just be on its Tempe campus right now, ready to explode on the world stage.

Léon Marchand, an Arizona State sophomore from Toulouse, France, already is making his mark on the NCAA and world swimming scenes and now is chasing a world record held by the biggest name in the sport – Michael Phelps.

Marchand entered this season as a two-time NCAA champion after winning the 200-meter breaststroke and 200-meter individual medley as a freshman. His 1:37.69 in the 200 IM final is the fastest in NCAA history.

He followed up that performance at June’s FINA World Aquatics Championships in Budapest, Hungary, where he won gold in the 200 IM and the 400 IM.

His 4:04.28 performance in the 400 IM set the meet record and is the second fastest in history in the event and the fastest ever by a European. Only Phelps, a 23-time Olympic gold medalist, has gone faster in the 400 IM.

Marchand also took home silver in the 200-meter butterfly in Budapest, breaking the French national record in that event.

Marchand is just 20 years old, three years younger than Phelps was when he set the 400 IM world record of 4:03.84 at the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Phelps won eight gold medals at those Olympics. Marchand competed in the 2020 Games in Tokyo but didn’t come away with any medals.

He appears to be on track to break Phelps’ record later at some point, and ASU swimming coach Bob Bowman, who coached Phelps when he set the 400 IM record, said Marchand’s breaststroke is his strength in the IM, which includes backstroke, breaststroke, butterfly and freestyle legs.

“He’s one of the best breaststrokers in the world, I think,” Bowman said. “He didn’t really get a chance to do that at Worlds, but he’ll have a chance at some point to do a 200 (breastroke). So I think that’s the biggest thing. But also his other strokes are very good, and his underwaters are just lethal, so he has that added weapon.”

Marchand agreed, and went a little deeper.

“I’m just very good at IM, I think because I’m pretty good at underwater, so I can do good transitions,” Marchand said. “I can improve my stroke every time I’m just touching the wall, so that’s just the stroke I like the best.”

Performing at the levels Marchand is performing at now takes attention to detail, and he knows he can’t become complacent as he continues to evolve as a swimmer.

“There’s a lot of things to improve,” Marchand said. “That’s my first international meet at worlds, my first NCAA final, too. I’m getting more experience this year. The team is better, so we’re going to be better at the meets. There’s a lot of stuff to improve, my backstroke can be better, freestyle, too.”

Top-level athletes display a wide array of emotions when they compete, and Bowman said Marchand’s emotional bandwidth falls somewhere between a couple of the biggest stars Bowman has coached.

“When he competes, you see this energy and focus,” Bowman said. “He’s a very low-key guy. Like, Michael (Phelps) could be very intense. Allison Schmitt could be very goofy. Léon’s just very right down the middle.”

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The Sun Devils appear to be loaded with talent this season and headed toward a finish among the top teams in the country behind Marchand. ASU graduate student swimmer Grant House said the Sun Devils already are competing at a high level and are capable of much more.

“There’s so much untapped potential,” House said. “The limit does not exist for this team right now. We’re almost breaking team records at our first meet at the start of the season. When I came here five years ago, I think every single 100-meter today was faster than the school record (then). It’s just crazy how much improvement this team’s gotten and how much it’s going to have the rest of the season. It’s kind of the greatest show on surf right now.”

The ASU men’s swim team lost its season-opening meet Friday against Georgia, 46-44, but bounced back Saturday with two wins over Georgia and Missouri to improve to 2-1.

Marchand followed Friday’s individual win in the 150 breast with three more victories the next day in the 200 fly (1:43.21), 200 breast (1:57.67) and 200 IM (1:44.32). He also swam the final leg of ASU’s winning 400 free relay team.

Asked about the team’s ceiling for the 2022-23 season, Marchand says there isn’t one.

“A team goal I think this year, we could do maybe top three in the nation,” he said. “Maybe more.”

Joe Eigo joe EYE-go (he/him)
Sports Visual Journalist, Phoenix

Joe Eigo expects to graduate in May 2024 with a bachelor’s degree in sports journalism. Eigo is in his third semester at Cronkite News. He has previously worked with Inferno Intel, WCSN, The State Press and The Racing Experts.

Jacob Flores Jay-cub Floor-ehz (he/him/his)
Sports Broadcast Reporter, Phoenix

Jacob Flores expects to graduate in December 2022 with a bachelor’s degree in journalism and mass communications. Flores has interned as a writer with AZ Big Media and as a digital marketing manager with Vinylly.