TEMPE – The Michael Phelps comparisons predictably grew louder in the wake of Léon Marchand’s short-course dominance at his second NCAA Championships appearance.
Completing the first undefeated individual season since 2002-03, Marchand’s clearing of all available contenders in the 400-yard individual medley, 200-yard individual medley and 200-yard breaststroke may not have come as much of a surprise if it weren’t for the manner in which he won – dominating the best collegiate swimmers in the world.
The CSCAA Swimmer of the Year became the first to break 3:30 in the 400 IM (3:28.82), smashing his previous NCAA-record time by more than two seconds. He reset his prior 200 IM personal best, which was already an NCAA record. And he made his mark in several relays, swimming the fastest all-time splits in the 200-yard freestyle, 100-yard breaststroke and 50-yard breaststroke.
And he might have collected even more first-place finishes if the meet was, as some in the swimming community have suggested, spread out more to allow for appropriate rest between events.
After all, he did pace the NCAA in seven different strokes ahead of the Pac-12 Championships – something his coach, Bob Bowman, said gave him a good problem. Namely, no matter which three events he chose, Marchand was going to get the job done in them.
For many, including Bowman, it was a reminder of Phelps, the most decorated Olympian in history. And Bowman knows better than anyone. He coached Phelps to those heights.
“In the performance area, they’re very similar,” Bowman said, ticking off the many ways that Marchand echoes Phelps. “They know how to set goals. They have a plan to achieve them. They’re very coachable. They want feedback about what they’re doing so they can get better. They’re able to handle pretty high expectations every day in practice from me.”
Because Bowman coached Phelps to an apparently untouchable legacy in which he collected 23 gold medals in four Olympics, the moment Marchand arrived at Arizona State marked the start of a period when it would perhaps be too easy to put their names together.
That seemingly remains the case today. It’s as if they’re the same person.
As it turns out, they’re not so in the slightest. Not in their demeanor, their background before Bowman or their circumstances while with him.
“Michael is hyper-competitive, whereas I feel like Léon’s a little bit more laid back in how he approaches it,” Bowman said. “He’s definitely competitive when he races. I just think Michael is more competitive at everything, all day long.”
Phelps fit the mold of a Michael Jordan, a Tom Brady, a Muhammad Ali: all-time great athletes with a certain outward aggressiveness to success. Few, if any, aspired to swim alongside Phelps, guard Jordan, play opposite Brady or fight Ali.
Their presence was as intimidating as their performances.
Marchand’s dominance is subtle. Maybe he’ll give a good celebratory splash after a given record-breaking race, of which he’s had many to this point in his career. But that’s not necessarily the expectation. On average, he has been described by Bowman, teammates and others as one to race, win and work ahead on what’s next – quietly.
“I never swam with Michael but, I mean, I get to swim with Léon,” said ASU senior Grant House.
“He just is so relaxed, so calm about everything. Even before the races, I continually find myself gravitating towards him because I’m more of that, like, too tense and too focused. Often just having his aura, his energy around is very comforting and very uplifting.”
Marchand’s really just “trying to have fun,” as he put it after a morning practice. The pool is not so much a place for him to prove, but play.
“In swimming, it’s kind of hard to enjoy the process sometimes,” he said.
According to Bowman, what worked with Phelps couldn’t be copy-pasted for Marchand, who’s only been coached by Bowman for fewer than two years now.
By contrast, Phelps and Bowman spent the better part of two decades in each other’s company from sunup to sundown, one-on-one.
“The way that I coached Léon is probably very different than the way I coached Michael,” Bowman said. “(Phelps) actually needed someone sometimes to be much more aggressive with him, to challenge him like, ‘Let’s see what you’re going to do on this! Are you just going to stand back and not do this?’
“I could say it like that. Whereas with Léon, it’s more encouraging. He doesn’t respond to any kind of real aggressive coaching. He likes it to be laid back. He likes me to show him what to do. He likes me to encourage him.”
Bowman knew better how to tailor Marchand’s training, thanks to the intel he pulled from prior conversations with Nicolas Castel: Marchand’s longtime French trainer, who Bowman described as Marchand’s equivalent of what Bowman meant to Phelps.
Bowman even said that Marchand told him during the recruiting process how he would still have two coaches upon committing to ASU, a strong indicator of Castel’s impact on the 20-year-old phenom’s early career — already well documented, as it was. By age 18, Marchand was France’s 400-meter IM record holder with a sixth-place finish at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.
“He doesn’t require a lot of pressure to perform or to get better,” Bowman said. “He wants to do it, and I’m just here sort of guiding it.”
In two seasons, he performed well enough to lead ASU to a second-place finish at the NCAA Men’s Swimming and Diving Championships and Pac-12 Conference title – both firsts in ASU program history.
The success reflected a combination of cultural change and roster turnover, which Bowman noted were among the early steps taken to advance the program during his tenure in Tempe, which has reached eight years. Building a collection of swimmers capable of pushing each other in practices took some patience, but Bowman watched that reality align with Marchand’s arrival.
For all four strokes, Marchand said he’s got a teammate or two with the skill and will to challenge him.
Ahead of ASU’s Territorial Cup meet with then-No. 19 Arizona, Bowman said Marchand clocked a 4:18 500-yard freestyle that was at least three or so seconds faster than any of Phelps’ best practice runs. Marchand then delivered an NCAA-leading 4:07.81 in the real thing, just to test the waters.
“Quite frankly, he required a lot of my time and energy to keep challenging him because he was so far ahead of most of the people he was training with,” Bowman said of Phelps. “Léon has a much better training group right now than Michael did at times, and so he’s challenged by that. And he also doesn’t want me to coach him any differently than I coach the other people, like he doesn’t expect me to give him special time or treatment or anything.”
He’s just one of the guys.
“We’re just like pretty good friends all-around, like we live 24/7 together and we just love each other,” Marchand said of his teammates. “I think that’s why it’s special.”
As he assimilated to a new country and a new primary language, Marchand also faced the imminent task of taking on the responsibilities of a college student looking to find people he could trust in a new place with his family back home in Toulouse, a city of about 500,000 in the southern region of France.
There was so much more to the deal than swimming. He also needed to learn how to live on his own. It wasn’t as dire thanks to a group of other freshmen swimmers, who welcomed him warmly in Tooker House on the Tempe campus.
James Don, perhaps, connected more than most.
“It was more of just going to the dining hall together, like those just small things,” Don said of getting to know Marchand, who he admittedly was “starstruck” by in their first meeting. “Going to watch a movie together or just sitting down playing video games, you know, every day that went on, it was just like, ‘Damn, he’s just a really cool, chill dude.’”
Don pivoted to a team manager role in preparation for their sophomore year, at which point they considered each other particularly close friends – so much so that Marchand asked Don to accompany him to an ASU football game where he was being honored at halftime for his two NCAA championships in the 200 IM and 200 breaststroke that he won as a freshman.
They walked the sidelines, snapped a lot of photos and generally hung out as they normally would, only in front of almost 40,000 fans in attendance for their team’s Pac-12 opener against Utah.
“I was like, ‘Dang, you could have picked anyone to go with you,’” Don said. “That’s something I’ll definitely remember for the rest of my life, for sure. And when I think back on our friendship, that memory will definitely pop up in my head.”
When considering Marchand’s future, friendships like the one he forged with Don may factor into whether he decides to stay at ASU for one or two more years.
Set to continue training with Castel for the 2023 World Athletics Championship a summer before his return to France for the Paris 2024 Olympics, Marchand and his pending decision will not take away from the lasting influence he’s left on an ASU program that went from being briefly discontinued in 2008 to finishing 15 years later as the nation’s second-best swim and dive team – all while serving as Marchand’s family far from home.
“I think it could be his last time and I think it could not,” Bowman said. “I know he loves the college team and wants to try to keep doing that, so he may very well go another year and he might go two more.”