Ultimate coup de grace: ASU men’s swim and dive team seeks to end Pac-12 era with first NCAA championship

Arizona State swimming and diving coach Bob Bowman is delighted at the thought of his team possibility winning the program’s first national championship. (Cronkite News file photo)

PHOENIX – The Arizona State men’s swim and dive team, the top-ranked team in the nation, looks to deliver a coup de grace to the Pac-12 era this week by capturing its first NCAA men’s swimming and diving championship.

Three weeks before the NCAA championships, which run Wednesday through Saturday at the IU Natatorium in Indianapolis, the Sun Devils secured their second consecutive Pac-12 championship in dominant fashion by scoring 1,036 total points. They also had the second-highest point differential in conference history, winning by 303 points. Arizona State men’s swim and dive coach Bob Bowman acknowledged the possibility of winning the first NCAA championship in program history.

“It would be very special because it’s a team achievement,” Bowman said during Monday’s media availability. “It’s a whole group of people and it’s not just these guys on this team. I got here nine years ago and there have been a lot of people that were part of the evolution of this program that chose to believe in what we were doing and kind of joined us and grew a little part of the program and then passed it on to someone else. It’s really satisfying to see that we’re in a position where that could happen.

“So we tried to start recruiting people and we had some struggles in the beginning because it was hard to convince some of the top swimmers to come swim on a team that didn’t have other top swimmers.”

Bowman was not discrediting any of his former players. The 2015-16 season, his first with the Sun Devils, was mediocre for the two-time Big-10 Coach of the Year’s standards. The squad went 4-4 during the regular season and didn’t place first in any Pac-12 championship competition.

Eight years later, Bowman went into the season with the No. 7 recruiting class in the country for men’s swim and dive, according to SwimSwam. Only Stanford University (No. 5) and the University of California, Berkeley (No. 1) were ahead of the Sun Devils in the conference rankings. The maroon-and-gold also secured its consecutive Pac-12 championship and the last of the Pac-12 era.

The talk of the town has been junior standout Léon Marchand. The soon-to-be 2024 Olympian made his presence known at the Pac-12 championships once again as he won events in the 500-meter freestyle, 400-meter individual medley, 200-meter breaststroke, 200-meter medley relay, 800-meter free relay, 400-meter medley relay and the 400-meter free relay.

Marchand hasn’t won an NCAA championship since being with the Sun Devils. He explained how everything would change if Arizona State takes it home this weekend.

“It would be amazing for the team,” Marchand said Monday. “I’ve won some stuff just individually and the first thing I wanted to do was like sharing stuff with my family or my coach or like my teammates and that’s what NCAA is about. If we win, it’s all together, so I think the success will definitely be different.”

One of Bowman’s top recruits for the 2023-24 season was Ilya Kharun. The freshman superstar made his mark during the Pac-12 championships where he won a title and set the NCAA record for the 200-meter medley relay with a posted time of 1:20.55. He also took home five additional Pac-12 titles in the 100-meter fly, 200-meter fly, 400-meter medley relay, 400-meter free relay and the 200-meter free relay.

Kharun’s first season has been filled with individual and team success, much like Marchand. He credits his teammates for teaching him how to enjoy the journey.

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“They push me to my limit and they always try to motivate me to do better,” Kharun said. “Hubie (Hubert Kós) sometimes teases me at practice but that just makes me want to go faster. Just being around these guys just makes me a whole different swimmer and you just have to be part of it to experience it, to just be the best around these guys.”

Part of Kós’s encouragement to the young freshman stems from what Bowman preaches during every practice and every meet. As Bowman described it, his philosophy for building up his swimmers is quite simple.

“I think the main thing that helps these guys that are already good swimmers when they get here,” Bowman said. “(What helps them) get better is I raise the bar every day. I’m constantly raising the expectation level of what they could do and challenging them in ways that they haven’t been challenged and, you know, as they meet those challenges, they get better and better.

“I think that’s the secret of what I do is, don’t be too satisfied with anything. You say ‘nice job, but you could do this’ and just try to keep them moving forward.

Bowman more than established the standard and a fundamental process for the Sun Devils going forward.

“Well, I think that we have a process that we follow, which is very similar for any kind of meet,” Bowman said. “What we’re going to do is take the feedback we got from swimming at this past Pac-12 (championship) and use that to hopefully be better at the next meet, which is coming up in Indianapolis. Obviously, we swam really well. We’ve been swimming consistently quite well.

“We’re very happy to win the last Pac-12 meet and kind of put our name in the history books for that.”

Kós had records of his own during the Pac-12 championships. The sophomore swam the 200-meter backstroke with an NCAA record 1:35.69, while securing three other individual championships in the 100-meter backstroke, 200-meter individual medley and the 400-meter medley relay.

While Kós trained in Hungary for most of his life, when he came to Tempe, he noticed a significant change in the way he approached swimming.

“Everything was so much more different, so much more specific and focused on the process and what we have to do,” Kós said. “Since the time I’ve been here, I’ve never felt like I could sit back and kind of relax with my position where I am right now, especially after I won worlds over the summer and I came back and I think I had two or three weeks off (and then) straight back to work.

“We didn’t really have as big of a break as we normally would back home. I think this idea that we have to focus on the process, focus on the work all the time and the outcome that we want will come along the way.”

The main focal point for the Sun Devils has been all about maintaining and finding their focus. Kós mentioned how, ahead of the 2024 NCAA championships, there is a new sense of determination that the team didn’t have last year.

“All of us winning a Pac-12 championship is really a great thing but especially this year, I think all of us really know what’s gonna come next,” Kos said. “We know exactly what we have to do on the next step and it’s not really going to be that easy because we figured that one out last year.

“We won the Pac-12, but we couldn’t get the job done at NCAAs. So I think there’s a new level of focus that we’re bringing to the table this year that we didn’t have last year and I hope that it’s going to help us succeed.”

Hayden Cilley HAY-din SIL-lee (he/him)
Sports Reporter, Phoenix

Hayden Cilley expects to graduate in December 2024 with a master’s degree in mass communication. Cilley covered the Phoenix Mercury in 2022 for The Next Hoops and is writing and podcasting about the Mercury for PHNX Sports.