Already two gold medals and one silver at the last World Swimming Championships. Léon Marchand is the number one asset for Paris 2024.
Swimming in designer clothes in the narrow basin of a barge moored upstream from Notre-Dame de Paris, the idea immediately amused and seduced Léon Marchand. A name that was still unknown to laymen until now, but which we will have to get used to. With, potentially, a few medals to win, the boy – 20 years old, youthful face, generous smile and pool blue eyes – is already dreaming of the Paris 2024 Olympics. Games whose opening ceremony will take place in the heart of the capital and on the Seine.
Double world swimming champion, in the 200 meters and 400 meters medley, in June in Budapest, Léon Marchand is the third Frenchman to have won two planetary individual titles in the same year, after Laure Manaudou in Melbourne (2007) and Florent Manaudou in Kazan (2015). What to sink into arrogance and self-satisfaction, but it is not the kind of the house: “I do not want to play the stars. It is probably due to my education”, confesses the champion.
His parents always supported him, but never pushed him. They know too well the sacrifices linked to the top level
It must be said that, among the Marchands, swimming in general and the medley in particular are atavism. In the clan, there is first the father, Xavier, vice-world champion of the 200 meters medley in 1998, in Perth, Australia. At the time, her feat had gone unnoticed, overshadowed by the world title of Roxana Maracineanu, the first in the history of French swimming. The mother, Céline Bonnet, originally from Marseille and met in the pools, is a specialist in medley and backstroke. She competed in four races at the Barcelona Olympics in 1992.
Uncle Christophe, brother of Xavier, 18 French champion titles, Olympian in Seoul (1988) and Barcelona (1992), also scoured the pools. “My parents have always supported and advised me. But, oddly, they never pushed me. I think they were aware of all the sacrifices it takes to be successful in this sport. »
Ungrateful, very physically demanding, swimming requires a certain abnegation. For Léon: six days a week, with, alternately, two technical sessions the same day, from 6 a.m. to 7:30 a.m. then from 2 to 4 p.m., and, the following day, from the bottom, from 10 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. The Marchands also wanted to protect their son from the media coverage and inevitable comparisons… “I am proud of this filiation, now admits the double world champion, but I want to chart my own path.”
In fact, to protect their son, the Marchand clan has made up with a few trusted friends the “Team Léon”, which accompanies and assists the seed of champion. During his swimming career, Xavier Marchand, who later became an image reporter for France 3 Regions, was fired from the Toulouse club Dauphins du Toec. His portrait still stands at the entrance to the swimming pool. This is where, as a child, Léon made his first castings. Difficult beginnings. The heir is cold and, above all, bored. “I hit the wall faster than the others,” he laughs. I took no pleasure. “So he wanders off to judo, then rugby, without having a crush. As the child has undeniable qualities of technique, flotation and lightness, Peggy Dutilleux, trainer at Toec and friend of Xavier and Céline, suggests that parents persevere in swimming. And there, the click.
To progress, I had to go into exile
“With her, I felt that I was rocking to the top level. I suddenly liked spending time in the water and loved the competition. I always wanted more, always to do better”, remembers Léon. His talent was then obvious and caught the eye of another Dauphins du Toec coach, Nicolas Castel, who would be his main coach. With him, Léon progresses. Quick. He is moving like his parents towards medley, because it is the most versatile discipline: “It varies the rhythms and avoids getting bored”, he specifies. In 2019, at 17, he became the youngest French 200-meter butterfly champion. He then broke the French record for the 400 meter medley at the world junior championships in Budapest, while winning the bronze medal. Faced with such precocity and such potential, the official swimming timekeeper (Omega) decided to support him. An extremely rare occurrence for a kid. The only athlete to have been sponsored at such a young age is the Swede Mondo Duplantis, Olympic champion at the last Olympics and pole vault record holder. “I remember the day I was contacted, says Léon. I was in the car with my dad, who picked up the phone and put it on speakerphone. We thought it was a joke.”
His companionship with “Nico” Castel led Léon to the Olympic final of the 400 meter medley at the Tokyo Olympics last summer, where he finished 6th. “Everything was fine after the Olympics, says Léon. I was confident, in my comfort zone. But to progress, I had to go into exile. »
Leaving, Léon has been thinking about it for two years already. Not anywhere in the United States of America. His parents had paved the way. They had trained for a few months in Auburn, Alabama. The American system makes it possible to combine sport and high-level studies. That’s good. Holder of a science baccalaureate with honors, Léon did not find his place at university. “Nobody knew who I was, what I was doing. I was always the one who didn’t come…” His performances in the pools enabled him to obtain a scholarship. “I was lucky enough to be able to follow a university course, to travel, to learn a foreign language…” The chance, too, to train with Bob Bowman, a name that sounds like a national anthem on the first step of the podium. Shaved head, stentorian voice, the ex-mentor of Michael Phelps, taken under his wing at 14, largely contributed to shaping the greatest swimmer of all time: 28 Olympic medals, including 23 gold, and 26 titles world champion…
“Michael Phelps was a god for me when I was a child, admits Léon Marchand. I read all his interviews, I watched all his races. So training with his coach was great!” He sends her an email. Bowman replies, “That would be cool.” The deal is done! In August 2021, Leon leaves to study at the University of Arizona, near Phoenix, where Bob takes care of several international swimmers. If he chooses to work with Bowman, Léon, loyal, does not give up Castel, his trainer for eleven years: “Nico lost a quality swimmer by letting me go. However, he immediately supported me. I wanted him to continue to be part of the project.”
Compared to the colossus Florent Manaudou, it is a twig
The duo of coaches clashes. On one side, the Frenchman with the look of a teenager. “The person who knows me best after my parents. Almost a friend”, according to Léon. On the other, the arch-capped looking like a para-commando captain, renowned for his rough methods. “I have the impression that he pays attention to me, rectifies the swimmer. I do less training volume than before, I spend less time in the water because I have studies in parallel, but the sessions are more intensive.
His meteoric rise, he also attributes it to his change of life in Phoenix, in a university room, 10,000 kilometers from his Toulouse: “I have gained in maturity. I remember my feeling of pride when I opened my bank account alone in English, a language that I did not yet master. Since then, he speaks with a Texan accent, nabbed because of a roommate from the “Lone Star State”: “I rub shoulders with Irishmen, Puerto Ricans, Spaniards, Australians… It enriches me.
I know who I am and no longer want to be someone else
The only downside to the experience is the food. “I love going to the market, eating good food. On campus, we don’t have a kitchen in the rooms, just a fridge and a microwave. You have to go to the dining hall, the canteen. On the menu, it’s more burger and pizza. Everything is fatter than in France.” The one who was skinny a few months ago has thickened: 1.87 meters for 73 kilos. He weighed 65 before his American season. “It’s surely partly because of the food, he admits, but also thanks to bodybuilding. In the end, it worked for me. I feel good in my body.”
And that has not always been the case. Compared to the colossus Florent Manaudou, 1.99 meters for 99 kilos, it is a twig. “I also worked on self-esteem with Florent’s mental trainer, Thomas Sammut. Today, I like myself, admits this shy repentant. I know who I am and no longer want to be someone else. I know my faults and my qualities. I’m reserved, but at least I think before I speak. I am at peace with myself and with my body. I don’t want to be taller or bigger. And you can feel it in the water: I am liberated!” Happy? “Yes!” Even if it misses his happiness to meet God. Finally… his own god, Michael Phelps