Léon Marchand is one of the best swimmers on the planet. But why has nobody ever heard of him until now?
At the 2023 World Aquatics Championships in Fukuoka, Japan, Léon obliterated Michael Phelps’ world record in the 400-meter individual medley. This was the longest standing world record in swimming, and he crushed it by almost a second and a half!
At the same World Championships, he won gold in the 200-meter IM and the 200-meter butterfly. Léon also has plenty of international medals, records and titles to his name, including jaw-dropping performances at the NCAA championships.
He’s an absolute powerhouse. But who is Léon Marchand? And why does it seem like he came out of nowhere?
Early Swimming Career
Léon is the son of two Olympic swimmers. He was born in France in 2002, to parents who both swam the individual medley at a world-class level. His mom competed for France at the 1992 Games, and his dad competed in the 1996 and 2000 Olympics.
After trying out a few other sports as a kid, Léon finally decided to join the family business at age nine, and the rest is history.
Journey to Tokyo
As an age group swimmer, Léon was definitely one to watch. He was a star in the French swimming world, and by 2019 he was making waves on the international stage. At the World Junior Swimming Championships that year, he snagged a bronze medal and set a French record in the 400-meter IM.
But he officially established himself as a powerhouse at the 2021 Olympics in Tokyo! As part of the French team, he had an epic race lineup for his first Games.
Léon finished 6th overall in the 400-meter IM, 14th in the 200-meter butterfly, and 18th in the 200-meter IM.
At such a young age, being in the top 20 in the world is incredible. That’s something most elite swimmers work their entire careers to achieve.
Michael Phelps was 5th at his first Olympics in 2000, and we know the rest of that story.
Moving to the United States
It was clear that Léon was on his way to swimming greatness, but if he really wanted to get there, he needed to make some changes. He needed to leave France.
His parents told him that if he didn’t move to the US to train, he’d regret it later. With their blessing, Léon made it happen.
Just a few weeks after the Tokyo Games, Léon moved 9,000 kilometers from home to study and swim at Arizona State University.
When you’re pursuing greatness, who better to coach you than the coach of the greatest swimmer of all time? That’s right, Michael Phelps’s coach, Bob Bowman!
After moving to the United States, Léon had a lot to learn. He had to figure out how to live on his own while training 20+ hours a week in the pool and attending classes for his Computer Science degree.
And with time, Léon adjusted to his new home and settled into training with his Sun Devil teammates.
Training at Arizona State University
Sure, he had already been to the Olympic Games, but Léon hadn’t even come close to reaching his full potential yet, and Coach Bowman knew it. Over the next season, Léon thrived at ASU and got even faster.
Under Coach Bowman’s guidance, Léon actually cut back on his overall swimming time each week, but the intensity ramped up.
Most of his workouts are about two hours long at ASU, instead of the two-and-a-half hour swims he was used to back in France.
Shorter workouts mean less rest between sets, but Léon likes it that way. And it seems to be working!
At his first NCAA Championships in 2022, Léon won the NCAA title in the 200-yard IM and broke Caeleb Dressel’s record in the event, dropping a 1:37.69. He became the first person to swim under 1:38 in the 200-yard IM!
Similarities to Michael Phelps
Watching Léon swim gave Bob Bowman déja vu. He said that Léon reminds him of Michael Phelps in 2003. And when you compare the two of them, there are definitely some similarities that make sense.
Michael and Léon both have the discipline needed to make it through hours of boring swim practices. They understand that swimming is all about delayed gratification. The importance of putting in the work today for a race that might happen months, or even years, from now.
No matter how the rest of his day has gone, Léon gets into the zone when practice starts. He works hard every day, no matter what, even if he had a bad day, or if he’s tired. And that kind of work ethic is exactly what helped Michael win so many medals.
And while Léon hasn’t won any Olympic medals yet, that probably won’t be the case for long!
Now, obviously Léon and Michael Phelps aren’t the same swimmer – they might have some characteristics that line up, but the beauty of swimming is that so many different people can succeed in this sport.
While Léon is good at breaststroke, Michael was better at backstroke. But that didn’t stop either of them from dominating in the individual medley!
Another massive difference between Léon and Michael Phelps is body type. While Michael is tall, lanky and muscular, Léon is leaner and probably not what you’d envision when you think of the best all around swimmer in the world.
Léon is proof that swimming doesn’t have one body type. Sure he’s shredded, but he doesn’t look like a lineman.
Léon could have let these comparisons to Michael Phelps get to him, but he’s been able to stay cool, calm and collected in even the most stressful racing situations. And that’s something his teammates really like about him!
Racking Up the Medals
After an epic breakout appearance at NCAAs and getting settled at ASU, Léon was primed and ready for the next big competition: The 2022 World Championships.
At age 19, he made French swimming history in Budapest. He won gold in the 400 IM, setting a new European record and becoming the first French male swimmer to medal in the event. He also won gold in the 200 IM and silver in the 200 fly. His trophy case was beginning to fill up.
In the months afterward, Léon didn’t slow down one bit. He helped the ASU men’s team win the 2023 PAC-12 championships and set more NCAA records. He also snagged some more wins at the 2023 NCAAs and the French Elite Swimming Championships, adding eight more medals to his collection.
At the 2023 NCAAs, Leon made history, absolutely destroying the NCAA records in the 200 IM, 400 IM and 200 Breaststroke. He also had some of the fastest relay splits in history in events ranging from the 50 breaststroke to the 200 freestyle.
2023 World Aquatics Championships
So, by this point, you get it…Léon is an all around superstar.
But it gets even better. The 2023 World Championships is where Léon really solidified his spot as the best all around swimmer in the world.
Heading into the finals of the 400-meter IM, Léon knew the world was watching him. He knew that he had a chance to break Michael Phelps’ longest-standing world record that hadn’t been beaten in over 5,000 days.
In one of the most incredible swims the world has ever seen, Léon broke Michael Phelps’s world record, touching the wall 1.34 seconds under the world record mark.
And the icing on the cake? Michael Phelps himself was there, watching like a proud father as his world record fell. He personally congratulated Léon during the medal ceremony, passing the torch to the next generation of swimming greats.
But Léon didn’t leave Worlds with just one medal. He won gold in the 200 IM and 200 butterfly, and was also given the Swimmer of the Meet award.
2023 Worlds officially made Léon a swimmer to watch at the 2024 Olympics in Paris.
And the best part is that Léon is just getting started. He’s young, fit, and hungry to push the boundaries of this sport beyond what we think is possible.
Alongside other greats like Caeleb Dressel, Léon is ushering in the next generation of elite swimmers. The future of swimming is bright, and it’s thanks, in part, to Léon Marchand.