Léon Marchand is France’s new swimming star in perfect timing for Paris Olympics

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Two years ago, French teen swimmer Léon Marchand cold emailed Bob Bowman, the longtime coach of Michael Phelps, with a request.

Marchand intended to go to college in the U.S. and asked if there was mutual interest in him joining Bowman’s program at Arizona State.

Bowman had never heard of the kid from Toulouse. He gets plenty of pitches like this from high school swimmers, but this one was different.

First, the last name was familiar. Marchand’s dad, Xavier, swam at the Olympics in 1996 and 2000, won 200m individual medley silver at the 1998 World Championships and spent part of his career training at Auburn. His mom, Céline Bonnet, swam the IMs for France at the 1992 Olympics.

Then Bowman looked up the kid’s race times. At age 17, Marchand broke France’s national record in the 400m IM and was faster than his dad ever was in the 200m IM. So Bowman replied with an emphatic yes — 15 minutes after Marchand sent the initial email, the swimmer said. Marchand announced his commitment in September 2020 to enroll after the Tokyo Games in 2021.

In the last two years, Marchand progressed from an unknown (to Bowman at least) to the world’s best all-around male swimmer. He swept the IMs at the world championships in June, put a scare into Phelps’ last remaining world record and smiled for photographers with Katie Ledecky at the meet’s conclusion as the event’s standout performers.

He is now on the path to being one of the faces of the Paris Games, if not the host nation’s biggest star across all sports.

“Five years ago I was watching this championships from home on TV … everything just happened so quickly,” Marchand, now 20, said at worlds in Budapest. “I’m yet to realize it what’s just happened to me here.”

According to French sports daily L’Equipe, Marchand remembered picking up sports around age 7. He did judo (France’s most successful sport at the Tokyo Games with eight medals) because the dojo was near his house. Likewise, there was the Dauphins du TOEC, the century-old swim club in Toulouse where his father formerly trained.

He didn’t always bond with water. He took a year or two off as a kid and, after becoming competitive, felt mentally fried before the pandemic. He enlisted the mental coach of Florent Manaudou, France’s last Olympic swimming gold medalist in 2012, and regained the love of the sport while separated from it during COVID lockdown.

Marchand has said his parents didn’t push him into the pool. In fact, Xavier warned early on about the considerable sacrifices on the long road to possible success. (Phelps recently told the University of Alabama football team that he took zero days off from 2002 to 2008, including training on Christmas.)

Marchand desired the U.S. for the opportunity to combine high-level swimming and studies in the NCAA system and to discover a new part of the world, though his first choice was reportedly Cal, which did not have a full-ride scholarship available.

Other European swimmers previously crossed the Atlantic. Hungarian Katinka Hosszu went to USC before blossoming into the world’s best female all-around swimmer. Frédérick Bousquet, a member of France’s famed 2008 Olympic 4x100m freestyle relay team that took silver to the U.S., had matriculated at Auburn.

When Phelps retired in 2016, Bowman returned to leading the Arizona State program and thought he would never again coach the spotlight swimmer at an Olympics. But there Bowman was on the pool deck at worlds in June, this time in a French federation shirt.

He watched on the first night of worlds as Marchand was under Phelps’ record pace through 350 meters of the 400m IM. The 400m IM is Phelps’ last remaining individual world record and the longest-standing record in any Olympic swimming event (set by Phelps at the 2008 Beijing Games).

Phelps’ world record is 4:03.84. Marchand’s personal best going into the final was 4:09.09, the national record he set in the heats hours earlier. Phelps’ record survived the final, but Marchand chopped nearly five seconds off his best time and recorded the second-fastest time in history — 4:04.28.

Marchand said after the race that he’s never met Phelps in person, but there have been messages of support, “and [Phelps] is always sending some some texts to Bob.”

“I don’t want to be compared to Phelps all the time,” Marchand said before worlds, according to Agence-France Presse. “I’m very, very far from him. And Bowman didn’t just have Phelps, he had a lot of other [star swimmers]. Let’s say I want to create my own path, I don’t want to follow Phelps’.”

But there are striking similarities.

Like Phelps, Marchand’s first major international medals came in the medleys and 200m butterfly (silver at worlds). Like Phelps, Marchand made his Olympic debut as the youngest swimmer in his event and made the final (Phelps was fifth in the 200m fly in 2000 at age 15; Marchand was sixth in the 400m IM in Tokyo at age 19).

Then there’s what Bowman sees. When Marchand rattled Phelps’ world record in the 400m IM, the coach had flashbacks to what he called Phelps’ first significant swims.

In July 1999, a 14-year-old Phelps broke what Bowman remembered as a 20-year-old national age group record for 13- and 14-year-olds in the 200m fly by one hundredth of a second. The following March, Phelps went another five seconds faster, breaking the national age group record for 15- and 16-year-olds. He was still 14.

“That’s what the 4:04 felt like,” Bowman said of Marchand’s 400m IM. “I know where we’re going with this.

“They’re both very good under pressure. They both trained at a high level. Léon had, like, two bad days the whole year. And both of them were when he didn’t sleep all night for some reason.”

Marchand, described by Bowman as a 4.0 GPA student with English skills as impressive as his politeness, has plenty to learn. As did a young Phelps, who mistakenly took roommate Aaron Peirsol‘s credential to the pool for that first Olympic final at age 15.

When Marchand found Bowman after that incredible 400m IM at worlds, the coach gave him a big hug, then offered a lesson: Don’t spend an hour talking to media after the race.

“Dude, you give them 10 minutes, and you leave,” Bowman said. “He’s going to have everybody in the world tell him how great he is after that time. I want him focused on the things that are going to produce the next great time.”

Something that Phelps mastered — swimming multiple times in one session — will be honed in Tempe over the next two years. Though Bowman told Swimswam that Marchand’s double in Budapest — national records in the 200m fly final and 200m IM semifinals in a 50-minute span — was “as good as any double Michael ever did.”

Marchand’s blood testing at worlds, measuring the metabolic effect that came off altitude training, was “actually on a higher level than Michael on some things,” Bowman said.

“Their demeanor and the way they go about [swimming] are very different,” said Bowman, who picked up Marchand from the airport when he moved to campus. “Léon never gets intense like Michael would be.”

They also race the IM differently. The breaststroke was Phelps’ weakest stroke (though, as NBC Sports analyst Rowdy Gaines said while calling Phelps’ first Olympic 400m IM title in 2004, if he concentrated on it, he would be world class). Marchand won the 200-yard breaststroke at last season’s NCAA Championships.

“Michael was essentially an endurance swimmer who had enough speed to swim some of the shorter events,” Bowman said, according to FINA. “Michael didn’t have Léon’s natural speed, so the endurance was kind of easy for him. With Léon, I’m trying to give him endurance, but I have to be careful not to kill his speed.”

Bowman’s lesson about media time was evidence of another difference. Bowman had zero experience dealing with that kind of situation before Phelps. Now, the coach can take what he learned from the Phelps years (as well as a brief time coaching French Olympic gold medalist Yannick Agnel a decade ago) and use it.

“[Marchand] knows there’s going to be pressure [in Paris in 2024]. We all know,” Bowman said.

Of course, it will not be an apples-to-apples comparison of what Phelps faced, given the U.S. never hosted the Olympics during his career.

“It might be similar, but it’s not going to be the same,” Bowman said. “The pressure in Beijing was absurd.”

Bowman, sitting on the pool deck in Budapest after Marchand’s life-changing week at worlds, recalled an initial conversation with Marchand after that recruiting-pitch email.

“I wanted to know what his goals were,” Bowman said. “His goals were to swim in the Olympics and win a medal.”

Then Bowman corrected himself.

“At the time he said make the Olympics. I’m putting in the win a medal part.”

In more recent interviews, Marchand revised his answer: to win a gold medal in 2024 or 2028.

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Kenenisa Bekele still eyes Eliud Kipchoge’s marathon world record, but a duel must wait

Kenenisa Bekele
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LONDON — Kenenisa Bekele made headlines last week by declaring “of course I am the best” long distance runner ever. But the Ethiopian was fifth-best at Sunday’s London Marathon, finishing 74 seconds behind Kenya’s Amos Kipruto.

Bekele, 40, clocked 2:05:53, the fastest-ever marathon by a runner 40 years or older. He was with the lead pack until being dropped in the 21st mile.

But Bekele estimated he could have run 90 to 120 seconds faster had he not missed parts of six weeks of training with hip and joint injuries.

“I expect better even if the preparation is short,” he said. “I know my talent and I know my capacity, but really I couldn’t achieve what I expect.”

Bekele is the second-fastest marathoner in history behind Kenya’s Eliud Kipchoge, who broke his own world record by clocking 2:01:09 at the Berlin Marathon last week.

“I am happy when I see Eliud Kipchoge run that time,” Bekele said. “It motivates all athletes who really expect to do the same thing.”

LONDON MARATHON: Results

Bekele’s best time was within two seconds of Kipchoge’s previous world record (2:01:39). He described breaking Kipchoge’s new mark as the “main goal” for the rest of his career.

“Yes, I hope, one day it will happen, of course,” Bekele said. “With good preparation, I don’t know when, but we will see one more time.”

Nobody has won more London Marathons than Kipchoge, a four-time champion who set the course record (2:02:37) in 2019. But the two-time Olympic marathon champion did not run this year in London, as elite marathoners typically choose to enter one race each spring and fall.

Bekele does not know which race he will enter in the spring. But it will not be against Kipchoge.

“I need to show something first,” Bekele said. “I need to run a fast time. I have to check myself. This is not enough.”

Kipchoge will try to become the first runner to win three Olympic marathon titles at the Paris Games. Bekele, who will be 42 in 2024, has not committed to trying to qualify for the Ethiopian team.

“There’s a long time to go before Paris,” Bekele said. “At this moment I am not decided. I have to show something.”

So who is the greatest long distance runner ever?

Bekele can make a strong case on the track:

Bekele
Four Olympic medals (three gold)
Six World Championship medals (five gold)
Former 5000m and 10,000m world-record holder

Kipchoge
Two Olympic medals
Two World Championship medals (one gold)

But Kipchoge can make a strong case on the pavement:

Bekele
Second-fastest marathoner in history
Two World Marathon Major victories

Kipchoge
Four of the five best marathon times in history
Two-time Olympic marathon champion
12 World Marathon Major victories

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Yalemzerf Yehualaw, Amos Kipruto win London Marathon

Yalemzerf Yehualaw
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Ethiopian Yalemzerf Yehualaw became the youngest female runner to win the London Marathon, while Kenyan Amos Kipruto earned the biggest victory of his career in the men’s race.

Yehualaw, 23, clocked 2:17:26, prevailing by 41 seconds over 2021 London champ Joyciline Jepkosgei of Kenya.

Yehualaw tripped and fell over a speed bump around the 20-mile mark. She quickly rejoined the lead pack, then pulled away from Jepkosgei by running the 24th mile in a reported 4:43, which converts to 2:03:30 marathon pace; the women’s world record is 2:14:04.

Yehualaw and Jepkosgei were pre-race favorites after world record holder Brigid Kosgei of Kenya withdrew Monday with a right hamstring injury.

On April 24, Yehualaw ran the fastest women’s debut marathon in history, a 2:17:23 to win in Hamburg, Germany.

She has joined the elite tier of female marathoners, a group led by Kenyan Peres Jepchirchir, the reigning Olympic, New York City and Boston champion. Another Ethiopian staked a claim last week when Tigist Assefa won Berlin in 2:15:37, shattering Yehualaw’s national record.

Joan Benoit Samuelson, the first Olympic women’s marathon champion in 1984, finished Sunday’s race in 3:20:20 at age 65.

LONDON MARATHON: Results

Kipruto, 30, won the men’s race in 2:04:39. He broke free from the leading group in the 25th mile and crossed the finish line 33 seconds ahead of Ethiopian Leul Gebresilase, who said he had hamstring problems.

Kipruto, one of the pre-race favorites, had never won a major marathon but did finish second behind world record holder Eliud Kipchoge in Tokyo (2022) and Berlin (2018) and third at the world championships (2019) and Tokyo (2018).

Ethiopian Kenenisa Bekele, the second-fastest marathoner in history, was fifth after being dropped in the 21st mile. His 2:05:53 was the fastest-ever marathon by a runner 40 years or older. Bekele ran his personal best at the 2019 Berlin Marathon — 2:01:41 — and has not run within four minutes of that time since.

The major marathon season continues next Sunday with the Chicago Marathon, headlined by a women’s field that includes Kenyan Ruth Chepngetich and American Emily Sisson.

London returns next year to its traditional April place after being pushed to October the last three years due to the pandemic.

MORE: Bekele looks ahead to Kipchoge chase after London Marathon

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