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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Ilia Malinin’s quadruple Axel sheds light on first figure skater to land triple Axel

Vern Taylor
Vern Taylor, the first figure skater to land a triple Axel in competition. (Getty Images)
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Vern Taylor arrived at the Riverside Skating Club in Windsor, Ontario, on Sept. 15 to do what he has done at that rink for the last three decades: coach figure skaters. But this day was different.

Taylor, who in 1978 became the first man to land a ratified triple Axel in competition, was told that 17-year-old American Ilia Malinin performed the first quadruple Axel the previous night.

“When we heard that he landed it, I said, ‘Oh my goodness, that’s terrific,'” Taylor said by phone.

He was then shown video of Malinin’s feat.

“Anything’s possible,” Taylor said. “43 years [later], that’s something. It’s knowing that you can perform the jump that makes it challenging.”

Malinin, the world junior champion, landed the most difficult jump in skating and checked off the only remaining quad yet to be performed.

At the 1978 World Championships in Ottawa, a 20-year-old Taylor broke through a similar barrier in hitting the last remaining unchecked triple jump. But while Malinin’s senior career seems to be just getting started, and many medals appear in his future, Taylor is largely a forgotten man outside of ardent figure skating followers.

He finished 12th at those 1978 World Championships. Taylor’s 1980 Olympic prospects were dimmed by the fact that Canada had just one men’s singles spot, and he had taken runner-up at nationals in 1978 and 1979 to Brian Pockar, who also outscored Taylor at those years’ world championships. So Taylor stopped competing a year before the Lake Placid Games.

“I didn’t have a reason,” he said. “I just decided to take a break.”

Taylor will always have that day at the world championships in Ottawa. He can still remember the nervousness, knowing that two other skaters also planned to attempt a triple Axel. They were unsuccessful, though Taylor didn’t know it.

“I didn’t see their jumps,” he said. “I didn’t want to know what was ahead of me.”

American David Jenkins landed a triple Axel in Movietone newsreel footage reported to be from 1957, but that was not in competition.

Taylor, skating to music from “Rocky,” put the triple Axel as the third jump of his program, according to reports at the time. The one YouTube video of it, published two years ago, has 32,000 views. It shows Taylor landing the three-and-a-half revolution jump on one foot and spinning out of it while managing to stay on that single skate blade amid a crowd roar.

“During that program, it was like a rock concert,” Taylor said. “I got the energy from the audience.”

The Montreal Gazette reported at the time that the jump was ratified three hours later. Italian Sonia Bianchetti, the men’s referee at the 1978 Worlds, said she met with the assistant referee, the ISU president and a technical delegate.

“During this short meeting it was recognized that Vern had completed the first triple Axel Paulsen jump [Norwegian Axel Paulsen was the skater who landed the first Axel jump in 1882, getting it named after him] in an officially recognized figure skating competition,” she wrote in an email last month. “The triple Axel was fully rotated and landed on one foot.”

One of the people inside the Ottawa Civic Centre that day was 16-year-old Canadian Brian Orser. Orser, inspired by Taylor, later became synonymous with the jump — labeled “Mr. Triple Axel” and landing it en route to silver medals at the Olympics in 1984 and 1988 and the 1987 World title.

Orser remembered Taylor visiting his skating club for an exhibition. Orser saw Taylor doing an Axel takeoff exercise off the ice, incorporated it into his own routine and began teaching it to his skaters after becoming a coach.

Yet another Canadian, Kurt Browning, was the first man to land a ratified quadruple jump of any kind in competition — a toe loop at the 1988 World Championships.

“For me, personally, it was huge,” he said, “because I was promised a car if I could land it.”

Through an agreement with an Edmonton car dealership, Browning was handed the keys to a Quattro — quad/Quattro — after hitting the toe loop. The skater was unaware that the dealer was merely leasing it to him. About six months later, Browning received a call asking to bring the car back.

Browning was inspired by American Brian Boitano, whom he previously saw land a quad outside of competition. Taylor motivated him, too.

“[Taylor] gave me permission, even at a young age, to start thinking bigger,” he said.

Browning also pointed to Jozef Sabovčík, a 1980s skater for then-Czechoslovakia who many believe was the first man to land a quad in competition, Browning included. Sabovčík was initially given credit for a quad toe loop at the 1986 European Championships, but weeks later it was invalidated because he touched down with his free foot, according to reports.

“I never want to come off as arrogant, but despite what ISU [International Skating Union] decided in the end, I do know that I landed the jump on that day,” Sabovčík, who said he performed a quad jump on his birthdays through age 44, wrote in an email. “The fact that most of the people in the skating world believe the same thing, it means everything to me that Kurt is one of them. It would have been nice to have my name in the Guinness Book of Records, but I am also not trying to change history.”

Sabovčík, now 58 and coaching in Salt Lake City, attended March’s world championships in Montpellier, France, where Malinin finished ninth. There, he spoke with Malinin’s parents, Russian-born Uzbek Olympic skaters Tatyana Malinina and Roman Skornyakov, whom he calls friends.

“They told me that he was already doing a quad Axel on a fishing pole harness [in practice], and that it was coming,” Sabovčík said.

Less than two months after that talk, the first video surfaced of Malinin landing a clean quad Axel — at a U.S. Figure Skating jump camp.

“I did not think [a quad Axel] was possible,” Sabovčík said. “It really has to be an athlete that can combine the technical ability with jumping ability with the speed of rotation. When Kurt and I jumped, we had a relatively speaking slow rotation, but we jumped really big compared to these kids. But Ilia, he has the vertical lift, but he [also] has an unbelievably fast rotation.”

The recent proliferation of quads in men’s and women’s skating can be attributed to several factors, including better boots, better ice conditions and improvements in technology that can aid coaching. Still, there are concerns about if and how the pounding of training quads can wear down a skater physically.

“It’s a lot of pain you don’t feel at first, but you know it comes later,” said Frenchwoman Surya Bonaly, who started training a quad in 1989 and attempting it through the mid-1990s. Bonaly had two hip surgeries after her competitive career.

Even Taylor faced those questions.

“People said, ‘Aren’t you worried about injuring yourself?'” he said. “I would say, ‘No, I want you to know it can be done.'”

Sabovčík never tried a quad Axel in his skating days, but Browning did for less than a week in the early 1990s after winning four consecutive world titles.

“Just playing with it,” said Browning, who never tried it in competition. “Ilia has that special ability to not only get up in the air, but then he has that beautiful rotation that doesn’t look hurried. It’s fast, it’s quick as lightning, but it doesn’t look hurried. It’s so easy. Like a good golfer swings easy, and the ball goes 400 yards.”

Browning recalled a conversation he had with two-time Olympic champion Yuzuru Hanyu, who in recent years made the quad Axel his quest. Hanyu attempted it in competition last season but did not land it cleanly before retiring in July. He said upon retirement that he still hoped to master the jump for his non-competitive show career.

“I asked Yuzu one day, ‘When you do quad Axel, does it just feel like you’re up there forever?'” Browning said. “And he kind of looked at me funny, and he goes, ‘Yeah, like it never ends.'”

The skating world awaits the reserved Hanyu’s thoughts on Malinin’s quad.

“Knowing Yuzu, I would think he’d be very supportive,” said Orser, who coached Hanyu for nearly a decade. “He appreciates that kind of athleticism.”

Orser also noted what comes with being the first — and so far only — skater to land a rarefied jump. Malinin, who headlines Skate America in two weeks, will be asked about the quad Axel in just about every interview for the foreseeable future. For some skaters, they may feel a responsibility to land it all the time.

“But I don’t think [Malinin] thinks too much about it,” Orser said. “His technique is perfect, so he’ll be fine.”

The inevitable topic after that is the next progression in skating: the first quintuple jump. Orser said that Hanyu did five-rotation Salchows in practice with the aid of a harness.

“It’s just a little bit more rotation than the quadruple Axel, so it’s not that far off,” said Sabovčík, whose unratified quad toe loop came eight years after Taylor’s triple Axel. “Now that I’ve seen the quad Axel, I don’t think it’s impossible.”

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Aleksandra Trusova splits from coach Eteri Tutberidze, months after Olympic tears

Alexandra Trusova, Eteri Tutberidze
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Olympic figure skating silver medalist Aleksandra Trusova reportedly split from coach Eteri Tutberidze‘s group, eight months after a tearful scene after the Olympic free skate.

Trusova, 18, will now be coached by Svetlana Sokolovskaya, according to Russian media reports dating to Saturday. All Russian skaters are ineligible to compete internationally indefinitely due to the national ban over the war in Ukraine, but Russia is still holding domestic events.

At the Beijing Winter Games, Trusova became the first woman to land five quadruple jumps in a free skate. She had the highest score that day, but it wasn’t enough to make up the gap to fellow Tutberidze pupil Anna Shcherbakova from the short program.

Moments after the competition ended, Trusova was seen crying and yelling at Sergey Dudakov, a member of Tutberidze’s coaching team.

“Everyone has a gold medal! Everyone has! Only I don’t! I hate figure skating! I hate! I will never step on the ice again! Never!” she said in Russian.

Shcherbakova had the individual gold, and the other Russian women’s singles skater at the Games, Kamila Valiyeva, skated both programs of the team event. The Russians placed first in the team event, but medals will not be awarded until Valiyeva’s doping case is adjudicated. It’s possible that Valiyeva gets retroactively disqualified, the Russian team gets disqualified and the other nations all move up with the U.S. going from silver to gold.

Trusova performed at the Russian test skates last month, withdrawing after her short program due to a back injury.

Trusova previously left Tutberidze in 2020 for two-time Olympic champion turned coach Yevgeny Plushenko‘s group, then moved back to Tutberidze’s group after the 2020-21 season.

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