The French face of the Paris Olympics is hiding in plain sight

For now, Léon Marchand walks in relatively anonymity around campus at Arizona State. Come July, he'll be the face of the 2024 Summer Olympics.

Leon Marchand will be a gold medal favorite at multiple events at the 2024 Paris Olympics. (Adam Pretty via Getty Images)

INDIANAPOLIS — The blond-haired, blue-eyed, boyish face of the Paris Olympics is hiding amid a sea of broad-shouldered college students, at a publicly accessible pool, in plain sight.

Léon Marchand knows that spotlights will trail him this summer. But for now, he is trotting down a nondescript flight of Midwestern stairs, his hands stuffed inside coat pockets, his 6-foot-2, 170-pound frame indistinguishable from hundreds of others gathered here in central Indiana for the NCAA men’s swimming championships.

He has spent the past three school years in Tempe, Arizona, and even there, he says, strangers rarely recognize him.

“We’re undercover,” adds Hubert Kos, an Arizona State teammate and fellow world champion.

They are, in a way, just kids who play "Call of Duty" and go to class. Marchand is majoring in computer science. He has lived in dorms and dined at dining halls. With sharp French cheeks, a curly mane and a skinny build, he is often anonymous.

Until, that is, he dips into chlorinated water and explodes.

Marchand, 21, has also spent the past three years obliterating vaunted records.

He chased down Michael Phelps’ last and longest-held mark in his signature event, the 400-meter individual medley, last summer. He has set and re-set several NCAA records. On Thursday in Indy, swimming his third-best stroke, he smashed the 500-yard freestyle markhis own from earlier this month — by an eye-popping 3.87 seconds.

He will likely win three individual events here by week’s end. He might lead Arizona State to its first national title. And then, discreetly, he will turn his unflinching focus to Paris. He will enter the 2024 Olympics as a gold-medal favorite in multiple events on home soil. To the half-dozen French reporters who flew to Indianapolis, and scrambled around the IU Natatorium for glimpses of him, Marchand is a megastar in the making.

But no, he won’t be leaning into spotlights.

And no, he hasn’t visualized himself atop a Paris podium, "La Marseillaise" filling his ears, his nation teeming with pride.

This mild-mannered kid from Toulouse, a modest southern French city, doesn’t even have a fairytale to tell about how the 2017 announcement that Paris would host the Games kindled his Olympic dreams.

“Not really,” Marchand says. “Because at the time, I was not really good at swimming.”

Leon Marchand of France celebrates winning a gold medal and setting a world record in the 400 IM at the 2023 World Championships. (DBM/Insidefoto/Mondadori Portfolio via Getty Images)
Leon Marchand of France celebrates winning a gold medal and setting a world record in the 400 IM at the 2023 World Championships. (Mondadori Portfolio via Getty Images)

Léon Marchand's slow start

He was born into a family of French swimming royalty — to a father, Xavier Marchand, and mother, Céline Bonnet, who were both Olympians — but in his early years, Léon Marchand didn’t exactly cannonball into the sport.

He tip-toed in, and shivered. He was cold. He was bored. So he quit.

He also dabbled in rugby and judo as a child. His parents never pushed him toward the pool. But after roughly two years away, he found his way back to Dauphins du TOEC, the swim club where his dad once trained. And he made friends with the water.

He was not, however, a 12-year-old prodigy like Michael Phelps was. He was “tiny,” he remembers, and “I was not really a racer. I didn't want, really, to win. I was just swimming — every day, a little bit, to have fun.”

He began to get serious when he began to grow. As a teen with precocious technique, he committed to the sport. At 17, he won a French championship in the 200-meter butterfly; he set a national record in the 400 IM; and he decided to leave home.

College competition, academics and community pulled him across the Atlantic.

Cal was his top choice — but told him “quite late” in the process that it couldn’t offer him a full scholarship.

So, one evening in the spring of 2020, Marchand sent a flurry of emails to other college coaches, essentially asking: Can I swim for you? Bob Bowman — Phelps’ longtime mentor, and now the head coach at Arizona State — had never heard of Léon, but recognized the Marchand name. So he looked up the kid’s times. Bowman emailed back almost immediately: We’re very interested.

Marchand barely slept that night. Over the coming weeks, homebound by the COVID-19 pandemic, he spoke with Bowman and others via FaceTime and Zoom. He deliberated over several schools. He saw “magnificent” facilities and strong training groups everywhere. “What tipped the scales,” he said in 2022, “was the coach.”

He chose ASU and Bowman, both for Bowman’s experience and their human connection. He stayed in France to train for the Tokyo Olympics — where he finished sixth in the 400 IM at age 19 — then enrolled at Arizona State in the fall of 2021. Bowman picked him up from the airport. And before long, they got to work.

They have worked and worked and worked ever since, refining Marchand’s strokes and chiseling his body. Marchand has maintained a strong relationship with his hometown coach, Nicolas Castel, but it’s Bowman who is scurrying around a Tempe pool deck every day, at 6 a.m. and again in the afternoon, guiding and encouraging his latest protégé.

The days, of course, can be draining. When Marchand was in earlier stages of learning English as a freshman, his brain would shut off at 5 p.m. Even now, as a junior, with an intentionally lighter Olympic-year courseload, he hardly has time to relax — and when he gets some, “​​I can't really do anything, because I'm really tired all the time, because of Coach Bowman,” he says with a chuckle. He’ll kick back and watch Peaky Blinders, or listen to some music.

The work, though, is paying off. As a rising sophomore in 2022, Marchand swept the 200 and 400 IMs at worlds, and established himself as the planet’s best male swimmer. He seemed blown away by his own meteoric rise — “everything just happened so quickly,” he said that summer. Then, he kept accelerating.

He was already something of a star when he landed in Fukuoka, Japan, last July. Fans even swarmed to him — and his parents and younger brother. It was the 400 IM, however, that took their breath away. Phelps was calling the race live on Peacock, and “uh-oh,” he said as Marchand turned for the freestyle leg. “It’s gone,” Phelps said of the world record he’d held since 2002, when Marchand was two months old; and the 4:03.84 that had stood, untouched, since Beijing 2008. (Phelps chopped down his own record seven times; then nobody broke it for 15 years.)

A minute later, after touching the wall in Fukuoka, Marchand looked up, saw 4:02.50, and exclaimed to himself: “What the f*** is happening?”

A few weeks later, he returned to Tempe, and to relative anonymity, for a year that he recently called his “most fun” yet.

Léon Marchand, left, will follow his father, Xavier Marchand (right), to the Olympic Games. (Photo by DAMIEN MEYER/AFP via Getty Images)
Léon Marchand, left, will follow his father, Xavier Marchand (right), to the Olympic Games. (DAMIEN MEYER via Getty Images)

The calm before the Olympic storm

Conceptually, it could be quite jarring to watch the world’s best swimmer march into claustrophobic aquatic centers in places like Tucson, Arizona, and Federal Way, Washington.

It was quite jarring Wednesday night to see the IU Natatorium bleachers mostly empty, and mostly only filled by swimmers’ friends and family members.

It was jarring to see Marchand’s parents chatting, unbothered, next to something called Ben’s Soft Pretzels in the concourse.

It was jarring to see Marchand standing behind two ASU teammates on the second step of a podium, beaten by Florida and then Cal in two relays.

It was jarring to watch him walk off the pool deck, alongside Bowman and a few teammates, impeded only by a volunteer pushing a cart that almost clattered into Marchand.

But perhaps it’s no surprise that this, NCAAs, might be his favorite swim meet. Because “you don't swim only for yourself,” he says. “You swim for bigger than that, for the team.”

Which is stressful. “I get pretty nervous about that, because I don't want to, like, disqualify the team [by making a mistake],” Marchand says. He calls NCAAs “the most intense meet of swimming.” But he loves the energy. The competitive camaraderie. That’s part of why he came to the States, where his ASU squad is 40-deep.

“When I go to worlds,” he says, on the other hand, “it's just me. Just me and myself.”

Him, himself and spotlights.

"What's hard,” Marchand said last June, “is that I'm never alone anymore. There's always someone taking my picture or filming me.” He was speaking after France’s national championships, and he knew: “I've got to get used to it, because it will be even worse in Paris."

Here, for now, in the relative tranquility of Indianapolis, he could trudge back up the stairs, away from the few French reporters hustling through the media center with their cameras, out of sight.