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ASU's Léon Marchand swimming toward Olympic gold

July 10, 2023

Coach Bob Bowman sees similarities to Michael Phelps

Léon Marchand was 7 years old when he quit swimming.

He didn’t quit because his parents, Xavier Marchand and Céline Bonnett, were pushing him to take up a family business. (Xavier Marchand had competed in the 1996 and 2000 Summer Olympics for France, and Bonnet took part in the 1992 Games.)

And he didn’t quit because he was afraid of the work.

He quit because, well, the water was too cold.

“I was like, really skinny and the pool was just awful,” Marchand said. “So, I quit swimming for two years.”

It’s funny to think about, now, that the Arizona State University 21-year-old sophomore who won six medals (including three gold) at the 2023 NCAA Division I men’s swimming championships … and became arguably the sport’s best male swimmer … and may break the 15-year-old 400 individual medley record set by Michael Phelps … gave up the sport because he was cold.

But a legend has to start somewhere. Why not a shivering kid with a towel wrapped around his waist?

Fast-forward 14 years. Marchand is talking to a reporter as he stands on the deck at ASU’s Mona Plummer Aquatic Complex. He’s trying to explain the single-minded focus it takes to be a world-class swimmer.

“It’s a very difficult sport,” he says. “It’s kind of hard to enjoy the process all the time. You’re training for years for a race that might last 20 seconds.”

That sacrifice is why Marchand’s parents were unbothered when he left the pool to take up other sports, including rugby. They encouraged him, in fact, to explore other outlets. But he was never as good on the land as he was in the water so, at the age of 9, he embraced his fate.

ASU is thankful he did.

Portrait of college male resting in pool with elbows propped up on deck

ASU swimmer Léon Marchand poses for a photo at Mona Plummer Aquatic Center on the Tempe campus on April 28. Marchand, who is an international student from Toulouse, France, is expected to compete in the 2024 Summer Olympics. Photo by Samantha Chow/ASU

Staying grounded

Here’s the first thing you’ll notice about Léon Marchand: He’s not noticeable.

Where Michael Phelps was seemingly constructed to swim laps around everyone with his 6-foot-4 frame and 79-inch wingspan, Marchand looks, well, average.

He's 6-foot-2, 170 pounds, and when he strolls down Palm Walk only the most devoted swimming fans recognize him.

“If you compare him to some of the other top swimmers in the world right now, they’re all giant pieces of muscle,” ASU teammate Daniel Matheson said. “Léon doesn’t really follow that. His body type doesn’t scream an elite all-star athlete.”

Marchand doesn’t mind the jab. In fact, he embraces the perception, hoping he can be an inspiration for others.

“I’m trying to show how you can work with your own body,” he said. “You don’t have to be very big or very tall to swim fast or do your own thing. I just want to show that when you’re different you can (succeed).”

Marchand is doing just that. When the 2023 World Aquatics Championships are held in Fukuoka, Japan, on July 14–30, he will be one of the favorites to win gold in the 200 butterfly, the 200 individual medley and the 400 individual medley.

And when the 2024 Summer Olympics are held in Paris, Marchand could become the face of the Games.

“I’m like, ‘Dude, you’re going to be the most famous person there,’” Matheson said.

So, how does an average-size young man without a shred of arrogance — he acts just like a regular kid, according to ASU coach Bob Bowman — become one of the world’s best swimmers?

That story starts with a flight out of France and continues with lap after lap after lap.

Man swimming in racing pool

ASU swimmer Léon Marchand practices at the Mona Plummer Aquatic Center on the Tempe campus on April 28. Photo by Chris Goulet/ASU

A fish out of water

By the time he was 18, it was obvious Marchand had world-class ability. He had already competed in the 2020 Olympics, with a best finish of sixth in the 400-meter individual medley.

“I was doing well,” Marchand said.

But his parents understood that to evolve as both a swimmer and a young man, Marchand needed to leave Toulouse, a city of about 500,000 in the southern region of France, travel overseas and be on his own. They pushed him to go abroad, and Marchand chose ASU for an obvious reason: Bowman had coached Phelps.

“I knew I could trust him every day,” Marchand said.

The first few weeks in Tempe were rough on Marchand. He not only had to learn a new language, but he had to learn how to take care of himself. In France, at home, his laundry was done for him; his meals were cooked for him. In Tempe, he learned quickly that clothes will shrink if they’re washed at the wrong temperature.

“In class, I had to listen a lot just to understand,” said Marchand, who is majoring in computer science. “Every day I was going to bed at like 5 p.m. because I was dead. But it got better. Now, I can do everything myself, which is a great thing.”

Video by Ken Fagan/ASU News

Following in Phelps’ footsteps

Back at the pool, it’s easy, but perhaps unfair, to compare Marchand to Phelps.

They’re not the same swimmer or the same person.

But Bowman says they are similar in one very important way: Their dedication to their craft is absolute, including the discipline needed to conquer the monotony of swimming practice.

“They’re very different personality-wise, but the way they approach the actual racing and the training is very similar,” he said. “They’re very consistent on a day-to-day basis, and at a consistently high level in training every day.

“You’re going to spend somewhere between two to four hours a day in the pool, basically just going up this black line and coming back down,” Bowman explained. “It’s boring. And there’s really no way of getting away from that kind of boringness. … You have to want it pretty bad. I think it takes somebody who very much has an appreciation for delayed gratification.”

ASU swim coach and collage male swimmer standing outside of pool

Léon Marchand says he chose to swim at ASU so he could train under Bob Bowman (left), who had coached Michael Phelps. Photo by Chris Goulet/ASU

Matheson, who lives with Marchand, said he’s constantly amazed at his roommate’s ability to turn it on during practice.

“He destroys everyone every day,” Matheson said. “It’s just crazy to try to explain it to someone because it’s honestly unreal. I’ve never seen anyone train the way he does. He makes other people look silly. He’s just on a different level than anyone else.”

Bowman said there were times he would watch Phelps in practice and think he was watching something no one had ever done before. He gets the same feeling occasionally with Marchand.

Bowman recalled a practice where the Sun Devils were doing a set of 500-yard freestyles, which Marchand had never swum in a meet. One set remained, and Bowman challenged Marchand to see how fast he could swim. Marchand asked what Phelps’ best time was.

Four minutes and 23 seconds, Bowman said.

“So Léon (does) 4:18, and I know nobody’s doing that,” Bowman said. “And then he swam it at a meet two weeks later, and it was like the fifth-fastest one ever. So, he’s pretty good at mentally comparing himself to Michael.”

Marchand said he and Phelps have yet to meet in person. They sometimes text, but it’s Bowman who has Marchand’s ear and sees his talent.

“When he came to me, he had already qualified for the Olympics. So, he was on a high level,” Bowman said. “But he has exponentially improved the last two years to where he’s arguably the best swimmer in the world right now.”

Two photos of man swimming in pool: One from above looking down at the lanes, and one from the front of him starting off at the end of the lane

ASU swim coach Bob Bowman says that Léon Marchand is "arguably the best swimmer in the world right now." Photos by Samantha Chow and Chris Goulet/ASU

Still room for improvement

The best swimmer in the world is considering his future: The World Aquatics Championships this month, the 2024 Summer Olympics in France.

But before Marchand goes home, there’s one other goal.

ASU finished second in the NCAA Men’s Swimming and Diving championships in March of this year, behind California.

Marchand wants more, which is one reason he plans to return to ASU to swim competitively for the Sun Devils in 2023–24.

“I know we can do better,” he said. “I know we can win. And I want to be a part of it.”

RELATED: See how the Sun Devils did in the 2022–23 Pac-12 Year In Review

Top video by ASU Visual Communications.

Scott Bordow

Reporter , ASU News

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July 10, 2023

Awards total $2.8M in grant funding for researchers

Researchers at Arizona State University have earned five National Science Foundation early career awards in the last year. The new awards total $2.8 million in funding for ASU researchers in grants that will be used over five years.

The awards show the scope of research being undertaken at ASU and the level of creativity exhibited by each recipient. The work covers a wide variety of science and technology, from improving the performance and reliability of electrical systems to designing new molecules using bio-nanotechnology to advancing new interventions aimed at empowering youth in the juvenile justice system. 

The NSF’s Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) Program identifies the nation’s most promising young faculty members and provides them with funding to pursue outstanding research, excellence in teaching and integration of education and research. Often, these awards spur the creativity of the faculty member and help set them on an innovative career path. 

"On behalf of the entire ASU academic community, I extend my congratulations to our latest recipients of the NSF CAREER award," said Nancy Gonzales, executive vice president and university provost. "These five scholars, representing a breadth of scholarly disciplines, contribute to ASU's growing count of more than 220 professors who have received this distinction. This remarkable accomplishment underscores the depth of early career talent that comprises our exceptional ASU faculty."

Here is a look at the most recent ASU NSF CAREER award recipients:

Adam Fine, assistant professor, School of Criminology and Criminal Justice 

Fine is a developmental psychologist conducting research at the intersection of psychology, law, public policy and criminology. His work aims to test new ways to empower youths to thrive beyond the juvenile justice system. Fine’s research will develop and test a novel theoretical framework, called the Integrated Youth Development Model, that demonstrates how interdisciplinary approaches can be integrated and distilled into a workable set of core tenets that promotes thriving among justice-involved youths. Read more

Ayan Mallik, assistant professor, The Polytechnic School 

Mallik is an electrical engineer whose research seeks to improve the performance and reliability of electrical systems. His project will focus on building an algorithm that can identify and analyze electrical signals or noise produced as a result of electromagnetic interference. Identifying and analyzing electromagnetic interference noise can help detect flaws in electrical systems and address them early on. This approach aims to help maximize the capabilities of electrical systems and reduce development risks for power equipment suppliers. Read more 

Petr Šulc, assistant professor, School of Molecular Sciences 

Šulc is an interdisciplinary scientist who applies statistical physics and computational modeling methods to problems in chemistry, biology and nanotechnology. His research aims to develop new multiscale models to study interactions between biomolecules, particularly in the context of design and simulations of DNA and RNA nanostructures and devices. Šulc is designing molecules with promising new applications including in diagnostics, therapeutics and new materials. Read more

Ruijie Zeng, assistant professor, School of Sustainable Engineering and the Built Environment 

Zeng’s research aims to reengineer agricultural drainage infrastructure to aid in better water resource management and conservation efforts. His project involves mapping agricultural drainage networks using drones and multispectral imagery to analyze surface soil moisture patterns and help indicate where drainage is occurring. Zeng’s research will provide a tool for decision-makers and stakeholders to talk with individual farmers to develop and advance additional water conservation programs. Read more

Houlong Zhuang, assistant professor, School for Engineering of Matter, Transport and Energy 

Zhuang is conducting research at the intersection of alloy design and artificial intelligence. His project will build on his work by combining alloy design and quantum computing to create quantum algorithms that aid researchers in developing new materials. These algorithms will be implemented using quantum hardware that produces the simulations of the bonds between select elements to predict the best possible combinations of elements to achieve a given material property. Read more

David Rozul

Media Relations Officer , Media Relations and Strategic Communications