The hope of French swimmer Léon Marchand (20 years old) will compete this Saturday in the 400m 4n of the Budapest World Cup. Finalist of the Tokyo Olympics at distance (6th), Toulousain was exiled to the United States, to Arizona State University, under the orders of a legendary coach: Bob Bowman. The one who forged the career of the greatest swimmer in history Michael Phelps.
“He who does not advance, retreats.” The proverb is written in French in the text on an A4 sheet where Bob Bowman wrote down the day’s practice at Canet-en-Roussillon, where the Blues spent the final days of preparation ahead of the world championships in Budapest. Léon Marchand falls on him and laughs. “Every day in the US we put a motivational quote, so I try to do the same thing here, but in French as a result,” says Bob Bowman, who in a loud laugh explains that he found it “on Google.” The image is quite surprising, even unthinkable. The former mentor of the greatest swimmer in history, the most successful sportsman in the history of the Olympic Games, Michael Phelps, wore the white polo shirt of the French national team. “France” floated in the back. Bowman does his best to blend in with the group, trying to slip through the French instructions, he is a lover of French wine.
“He asks me for words every day,” says Léon Marchand. This is the first time the trainer has used equipment from a country other than the United States. A godsend also for the entire France team. The coach changes during tricolor team meetings. How to plan down to the smallest detail each swimmer’s competition a week in advance. “Bob will do well because he changes, confirms Philippe Lucas. He is someone who speaks a little French, who gives his opinion and his experience, his experience. For all the young coaches that are there it is good. Bob is a plus, even a plus plus!” Heading the French team, Dutchman Jacco Verhaeren, himself a former coach of another great name in world swimming, Pieter van den Hoogenband, assures us that “in our sport, swimming, we have athletes who are legends and coaches too” .
“And Bob is just that, a legend if not the best,” he adds. He’s trained the greatest swimmer in history. And getting there isn’t just a matter of swimming fast. It’s also making sure there’s a good process. when you do the interviews, how long will it last, sleep issues, recovery. If you swim multiple races in the same night that some swimmers will be, how do you deal with it mentally and physically, how do you prepare? And Bob Bowman and Michael Phelps were the masters at it.” Bob Bowman, the francophile, lover of French history and the “Côte du Rhône”, now holds in his hands one of the emerging treasures of French swimming. He reminisced about his first nine months with Léon Marchand, his lightning-fast adaptation and the inevitable comparison with Phelps.
Where is Léon today before these world championships?
“He’s in good shape mentally, he’s been swimming very well the last few months, he’s been training well. So he’s confident and knows he can perform well.”
Since joining you in September, in what areas has he progressed?
He’s come a long way. In technique he progressed with each stroke. I think he is physically stronger, he has grown a lot physically. He was also able to swim against the best swimmers in the USA and beat them, which gave him confidence. I think he’s in a good mood coming to Budapest and I can’t wait to see what he does.
Between the time he arrived in the US and today, he has physically changed…
He arrived, he looked like a little kid (laughs)… Now he’s growing up. He needed to strengthen his muscles, which we did. He needed to be challenged a little bit in training and when he did, he responded well to that.
Can you tell us about his personality?
It’s very easy to work with him. He is focused on what he wants to do, has clear goals and works to achieve them. He is kind, humble and fits easily into a group. He encourages his teammates who in turn encourage him. And on a day-to-day basis he is determined and always wants to improve, so it’s very easy to work with him.
What relationship do you have with him?
We’re too close. I take care of him a bit like a second parent. He’s away from home, so he needs someone to check on him. But he is very independent and I think he has adapted well to his new life. He made a lot of friends, he has a good network. But in general, I try to make sure everything is fine for him.
Sometimes it takes time to adapt to the university system. Looks like it was too easy for him.
Yes, it didn’t take long. I’ve had other experiences with international swimmers and it didn’t work out too well (he laughs and rolls his eyes)… You know some of them… (he mentions without naming him Yannick Agnel who trained with Bob Bowman for 16 months between 2013 and 2014). I learned from these experiences. And what I did with Léon is I tried to bring him very gradually into what we do. I didn’t ask you for much input. We adapted the program so that every time it crossed one step, we could move on to the next one. I think being patient with him helped him a lot.
Does it change a lot for you to go from someone like Michael Phelps to a young swimmer like Léon Marchand?
No, they are very similar. Leon is very similar to Michael at the same age. It’s not the same, but it has the same qualities. He’s got talent, he’s very good in training and he wants to progress, so it’s easy with him.
We see you guys quite complicit and not necessarily serious all the time, with moments to laugh. Is it important to you?
Yes it is very important. I want to be able to keep him relaxed, especially coming to Budapest, where he shouldn’t be too serious. You have to be calm, relaxed.
You mentioned Michael Phelps and obviously we can’t miss the comparison. Do you compare them in training, for example?
Their times are similar in several respects. The difference between Michael and Léon is that Léon is a very good brewer while Michael was a very good backstopper. Léon is not a great backstopper and Michael was not a great brewer. So it’s funny for me to have someone who is really good at the breaststroke, plus I’m disappointed that Léon can’t swim the 200m breaststroke in Budapest because he’s not compatible with the 200m 4n. But I think, in general, they and Michael have qualities in training that they can swim really, really fast when they want to, and they can train a lot. So it’s a good combination of having talent, great technique and also being willing to take on a high volume of training at high intensity, which helps them get to the next level. And at this point they are very similar.
What improvement points do you work on in particular in training?
I’m trying to improve his backside, because that’s what limits him in the medley. And that work pays off, it’s much better on the back. But I think for Michael and Leon, they are 4n swimmers, so you have to make sure you work every stroke. Both are very good at the underwater parts and we try to work on that in practice. And Leon is probably even better than Michael in the underwater parts. They are very comparable in that respect. But certainly today Léon is the best in the world in the underwater parts. So we have to keep that. And in general you need balance between the strikes, every day we work on things, but not too much so that the next day he can go back to training and be able to work on others.
So can he be the best in the future?
I don’t know about it. Michael is Michael and Léon is Léon… What we want for Léon is for him to become the best Léon he can be. And he has one opportunity in two years to achieve something special. We want to give him the chance to do that. It’s very different from the goals that Michael had, but they both want to stand out and we’ll see how far Leon can go. But I think he can go far.
You’ve had to manage in your career with Michael Phelps moments with enormous pressure. Léon will play the Olympics at home in two years with enormous pressure. How do you prepare him for this?
We don’t talk about it much because I think the more you talk about it, the more of a problem it becomes. However, I’m working on preparing him for that and that’s one of the reasons why I wanted to be with him in Budapest. To help him integrate the process because it’s a very good step towards a sort of rehearsal of what he’s going to find in Paris. It will be a little similar. Of course, the pressure won’t be the same, but it’s a very high level competition. And at the end of the day, we train to perform in competitions, and we put aside everything around you. We’re working on it at home with the meetings we do. We work on our state of mind every day in training. So step by step, that’s what I’m preparing it for. Even if I don’t tell him that, it’s what we do.
Do you speak a few words in French, do you have a special relationship with our country and with French swimmers?
I’ve always loved France! I had a great French teacher in high school who studied at the Sorbonne. She was a great French teacher, but I wasn’t a great student (laughs). But I learned enough and I always wanted to come to France. I love French culture. My favorite thing to study was French history, I loved that. So it’s a pleasure for me to be there and in a way to be a part of that culture, even if my level of French is not where I would like it to be. But I’m working on it.
Do you like French wine?
Oh yeah ! (in French in the text). Bordeaux and the Côte du Rhône!
How do you work with the France team?
I talk to all the coaches. They were super nice to me. I work with Nico (Editor’s note: Nicolas Castel who coached and trained Léon Marchand in Toulouse to Tokyo), Léon’s trainer. We work directly together and he helps me navigate the different things here a little bit. We work together on the programs, we put together a program that we adapt individually to the swimmers and their needs.
Going back to Michael Phelps, does he keep up with what Leon is doing and do you guys talk about him together?
Yes, he follows what he does! He gives me his opinion on Léon’s races, on what he can change and improve. He is always very intelligent in his analyses, so I always take them into consideration. We discussed together what we thought Léon could do. Every time Leon swims in competition, he looks at his times, watches the videos and gives me his feedback. So he’s really interested.