Who Might Be the French Breakout Star of the Paris Olympics?

Leon Marchand his instagram

The Olympic Games are the biggest sporting event in the world, and they are coming to Paris. The Games always create breakout stars, athletes who go from relative obscurity to worldwide fame overnight. Who will be the new star for France, host of this year’s games?

Some possibilities are gymnast Mélanie de Jesus Santos, mountain biker Pauline Ferrand-Prévot, and judo champion Clarisse Agbegnenou. All are favored to win medals in Paris. Another is an incredibly fast swimmer, Léon Marchand.

A Slow Start

Marchand, from Toulouse, would seem to have been destined for greatness from birth, as both his parents were Olympic swimmers. But young Léon was small and slow at first, and was more interested in other sports. He always had a beautiful stroke, though, and, when, as a teenager, he grew to his full 6’2” height, he started to get fast in the water. Very fast.

Marchand decided to go to college in the United States at Arizona State, even though he spoke poor English. Why? So he could train under the legendary Bob Bowman, the former coach of swimming great Michael Phelps, and compete against the best swimmers in America.

Marchand arrived in 2021 and got to work. Not only was he training hard, but he was also going to college in a new language—and studying computer science, no less! Despite being constantly tired, his speed improved and he was recording personal record busting times. Some started to say he had “a lion’s mentality.”

Breaking Records

By 2022, Marchand was considered one of the best swimmers in the world, and in 2023 he won three gold medals at the world swimming championships. That same year he broke the oldest of Michael Phelps’ world records, one that had stood for 15 years. 

Then, just recently, Marchand won three events to dominate the NCAA swimming championships. In one, the 500-yard freestyle, he broke his own record time. In a sport where records are broken in fractions of a second, he stunned observers by shattering his old mark by nearly four full seconds.

Despite his stardom in the world of swimming, Marchand is rarely recognized on his college campus. He can live in a dorm, eat in the cafeteria, and live a quiet life. But come July, that could all change: Marchand is favored to win multiple Olympic gold medals. He will compete in the 200-meter butterfly, the 200-meter and 400-meter individual medleys. Medals in relay races are also a possibility.

To Become a Legend

Rowdy Gaines, a former Olympian and swimming commentator, considers Marchand “the best swimmer on the planet.” He compares him to the greatest swimmers in history, people like Mark Spitz and Michael Phelps. But he notes that to be truly legendary, Marchand must win gold at the Olympics.

And if he does? With a fist full of medals, a friendly smile, and now-perfect English, Léon Marchand is poised to become one of the breakout stars of the Paris Olympics. His is a name to remember.

Keith Van Sickle splits his time between Provence and California. He is the author of the best-selling An Insider’s Guide to Provence. Read more at Life in Provence

Images courtesy of Tanis Coralee Leonhardi and Léon Marchand Instagram

Frenchly has several pieces about the Olympics, like how to avoid the crowds, how to use public transport, and more.

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