With plenty of swimming stars at the 2024 Olympics, France's Marchand may shine brightest

Most of the big stars from the last Olympics will be back at the pool in Paris.

Caeleb Dressel. Katie Ledecky. Ariarne Titmus. Emma McKeon.

But the local favorite might just shine brightest of them all.

France’s Léon Marchand has drawn comparisons to the great Michael Phelps, a link that was only strengthened by Phelps’ longtime coach, Bob Bowman, overseeing the 22-year-old’s rise to prominence.

At last summer’s world championships in Fukuoka, Marchand broke Phelps’ 15-year-old world record in the 400-meter individual medley, to go along with victories in the 200 IM and 200 butterfly — two more of Phelps’ signature events.

“Leon has several things that make him a great,” Bowman said. “He has speed and he has endurance. So he kind of has the whole package that you want, and so far he’s done well under pressure, which is the other piece of that equation. He has it all really.”

Marchand will also have the home-pool advantage in Paris, where the swimming will be contested in a temporary facility set up inside the La Défense Arena, the 30,000-seat home of the rugby club Racing 92.

The place figures to be especially loud every time Marchand steps up on the blocks.

“I get to swim the (400) IM against the world record holder in his home country,” said Carson Foster, the top American hopeful. “That atmosphere is going to be electric.”

Marchand, who swam for Bowman at Arizona State, competed in four events at the Tokyo Games, with a best showing of sixth in the 400 individual medley.

But he emerged as one of the sport’s rising stars at the 2022 world championships in Budapest, and his performance the following year in Fukuoka only raised the stakes heading into his home-country Olympics.

“When I came back from Tokyo, I was like, ‘Damn, this is like a game-changer. Now I can actually beat those guys pretty soon,’” Marchand said. ”I know I can train better. I know I can improve this.”

Swimming has faced many doping scandals over the years, going all the way back to the East Germans’ rise to prominence in the 1970s that was powered by state-sponsored doping.

Now, all eyes are on the Chinese after reports that nearly two dozen of their top swimmers tested positive for banned substances ahead of the Tokyo Olympics but were allowed to compete. Five of those swimmers went on to win medals, including three golds.

It was also revealed that three of those same Chinese swimmers had previously tested positive for a different substance but faced no ramifications.

Ledecky said many swimmers have lost faith in the World Anti-Doping Agency and can’t help but wonder if the competition in Paris will be fair.

Phelps, who won a record 23 gold medals during his career, went before the U.S. Congress to express his concerns.

It is clear to me that any attempts of reform at WADA have fallen short, and there are still deeply rooted, systemic problems that prove detrimental to the integrity of international sports and athletes’ right to fair competition, time and time again,” he said.

The United States and Australia have long been the world’s most prominent swimming nations, fueling a rivalry that will heat up again in Paris.

While the Americans traditionally have the deepest team, the Aussies have proven to be formidable foes in recent years — especially on the women’s side.

At the 2023 worlds, the team from Down Under captured 13 gold medals in swimming. The U.S. won seven, though it did lead the overall medals table 38-25.

Mollie O’Callaghan and Kaylee McKeown each won a pair of gold medals in Fukuoka, Titmus knocked off Ledecky again in the 400 freestyle, and the Aussies bested the Americans in both freestyle relays.

Australia currently holds seven world records in women’s events, including Titmus’ marks in the 200 and 400 freestyle.

“Certainly, the Australians are some of the best, if not the best, in the world,” American women’s coach Todd DeSorbo said. “There’s a lot of events for us in the U.S. where we’ve got nothing to lose. I think that when you’re the group, the team, the individual that has nothing to lose, you’re the most dangerous.”

The most anticipated event at the pool will come on the first night.

The women’s 400 freestyle will feature defending Olympic gold medalist Titmus, 2016 champion Ledecky and Canadian phenom Summer McIntosh.

Titmus is the favorite to repeat after setting a world record last summer in Fukuoka, but Ledecky and McIntosh are determined to give her a run for the top spot on the podium.

Ledecky already has six individual gold medals, more than any other female swimmer, and she’ll be favored to capture at least two more in Paris in the 800 and 1,500 free. She’d love to grab another by knocking off Titmus after settling for the runner-up spot in Tokyo and at the 2023 worlds.

McIntosh is only 17 but has already set world record in both the 400 freestyle and the 400 individual medley.

Dressel, the tattooed American who won five gold medals in Tokyo, is among many swimmers stars who took time away from the pool amid an increased focus on swimming’s mental and physical toll.

Fellow American Simone Manuel, the first Black woman to capture an individual gold in swimming, was sidelined for months as she recovered from overtraining syndrome. Hungarian butterfly gold medalist Kristóf Milák and British breaststroke king Adam Peaty also took long breaks to deal with personal issues.

Dressel qualified for two individual events in Paris, but he won’t get a chance to defend his gold medal in the 100 freestyle after finishing third in that race at the U.S. trials.

He conceded that his quest to recapture a love of swimming is still a bit elusive.

“I’m working on it,” said Dressel, who walked away from the sport in the midst of the 2022 worlds and didn’t return until the following year. “I’m trying to find those moments and really relish in them.”

The 10-kilometer marathon races will be contested in the River Seine, raising concerns about dirty water.

Paris organizers have maintained that the water won’t be hazardous during the Olympics, but that hasn’t assuaged concerns after heavy rains sent bacteria-laden waste into the river.

Dirty water is a familiar issue at the Olympics, most notably when open water was held during the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Games along the beaches of Copacabana.

“We were supposed to have an Olympic test event there last summer, and that got canceled,” said American Katie Grimes, who will compete in both pool and open water events in Paris. “I’m sure they know what they’re doing. They’ve had a long time to figure this out. Hopefully, there’s a backup plan just in case.”


AP Olympic coverage: https://apnews.com/hub/2024-paris-olympic-games

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