Torn at the Rio Olympics in 2016, then disappointed by those in Tokyo in 2021, the French swimming team seems to be reborn at the Budapest Worlds (from June 18 to July 3). And it owes it, in large part, to a whole new generation.
Because, alongside Marie Wattel, a figure already installed for several years with the Bleues, who gleaned, at 25, her first individual world medal (silver in the 100m butterfly), they are Léon Marchand, 20, Maxime Grousset, 23, and Analia Pigrée, 20, who rocked the pools in Hungary.
The first, who lined up in three events, has already won three medals since Saturday June 18: gold in the 400m medley, silver in the 200m butterfly and again gold in the 200m medley, his favorite distance, Wednesday, June 22. As for Analia Pigrée and Maxime Grousset, they respectively won a bronze medal in the 50m backstroke and a silver medal in the 100m freestyle on Wednesday.
Léon Marchand in the wake of Michael Phelps
With six medals on the counter, the French ship is therefore heading straight. And its new figurehead is undoubtedly Léon Marchand. Exiled to the United States, on the campus of the State University of Arizona, since the start of the school year, the member of the Dolphins of the TOEC, in Toulouse, his city of birth, is already registered, at the eyes of specialists, in the wake of a certain Michael Phelps. It is also with the former mentor of the American legend of the basins, Bob Bowman, that the Toulousain trains across the Atlantic.
In the eddies of the Duna Arena in Budapest, the son of Xavier Marchand and Céline Bonnet, both former Olympic swimmers, came close to the heights. Arriving with the goal of “having fun” at his first senior Worlds, as he told Olympics.com, he displayed his versatility, breaking records.
In the 400m medley on Saturday June 18, he signed the second world performance of all time (4 min 4 s 28) – setting a new European record – just behind that of his idol Michael Phelps at the Games Beijing Olympics in 2008 (4 min 3 s 84).
Monday June 20, on the 200 m butterfly, he delighted, before improving it, Tuesday June 21, the French record (1 min 53 s 37), hitherto held, since 2002, by his other idol, Franck Esposito , whom he affectionately calls “the ‘pap’ god”. Finally, still on Tuesday, aligned with the 200m medley, he set himself the French record (1 min 55 s 75), which he further improved on Wednesday (1 min 55 s 22).
Break through in international competitions
The emergence of Léon Marchand was more or less anticipated on the French side: at the Tokyo Olympics in the summer of 2021, he took a promising sixth place in the 400m medley final, his first Olympic final. He still had to succeed in crossing the threshold in international competitions.
“The French swimmers with potential obtained very good results in the young people, then found themselves in difficulty once they arrived at the adults”, as the new director of the French teams, the Dutchman Jacco Verhaeren, recalls that French swimming went research, in 2021, with a view to preparing for the 2024 Paris Games.
A recurring problem which Denis Auguin, responsible since 2021 for the succession at the French Swimming Federation, is trying to remedy. “Learning coordination, mobility and motor skills is much better when you are young than when you are 25, underlines the former coach of Alain Bernard. Our goal is to show younger generations that training should be at the service of better technique, to facilitate their arrival as seniors. »
“It’s my first senior world championships, but I’ve done short course [championships], the NCAA [American university championships], a lot of competitions that allow me to manage stress better and be more mature,” explained Léon Marchand on Wednesday after his new victory.
He is now the third French swimmer to have achieved the performance of winning two world titles in the same year, after Laure Manaudou in 2007, in Melbourne, Australia, and Florent Manaudou in 2015, in Kazan, Russia.
“A positive spiral”
Like Léon Marchand, sprinter Maxime Grousset, specialist in the 50m and 100m freestyle, had also hinted at serious hopes in Tokyo for his first participation in the Olympics. He took 4th place in the 100m freestyle final, in the wake of three “monsters” that are the American Caeleb Dressel (gold in 47 s 2), the Australian Kyle Chalmers and the Russian Kliment Kolesnikov.
During the French championships, on April 7, the one who arrived in mainland France at the age of 16 from his native New Caledonia, to train under the leadership of Michel Chrétien, had confirmed his national supremacy in the 100m freestyle and signed the best world performance of the year (48 s 3). “I [wanted] to show who’s the boss of the 100m, at least in France, and I also wanted to show everyone internationally that here I am, too,” he said on that occasion.
On Wednesday, in Budapest, he said he was “happy (…) to have represented France so well” in the 100m freestyle. “During the race I felt like we were really all on the same line, I felt like I was going to finish in the top three, maybe even beat David Popovici [the Romanian who won the world title], but it’s is played for nothing, I crack a little on the end, “he added. He still has two events left to win more medals: the 50m freestyle and the 50m butterfly.
With this new wave, victorious, French swimming can start to hope again. Before these Worlds, however, Jacco Verhaeren was cautious: “It’s always difficult to talk about medals in advance”, he tempered, while admitting that “some certainly have the stature”.
Léon Marchand, Maxime Grousset and Analia Pigrée have shown that this is indeed the case. “I feel like there’s something pretty special going on in this team. There are a lot of young people, and now we manage to win medals, to make great finals, ”savors Léon Marchand. “A positive spiral”, as he assures, whose objective, for the Blues and the Blues, is that it lasts until the 2024 Olympic Games at home.