Léon Marchand (left) and Michael Phelps
Léon Marchand (left) and Michael Phelps are two swimmers coached by Bob Bowman. Phelps is a legend with 28 Olympic medals, and Marchand is the new swimming star. Image Credit: Supplied

Michael Phelps and Léon Marchand are two athletes who have shaped swimming in their unique ways. Phelps, the most decorated Olympian in history with 28 medals, has passed the torch to Marchand, a legend in the making, who has his sights set on Paris 2024.

Marchand beat Phelps’ last remaining world record in the 400m individual medley at the World Aquatic Championships 2023 in Fukuoka, Japan. In this exclusive interview, OMEGA brand ambassadors discuss the day, their secrets to precision, their admiration for coach Bob Bowman, as well as the importance of OMEGA timekeeping.

When and how did you both meet for the first time?

Léon Marchand: The first time was in Fukuoka at the World Champs. I’d just finished my 400m in the preliminaries. Michael was in the stands and he called me over. It was the first time I’d met him and he said, “Go get it tonight.” He was excited for me. I felt really good after the prelims. I’d met a legend and I was ready to go.

Michael Phelps: I said, “Yeah, dude, just rip one tonight.” We’d messaged back and forth on Instagram, months before. I'd even been at the pool for a few meets at ASU [Arizona State University] where Léon trained, but we’d still never met. It was crazy. So, actually, the first time we chatted was in Fukuoka. Obviously, I hear everything that he's doing from Bob Bowman. Coach is grandpa to my kids. He's kind of like a dad to me, so I knew what Léon was going through based on his training. I just said to him, “See what you can do. Records are meant to be broken.” This was the kid that was going to break my record, there was no doubt about it.

This was the kid that was going to break my record, there was no doubt about it.

- Michael Phelps, US swimmer

Marchand broke Phelps’ world record. Take us through your different emotions in that moment.

Phelps: To be honest, I was trying to hold it for 20 years. So I got there. I can say I hold the longest-standing swimming world record. That’s something really cool. But in Léon’s race, as soon as he turned with 100 to go, and he was a body length ahead of the record, I knew he wasn’t going to fade. As I said before, I knew it was going to get broken. I just didn't know when.

Marchand: I'd been watching the video of Michael’s world record a lot. The one from Beijing. I knew it was an amazing swim and it was a dream to maybe come close to that. I remember when I touched the finish, I knew I’d broken it because I just felt really good. The entire pool was cheering for me, so I thought, “Alright, that's it. I think I did it.” I took my time to turn around and look at the OMEGA scoreboard. I couldn’t believe it. I remember feeling really present in my life right at that moment.

Phelps: That was my last-standing individual world record, but we're keeping it in the family with Bob and Léon. So it couldn't have gone to a better person.

Do you feel a world record coming when you’re in the middle of a race?

Phelps: It’s just the sound. For every one of my world records, the sound is different. I don't know if it's the energy, but it's just a different feel. I always hear whistles, like different tones and it’s almost like you’re in the matrix at that moment. You've prepared. Everything is going well and you're thinking, “Let me out of the cage and let me race.”

Marchand: Absolutely. For me, I think it was pretty silent until the 200 mark. Then, I guess I was at a good speed so people started cheering for me. And I could definitely hear it in breaststroke. Because in breaststroke, your head is really coming out of the water. The Japanese were cheering for it. It just feels like an epic moment.

I remember feeling really present in my life right at that moment.

- Léon Marchand, French swimmer

What did you say to each other after the race?

Marchand: Right before the podium, the first thing Michael said was, “Yeah, you can go faster than that.” (laughs). But it was exciting just to talk to him. And he wished me good luck for the next events that I had, because it was only the first day of the meet.

Phelps: If you put in the work, you're going to get the results. Léon is a perfect example of it. If he wants to go a step further, I'm sure he knows what he has to do. I can't say it enough — he's in great hands with Bob. I mean, Bob is a psycho when it comes to details. (laughs) I mean psycho in the best, most endearing, heartfelt, loving way.

What’s the secret to gaining a split-second advantage?

Marchand: I was watching a documentary about Michael and Bob a few years ago, and it was all about the underwater. It showed how good Michael was at going faster under water. He was explaining how you could escape from the waves, the surface, at every turn. Just go deeper, push deeper at the wall, and work under the water more than usual. At the time, I was already quite comfortable in the water, but it wasn't really working. So three or four years ago, I started repeating my underwater every day at practice. Every lap. Every turn. Eventually, those became split-second differences.

Phelps: I can echo exactly what Léon just said. Every single day, our coach Bob is giving us certain challenges to prepare us for the moment those lights come on. The most pressured situations. That’s why Léon and I have been able to rise above the rest. Because Bob has literally put us through every possible situation. So, if there’s a race that comes down to a touch, you can pretty much guarantee it's going to be one of us that's going to win that race. It's because of the repetitions that you do every single day.

Marchand: I think practising with Bob every day is way harder than the actual race. We go through a lot of pain. But then, when I get to the race, it's easier to actually try and win.

Phelps: Every day, across my desk, I look at a photo of winning a race by a 100th of a second, the smallest margin of victory. The reason why I won that race is because in that moment, I knew if I take a full stroke, I'm going to lose my momentum. That's only going to come based off the awareness that we have, and that we gain every day in practice.

The first thing Michael [Phelps] said was, ‘Yeah, you can go faster than that.’

- Léon Marchand, French swimmer

So, it’s true, practice really makes perfect?

Phelps: When you have a training environment like Léon has, and like I had, you have some of the best swimmers in the world across all strokes. Léon is the world record holder in the 400 individual medley, but he’s training against the top three, or top five in the world in freestyle, backstroke, breaststroke, and butterfly. They all want to win a gold medal. So you're able to literally race the best every single day. And at that point, the more you do that, the more confidence you gain. When you step off from the blocks, you're like, “Oh, I'm gonna rip that guy to shreds.”

Marchand: Exactly. I have a really good team, a really good group for training. I usually feel way more confident because of the work we’ve done before. It makes it easier for us.

Do you see a lot of similarities in each other?

Marchand: We definitely have similarities. We both work really hard. We love to push the boundaries of the sport, and we're both pretty good at performing under pressure. That's why we can do a lot of different events.

Phelps: We are both very dedicated, very hard working. We put in the work to be able to have the opportunities. I see that based on what he does in practice. For me, I wanted that opportunity, and I wanted to grab it as much as I could. And I see that with Léon. You see him taking underwater to a different level. Ian Thorpe kind of invented that, then Ryan Lochte and I took it to another level. Now, Léon's really taking it to a new level again.

I've won every one of my Olympic medals through OMEGA timekeeping.

- Michael Phelps, US swimmer

You’ve both had OMEGA Timekeeping throughout your careers. What does that precision and reliability mean to athletes?

Marchand: I don't think I could do a sport where I get judged by someone. I think it's just amazing to have this precise timekeeping because you remove any injustice or unfairness. We can just accept the victories. The results don’t lie. That's the numbers. And I do really think it helps the sport overall to make it better and faster.

Phelps: That photo of me winning a race by a 100th of a second against Cavic, they were able to go down to the 1,000th of a second just to prove it. It’s the best timing on the planet. I've won every one of my Olympic medals through OMEGA timekeeping. I guess I'm extremely biased, but they're the best. From the year 2000 to 2020, we’ve been able to see so many different improvements that have really benefited the sport. We have these unbelievable timing systems, we have these unbelievable starting blocks. These things are small details that are helping us take the sport to a new level.

Phelps’ all-time favourite is Seamaster Planet Ocean, while Marchand loves Speedmasters. Omega has created a new Speedmaster Chronoscope for 2024 Paris Olympics. Image Credit: Supplied

One recent innovation from OMEGA is the measurement of live data, such as the number of strokes, the live positions, and even acceleration. Do you think this will help coaches and athletes?

Marchand: I think the data can allow us to improve our technique and movement. It's all about detail. If we get that information, we can improve some things. We can improve the quality of our practice and use it to get faster. I think it's definitely helping the sport. For example I'm working on trying to hold my speed underwater, because I get a lot of speed under water. So data like that could definitely help me to maybe see where I could improve my stroke and just hold that speed throughout the race.

Phelps: For me, I think it really shows where our deficiencies are. As Léon was saying, when you look at acceleration, for example, you're able to break it down into bigger details. You can look at stroke control, you can look at the distance for stroke, all of these fine things. I'm kind of a geek in that way. The more knowledge I have, and the more information I have, then I'm going to use it to my advantage. I think it's truly a gamechanger. And then from a broadcast perspective, again, I'm a nerd with that stuff. If I see somebody slowing down, and somebody else is saying they're gonna win, that's something I can easily point out with the data. It's all the small details that the public don’t see.

Do you have a favourite OMEGA watch?

Marchand: I really like the new Speedmaster Chronoscope. The one created for Paris 2024.

Phelps: That thing is unreal. As soon as it went online, I instantly started screenshotting it and putting it on my wish list. I guess I'm a big Speedmaster guy and I love anything gold or Sedna Gold. The CK 2998, I have that one. It's a Limited Edition and it has my son's name engraved on the back. But then, I can't forget my all-time favourite — my own Planet Ocean. As a kid growing up, I never thought that I would have a watch created in my name.

Michael Phelps, US swimmerI think I love Speedmasters the most. I am wearing the Speedmaster Moonwatch now and I love it.

Marchand, is there one Phelps race that inspires you the most?

Marchand: Yes, it was Michael’s 200m butterfly race in the 2008 Olympic Games final. Because he won that race even though his goggles filled with water. It’s like being blindfolded. A nightmare. I wouldn’t want to be in that position. You couldn’t see anything, right?

Phelps: Nothing after the first 25. I couldn't see a thing.

Marchand: That's crazy. But for him, it didn't matter. He didn't give up. I thought it was really impressive to just see how mentally prepared he was. How bad he wanted to win. That was really inspiring to me.

Phelps: I was so annoyed about it. I probably could have gone 1:50 that day, you know, to be honest. I think that was the reason I was most upset.

“It’s like being blindfolded. A nightmare. I wouldn’t want to be in that position.

- Léon Marchand, French swimmer

Phelps, what is it about Marchand that impresses you most?

Phelps: His 400m individual medley is awesome, but obviously, he’s an unbelievable breaststroker. He swims a great 200m butterfly. He's not just a “one trick pony”. I think it'll be fun to really see him expand if he wants to, or really hyper focus and take it to a new level. I think Léon is somebody who is special. You don't see too many swimmers who are doing the things that he's doing. For me as a swimming nerd, it's fun to see.

Paris 2024 coming up in Marchand’s home country. Outside sports, what should visitors do in the city?

Marchand: I don't live in Paris, but I’ve had some great advice from friends who are there. Maybe have dinner with a view of the Louvre. Or grab some pastries from Cedric Grolet. He has a super cool Instagram page and it's pretty beautiful what he's doing. Then, of course, you can watch the sunset from the roofs of Paris, or spend a night at the Molitor Hotel. The pool there is crazy. You’ve already been there, right Michael?

Phelps: Yes, that's the one by Roland Garros, right? I've had some cool experiences in Paris. My wife and I spent some time over there. We've had dinner a handful of times just staring at the Eiffel Tower. We've gotten to the Louvre, in fact we’ve gone to almost every museum. Honestly, I think the coolest thing about the Olympics is just being able to enjoy every culture.

You don't see too many swimmers who are doing the things that he's doing.

- Michael Phelps, US swimmer

Which other sport do you think you could beat each other?

Marchand: Oh my God, I'm really bad at any sports played on ground.

Phelps: I’ve got golf handled then.

Marchand: Yeah, you can have that for sure. Maybe foosball. Have you played foosball before?

Phelps: I'm terrible. Terrible.

Marchand: My dad is pretty good. So he can teach me. I’ll choose that. (laughs)