The mastermind behind Michael Phelps’ training program is now in Budapest coaching the French team – specifically Leon Marchand who swam the second-fastest 400 IM in history behind Phelps’ 2008 world record during the super-suit era. In an exclusive interview, coach Bob Bowman compares/contrasts his protégés.
Is this your first FINA World Championships without Michael Phelps?
Yes, wait, no, I didn’t go in 2013 because Michael was [briefly] ‘retired’ then.
Outside of international competition, you’re the head coach of Arizona State University where Leon Marchand will be a sophomore this fall. Was it easy to recruit him?
He recruited me! It was amazing. I was sitting on the couch in the coach's office, and I got an email from this kid. He's like, ‘Would you consider having me on the team?’ I immediately responded: ‘Uh, yes! I would!’ We had some Zoom calls. And that was it.
What did you see in Marchand that you liked?
There was nothing NOT to like. His times were really fast. He's a very good technical swimmer, an excellent student, and a great kid.
When you say ‘excellent student’ – you mean of swimming?
I mean of books. A 4.0 student [with a perfect grade point average]. But swimming as well. He understands the game. He understands the process isn’t a straight line and that you have to continually make small improvements to get to a big performance.
Were you surprised when Marchand became a 400 IM world champion here by swimming the second-fastest time in history (.44 seconds) behind Phelps' 2008 world record (4:03.84)?
A little bit, yeah. It's such a big jump. I was thinking maybe 4:06 would be good. I didn't think the record was untouchable, but I wasn't sure it was going to get that close this soon.
To what do you attribute the jump?
Everything came together the right way. I think he got a lot out of our college season. No. 1, being challenged every day in a more competitive training environment. No. 2, he got MUCH stronger. And No. 3, we made some technical improvements. And now we know my taper was correct. I wasn’t sure until he swam. So when those came together —
Is Marchand following Phelps’ training program? Compare/contrast a little bit.
They're similar in that they swim a lot of events. My biggest regret at this meet is that Leon's not in the 200 breast because I think he would be SO competitive, but it conflicts with the 200 IM finals right before it. Even though they can both swim at a very high level in a number of events, I'm not going to have Leon try to swim a million events. He's going to try to be very good in a moderate number of events. He will likely not be on a lot of relays. We'll see how that progresses.
Mainly, I want him to be able to swim at this level in several events. Tuesday night’s double: 200 fly and the 200 IM, I think, is good for his development. He's learning how to manage his energy level, he's learning how to take care of a lot of things that have to happen in 40 minutes [between events]. And it's good for his maturity as he grows into being a professional swimmer instead of like a kid who loves to swim for free. I don't want him to lose that, but he will. And when he does, he needs to know how to behave.
We'll take it a step at a time. I've been very cautious with Leon. I haven't trained him SUPER-hard. I want to gradually bring him along. I’m trying to let the way he reacts sort of dictate what we do, instead of forcing him into some program.
Are you doing unorthodox things with Marchand like you did with Phelps, where you cracked his goggles before a race?
I haven't done anything too extreme like that. But I definitely try to make it hard on him. I make him train at six in the morning and he doesn't like that at all. And I expect him to do [hard] things at that time.
Much of Phelps’ success was his foundation. He took zero days off from age 12 to 18. Does Marchand have that as well?
Leon has a great foundation. His club coach, Nicolas Castel has done an amazing job with him. He has everything: very good technique, good training for 6,7,8 years, and very good racing. He was an Olympic finalist before he got to ASU [placing sixth in Tokyo last summer in the 400 IM].
Which of Marchand’s strokes needed the most work?
In backstroke, he had a very slow rate, slow tempo. He also sat very flat, didn't have much rotation. We changed a few things with his body position. And we spent a lot of time on his breaststroke, improved the timing – although he had a very natural breaststroke and an amazing breaststroke kick, and if you have that kick you're going to do really well.
Looking to the future, what’s Marchand's potential?
He is nowhere close to his potential right now. I don't know how far he can go, but I think he could be very good.
As Phelps developed, you deliberately held back certain things. For example, he competed in two Olympics before he lifted a single weight. Is there anything with Marchand that you're saving for later?
For sure. We haven't done any phase of training at 100%. The volume of training is probably 70 or 80% of what he could do. And the intensity of the training has been about 80. The sets are a bit shorter, intentionally. One difference is that Michael was essentially an endurance swimmer who had enough speed to swim some of the shorter events. Michael didn't have Leon’s natural speed, so the endurance was kind of easy for him. With Leon, I'm trying to give him endurance but I have to be careful not to kill his speed.
You and I once talked about resistance – the thing that gets in the way of what you are now and what you want to be. Is Marchand's resistance any different than Phelps’ was at age 20?
No! I honestly think that's the biggest change in me. I've worked on myself quite a bit. One of the things that I've found is that what you resist, persists. So I try not to give any resistance. If something's not going exactly the way I want, I kind of accept it, almost as if I had chosen it, and then try to find a way to get around it – instead of trying to just [hammer and] make it happen. It's been very good. I'm happier. Training is going better, much better with Leon. I don't think Leon would react well to me coming down hard. I've never done that.
Has Phelps noticed a change you?
Oh, yeah. He calls me ‘soft,’ but I prefer to think of it as ‘better.’
Four years ago, you said the hardest part of coaching for as long as you have is the inflexible routine. Now that you're coaching university students, is your answer the same?
Honestly, it’s the best part now. The thing that I used to hate the most, I don't resent anymore. I love practice – much more than the meets. I like getting up. I like being with kids. That’s the difference in me. After this meet, I’m staying in Europe for a month and I'm not doing anything that has to do with swimming. If I do things like that, then I really love the routine of swimming. In the past, I just never – ever – EVER – took a break.