After a strong eight-medal showing at last year’s World Aquatics Championships in Budapest, France has a strong team ready to repeat its success in Fukuoka before the focus shifts to the big show in Paris 2024.
All Eyes on Leon Marchand and His Bid at History
Last year’s swimmer of the meet at the World Aquatics Championships was Leon Marchand, who won both the 200m and 400m IM and was also the silver medalist in the 200m butterfly. Marchand drew a lot of attention with his 400m IM swim on opening night when he swam the second fastest time in history with his 4:04.28 as he threw a serious challenge at the world record of 4:03.84 by USA’s Michael Phelps that has largely gone untouched since it was set in 2008.
Phelps has had the world record for the better part of 20 years, initially setting it in 2002 at 4:11.09, before breaking it seven more times down to where it is now. On June 27, 2023, Phelps broke the record for the longest time holding a world record in a single swimming event, giving this record added value if Marchand is able to take it down this summer.
Marchand was just three months old when Phelps first broke the world record in the 400m IM and will have all eyes in the Marine Messe on him when he lines up for the event in Fukuoka on July 23. Marchand holds the number one time in the world this year with a 4:07.80 as he will take aim at the record on night one. If he is to take down the record, it will add even more intrigue around him in the lead-up to the Paris Olympics - putting himself up there as France’s top hope for gold at a home Olympics. He has held his poise well since last year’s championships, not giving in to the pressure put on him by media outlets and fans following him. But as the days go on and the Paris Olympics near, the intrigue rises around the now 21-year-old from Toulouse.
Marchand will also be racing the 200m IM where he is the defending World champion and will take a stab at the world record set by Ryan Lochte at 1:54.00 set in 2011, where he was 1:55 last year in winning the World title. In March, he set the short course yards venue aflame at the NCAA Championships when he put together one of the best strings of swims across three and a half days, swimming the fastest time in history in both IMs plus the 200y breaststroke as well as the fastest relay split in the 200y freestyle and the 100y breaststroke. In the long course, Marchand is ranked number one in the world this year in the 400m IM and the 200m breaststroke and second in the world in the 200m IM behind China’s Wang Shun.
Overall, Marchand is the hottest swimmer in the world right in terms of the intrigue surrounding how fast he can swim. He is slated to take on a big program in Fukuoka but has hinted he may drop the 200m breaststroke from his line-up to focus on the 200m butterfly and 200m IM finals on consecutive nights as he also looks to be one of the gold medal favourites after Kristof Milak announced he was not going to compete at the meet.
Marchand will also be heavily relied upon in relays for the French team in Fukuoka as the men’s medley has emerged as a strong medal contender thanks to the rise of Maxime Grousset on the butterfly leg.
Maxime Grousset Looking to be the Next Great French Sprinter
Grousset had a big breakthrough last year at the World Championships when he won silver in the 100m freestyle and bronze in the 50m. This year at age 24, he added the 100m butterfly to his repertoire as he swam a 50.61 to sit second in the world rankings for 2023 behind Canada’s Joshua Liendo (50.36). That swim by Grousset was a huge statement after his 47.62 in the 100m freestyle and his 21.78 in the 50m at Nationals to put him within medal contention for Fukuoka.
With a lot of attention surrounding Marchand ahead of this year’s Worlds and next year’s Olympics, Grousset seems to be flying under the radar as a big name for the French team. However, that may completely change this summer. Grousset gave David Popovici all he could handle in the 100m freestyle final last year and can certainly do the same to Kyle Chalmers if they are to meet in the final this year. France has had a recent history of good male sprinters including Olympic champion Alain Bernard and Worlds medalists Mehdy Metella, William Meynard and Fred Bousquet so Grousset looks to carry on that tradition.
Don’t be surprised either if Grousset can rise to the occasion and steal the gold medal from the likes of Chalmers and Popovici, who have strength on the back half, while Grousset’s strengths lie in the front half of the 100m. Thus far, the 100m freestyle is being billed as the Chalmers vs. Popovici show, while Grousset is lurking in the back as a potential spoiler.
Florent Manaudou Adds to his Legacy as One of the Best 50m Freestylers of All-Time
After not making a final at last year’s World Championships, 32-year-old Florent Manaudou returned in 2023 with a 48.12 100m freestyle heats swim and a 21.56 in the 50m freestyle. Currently, Manaudou’s chances for a medal in the 50m freestyle remain high as the 2012 Olympic champion and 2020 silver medalist is third in the world rankings.
Manaudou’s 100m freestyle won’t likely put him on the medal stand, but his 50m speed refuses to slow down. After three straight Olympic podium appearances, he is still one of the best sprinters in the world as he helps continue France’s sprint freestyle legacy mentioned above. Manaudou and defending World champion Ben Proud are the only ones in the Worlds field that have been faster than 21.20 in their careers and, along with Cameron McEvoy, appear to be the ones to beat ahead of Fukuoka.
There’s not a lot of margin for error in the 50m freestyle, and if Manaudou can manage himself across the three rounds, then he will certainly be a popular pick for the gold medal come the final on July 29.
If he can replicate his 100m speed, he could be a solid anchor for France’s medley relay that can slot Marchand on breaststroke after his 2:06 in the 200m, and Grousset on fly after he put himself 12th on the all-time list.
Manaudou has been good on relays in the past for France, and if called upon, he should be able to rise to the challenge, especially with a medal on the line.
Mewen Tomac and Yohann Ndoye-Brouard are a Solid 1-2 Backstroke Punch as Medley Relay Gains Momentum
The fourth piece to the men’s medley relay would be 21-year-old Mewen Tomac, who swam a 52.87 in the 100m back at French Trials to sit sixth in the world rankings amongst those qualified for World Championships. Last year Tomac was fifth in the 200m back final in Budapest and ninth in the 100m.
Tomac, along with 22-year-old Yohann Ndoye-Brouard are proving to be a nice duo ahead of next year’s Olympics in the 100m back as Tomac seems to quietly be gathering momentum ahead of a home Games. Tomac is also slated to race the 200m backstroke in Fukuoka after his 1:56.45 at Trials put him seventh in the world for 2023, alongside Antoine Herlem (1:57.11), who beat Ndoye-Brouard at Trials.
Tomac’s speed also provides the French men’s medley relay team with a solid lead-off that can compete with the teams from the United States, Australia, Great Britain, and last year’s champs Italy up front. Last year, the French team was fifth in the medley relay and a little over a second away from bronze, and nearly every piece of that team has improved by a few tenths in 2023. Ndoye-Brouard led off that team last year as he was also the European champion in the 200m back and also helped the French team win European silver in the men’s medley relay behind the host nation Italy.
Marchand hasn’t done a long course 100m breast this year but has the strength and speed based on his swims in short course yards to go 58 high or 59 low on a relay, while Tomac and Grousset have been on the relay before and can perform when the pressure is highest. If France is to put Grousset on fly, then that gives them the opportunity to anchor with Manaudou and that looks to be right now its fastest team.
The medley relay on the last day is all about who is having the best meet, and if France’s front half of the meet is off to a good start, then that could spell good things for its rapidly improving men’s medley relay.
Marie Wattel flying under the radar in loaded in 100m butterfly field
Marie Wattel improved in a big way last year at the World Championships when she captured silver in the 100m butterfly final in Budapest with a 56.14 that put her ninth on the all-time list. At the 2019 Worlds and the 2020 Olympics, Wattel would have a big swim in the semi-finals but be unable to replicate that in the final the next day. Last year’s swim in Budapest was a big step for her as she will be a part of one of the fastest races at the Worlds this year in Fukuoka.
Wattel is currently ranked ninth in the world for the 100m butterfly this year in 2023 but seems to have something bigger up her sleeve come July. With a lot of attention around the world record of 55.48 by Sarah Sjostrom potentially going down by the hands of several swimmers, it will be very competitive in the heats and semis to get a lane in the final.
Don’t be fooled by Wattel’s world ranking six months into the year as she was in a similar position last year in 2022 before she won silver at Worlds and eventually another silver in August at the European Championships. Wattel is one of the best racers in the world and is a big underdog right now in the conversations around the women’s 100m butterfly as a lot of the pre-race talk has been about the defending World champ Torri Huske and reigning Olympic champ Maggie Mac Neil. Wattel has been known to swim at her best on the big stage in July and that could be the same story in 2023.
Melanie Henique and Analia Pigree and the Need for Speed
The French team also includes a lot of speed including last year’s 50m butterfly silver medalist Melanie Henique and the 50m backstroke bronze medalist Analia Pigree. They are ranked highly this year in their respective events as they push for return trips to the podium.
Currently, Henique is ranked third in the world in the 50m butterfly while Pigree is ninth in the 50m backstroke. Henique has a big chance for a podium spot in the butterfly as the 30-year-old made her return to the Worlds podium last year after winning bronze in Shanghai 2011. Henique also won the 50m freestyle at Trials with a 24.70 as she seems to just get better with age. Now on her sixth Worlds team, she has mastered the one way sprint, and will certainly be in a fight for a medal this year alongside Sjostrom and American Gretchen Walsh. If Henique can nail the start against the field, it would help her chances at getting on another podium.
In the 50m backstroke, Pigree was a surprise bronze medalist last year and will also take on the 100m backstroke where she was second at Trials with a 59.79. Currently, she is 12th in the world amongst those qualified for the Championships this year as the 21-year-old from French Guyana has emerged as a big contributor to the team. Coming off of last year’s European title in the 50m backstroke, Pigree has her eyes set on a return trip to the podium in the one-lap event as it may take a world record to win. Nine-hundredths of a second separated her from gold last year, and a big swim this year would certainly be a boost for 2024 as she continues to improve in the 100m as well.
Overall, this French team will have a lot of attention based on their performances last year but also on their pursuits for a home Olympics next year. How the swimmers perform in 2023 will spin a lot of narratives leading into next year as the federation has selected a very strong team leading into Fukuoka. Uniquely, the French team has the benefit of a shorter preparation window from Trials to Worlds that they first adapted in 2021 to match what the United States had done for so long which gave them a lot of success. Now in 2023, more national teams have taken on this strategy with the hopes of better performances come the big show at the end of the summer.