Why Leon Marchand Surpasses Caeleb Dressel Among Historic NCAA Performances

Leon Marchand -- Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

Why Leon Marchand Surpasses Caeleb Dressel Among Historic NCAA Performances

To ensure proper perspective, historical appreciation — in any sport — is a necessity. Through this approach, the water-based contributions of Mark Spitz will not be forgotten. Nor will those of John Naber and Pablo Morales. It guarantees a continued doff of the cap to Matt Biondi.

But with the NCAA Men’s Championships just concluded in Minneapolis, we have arrived at a moment in time where a simple question must be asked: Did we just witness the greatest performance in collegiate history? Sure, it is easy to get caught up in the moment. To fall victim to recency. Yet what Leon Marchand delivered for Arizona State University over four days of competition may provide an affirmative answer to the aforementioned query.

When we venture back in time, there will always be a measure of respect for what Spitz managed at Indiana. We will applaud the efforts of Naber at Southern Cal and Morales at Stanford. We will acknowledge what Biondi produced as a star for Cal-Berkeley. But in measuring what Marchand achieved, there is only one marker which makes sense.

The numbers from 2018 still resonate:




caeleb dressel

Caeleb Dressel at the 2018 NCAA Championships — Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

These times, for those who need a refresher, defined the greatness of Florida’s Caeleb Dressel at his final NCAA Championships. In order, they won him titles – and set NCAA records – in the 50 freestyle, 100 freestyle and 100 butterfly. It was a performance for the ages, registered at the Jean K. Freeman Aquatic Center, on the campus of the University of Minnesota.

And now, because of how Marchand dazzled at the same venue, it can be argued that Dressel has been bumped to the No. 2 slot on the all-time list of legendary NCAA performances.

Simply, Marchand’s three individual races were sublime. In the 200 IM, he wiped more than a second from his previous NCAA record, and Destin Lasco, his closest competitor who became the second-fastest swimmer in history, was left one-and-three-quarters seconds in the dust.

The next day in the 400 IM, Marchand beat two of the world’s best medley swimmers, Hugo Gonzalez and Carson Foster, by 10 yards, half of a pool length. At midseason, the thought that Marchand could become the first swimmer under 3:30 in the event was a pipe dream. Dropping three seconds from the then-current NCAA record, the 3:32.88 set by Gonzalez last March? Impossible — until Marchand dropped the record three times in two months, culminating in a stunning performance when he skipped over 3:29 altogether and went 3:28.82.

The NCAA record was a goner in the 200 breaststroke as well, and Marchand ended up surpassing Will Licon’s 2017 time by exactly one second.

But these three swims do not put Marchand 2023 ahead of Dressel 2018 in the all-timer vote. No, the distinction comes when relay events are considered, and Marchand, when given the opportunity to show off the diversity of his talents in those relay events, excelled yet again.

On the first day of the meet, Marchand contributed to Arizona State’s 200 medley and 800 freestyle relays, and on both occasions, he swam the fastest split ever recorded. Swimming breaststroke on the 200 medley, Marchand split 22.27, the fastest in history. The closest swimmer to that mark was Max McHugh, who would later capture his third consecutive 100 breaststroke NCAA title, in 22.39. To reiterate: this 200 and 400 IM specialist out-split the country’s consensus top sprint breaststroker and by a margin (0.12) that is considerable in a 50-yard race.

An hour later, Marchand entered the water to anchor Arizona State’s 800 free relay in a battle for second place, and he pulled well clear of his competitors with a 1:28.42 performance. Previously, no man had ever cleared 1:29.


Leon Marchand — Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

Two days after that, Marchand again handled breaststroke duties on Arizona State’s 400 medley relay, and his split of 49.23 was again the quickest in history. No other swimmer in the field broke 50. Alas, the streak of fastest splits was broken on the 400 free relay with merely a 40.55, four hundredths behind Cal’s Jack Alexy for the best in the field.

Showing that sort of range in one meet? Unheard of. Even Michael Phelps never excelled in races that short, although he never got that chance since he never swam on the NCAA level.

Make no mistake, Dressel did display insane versatility in 2018, setting NCAA records in the 200 IM and 100 breaststroke at the SEC Championships, but he never got the opportunity to do it all in one meet. Florida coach Gregg Troy never placed Dressel on the Gators’ 800 free relay at a collegiate championship meet to prioritize the four sprint relays, so Dressel continually raced sprint freestyle and butterfly again and again, repeating the same events on relays that he was racing individually. The only exception was when he handled breaststroke duties for Florida’s 400 medley relay, splitting 50.62.

When comparing individual swims of these two special single-meet efforts, call it a tie. But the relays, the idea of a man beating the best in the 400 IM and the 50 breaststroke at the same meet, is the tiebreaker in favor of the Frenchman.

As for the individual times, Dressel’s record times have stood for five years as a reminder of his greatness as no one could come close to those legendary times. Until 2023, that is, when Jordan CrooksJosh Liendo and Youssef Ramadan each came within a half-second of those flagship times. Marchand’s records could also be the type that survive for a generation — that is, unless he breaks all three once again next year.

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Frank A Wilson
Frank A Wilson
1 year ago

Remember Leon Marchand is only a sophomore and has already said he plans to compete in the NCAAs next year.

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