Leon Marchand: Mastering Breaststroke and Butterfly

Frenchman Leon Marchand had an unforgettable 2023, with the highlight of his year coming at the World Aquatics Championships in Fukuoka where he won three individual events and set the world record in the men’s 400 IM, surpassing Michael Phelps‘ 15-year-old previous standard. Furthermore, he also had an excellent college season in the United States, setting numerous records and delivering eye-popping performances.

Having won the 200 butterfly, the 200 and the 400 IM at the World Championships, Marchand certainly showed his versatility. But another feat that he achieved in 2023, and which has not been talked about as much, also deserves to be highlighted.

During the French National Championships in May, in Rennes, he won the 200 breaststroke and qualified to swim the event at the World Championships. However, in Fukuoka, he dropped out of the race due to a scheduling conflict.

But what caught attention was his time of 2:06.59. The performance represented a new French record and makes him the 5th fastest performer of all-time. At the time, his coach Bob Bowman declared about Marchand: “He hasn’t shaved and he’s about 50% prepared.” Which makes sense, as he was far from his personal best times in other events. It would’ve been very interesting to see him race the 200 breaststroke in Fukuoka, with newly-minted world record holder Qin Haiyang winning gold in 2:05.48, just over one second faster than Marchand.

Either way, Marchand’s feat was spectacular on its own. After all, he finished 2023 ranked third in the world behind Qin and Australian Zac Stubblety-Cook. He also topped the world rankings in the 200 fly. Having such impressive results in breaststroke and butterfly events is extremely rare in swimming. This is puzzling to a degree since these two strokes are highly bounded from the beginning: butterfly evolved from an effort to swim faster breaststroke during the 1930s.

A very rare feat

To give you an idea of how rare the breast/fly skill set is, no single swimmer in Olympic history has ever won medals in breaststroke and butterfly events. In fact, only one swimmer has managed to reach the final in both strokes: United States’ Mary Sears, who in 1956 was the bronze medalist in women’s 100 fly and took 7th in the 200 breast.

At the 1978 World Championships, the legendary Tracy Caulkins, one of the most versatile swimmers in history, won the gold medal in the 200 fly and added a silver in the 100 breast. The only other swimmer to have won medals in breaststroke and butterfly events at Worlds was fellow American Lynn Colella, who took bronze in both the 200 breast and the 200 fly in 1973.

In fact, since the 1970s, the only swimmer to have results comparable to Marchand’s in breaststroke and butterfly in terms of world rankings is Caulkins. She became the fastest in the world in the 200 fly in 1978 when she broke the world record, and in 1981 she finished the year as the second-fastest swimmer in the 200 breast. No wonder: she is the only swimmer in history to hold American records in all strokes.

Swimmers who have been ranked top 10 in the world in both breaststroke and butterfly since the 1970s (long course meters) – Best Ranking of Each Swimmer:

Swimmer Breaststroke Butterfly
Tracy Caulkins (USA) 2nd (200 breast, 1981) 1st (200 fly, 1978)
Leon Marchand (FRA) 3rd (200 breast, 2023) 1st (200 fly, 2023)
Lynn Colella (USA) 3rd (200 breast, 1973) 3rd (200 fly, 1973)
Michael Andrew (USA) 3rd (100 breast, 2021) 3rd (50 fly, 2018)
Kate Douglass (USA) 3rd (200 breast, 2022) 4th (100 fly, 2023)
Kristine Quance-Julian (USA) 5th (200 breast, 1991) 2nd (200 fly, 1997)
Siobhan-Marie O’Connor (GBR) 7h (100 breast, 2016) 9th (100 fly, 2014)

Michael Andrew, a specialist in sprint events, has also been very well-ranked in both styles. He ranked third in the world in the 100 breast in 2021 and in the 50 fly in 2023. In 2018, he was third in the 50 breast and fourth in the 50 fly. In fact, it is not uncommon for sprint swimmers to achieve impressive times in the two 50-meter events, especially among men – as they are events that demand power and strength. We can cite, as an example, French Florent Manaudou, Russian Vladimir Morozov, Ukrainian Oleg Lisogor and Russian Oleg Kostin.

Kate Douglass ranked third in the world in the women’s 200 breast in 2022 and fourth in the 100 fly in 2023. She should move up those rankings in the near future, as in 2024, she has already improved her time in the 200 breast having cracked the 2:20 for the first time.

Another impressive record is that of Kristine Quance-Julian, who reached #5 in the world rankings in the 200 breast in 1991, and #2 in the 200 fly in 1997. She is the only swimmer in history to win medals in breaststroke and butterfly events at the Pan Pacific Championships.

But, as we can see, among the highly technical 200-meter events, Marchand’s achievement is spectacular. Only comparable to the achievements of the great Tracy Caulkins. He could have become, in Fukuoka, the first man to win medals in the breaststroke and butterfly events, and he only held off due to a scheduling conflict. At the Paris Olympics, the two events will be contested in the same session, but the new altered schedule might allow for him to swim both.

Will he try to become the first swimmer in history to reach the podium in both strokes?

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LAallstar
15 days ago

He should swim 2 breast and see what happens. It’s not an easy event if you’re not tapered and it’s hard to go impressive times untapped

Greg P
Reply to  LAallstar
15 days ago

ZSC: hold my swim cap.

oldnotdead
15 days ago

Nice write-up. One minor correction – at the 1978 WC, Caulkins got silver in 100 Breast.

Swimdad
15 days ago

The fact that Michael Andrew is on the list shows how talented he is, yet he struggles to qualify to the Olympics. Mind boggling that he refuses to do the IM.

Marchand best chance at gold this summer will be in 200, 400IM and 200fly. All elite IMer’s have elite breaststroke, and his is one of the best in the world.

Greenangel
15 days ago

Lynn Colella won her medals in 1973 not in 1978. It was the first edition of World Championships in Belgrade, former Yugoslavia.

Guimaraes Cayley
15 days ago

Caukins and Phelps are G.O.A.T.s
Brazil’s Thiago Pereira is a great 200m breaststroker.
Coughlin is great 100 back, free and flyer. And she has an Olympic Medal on the IM.
Beard is an excellent breaststroker and IMer
Clary is a great backstroker – but doesn’t have a good breaststroke. He even did some specific breaststroke training..

Last edited 15 days ago by Guimaraes Cayley
Wahoowa
Reply to  Guimaraes Cayley
15 days ago

Ryan Lochte might have something to say about this.

Winkelschleifer
Reply to  Guimaraes Cayley
15 days ago

Otto won olympic gold in three different 100 meters.

Robbos
Reply to  Guimaraes Cayley
15 days ago

Shane Gould owned every world record from 100 free to 1500 free & was also a 200IM WR holder.

Mako
Reply to  Robbos
14 days ago

If she was an American she would be mentioned in every article and would be praised left, right and centre. However, she is not an American, and therefore, I believe she does not get the respect she deserves. I do not think what she achieved will ever be done again.

Sqimgod
15 days ago

What it comes down to is breaststroke favors people with short arms (Peaty, Qin, Stubblety, etc.) Free and back favors those with long arms while fly is neutral.

Although you can be decent at both, you never see someone who is elite at freestyle and breaststroke.

Marchand himself has short arms, you can compare his to Phelps when he congratulates him in Fukuoka.

bobthebuilderrocks
Reply to  Sqimgod
15 days ago

Michael Andrew and Kate Douglass are elite at free and breast

MrBr
Reply to  Sqimgod
15 days ago

michael andrew was elite in 50 free and 100 breast

IU Kicker
Reply to  Sqimgod
15 days ago

Marchand is elite in free and breaststroke.

Doe
Reply to  IU Kicker
15 days ago

Marchand is obviously pro but his free is only semi-elite in LC.

Geo
Reply to  Doe
14 days ago

We haven’t seen him swim freestyle LCM since his 1:28 and 4:02….

hin qaiyang
Reply to  Sqimgod
15 days ago

Breaststrokers tend to be more muscular in the upper body, making arms look relativly shorter. If you look at qin, chupkov, peaty, they have quite normal, if not long, arms

CasualSwimmer
Reply to  hin qaiyang
15 days ago

I’d wager there might also be a difference in the center of mass’s relative position
Breastrokers like Peaty also have strong legs

Swammer Chat
15 days ago

Although it’s SCM, Daiya Seto has good times in both 2 Fly and 2 Br. He also won The SC Worlds in these two events.

Doe
Reply to  Swammer Chat
15 days ago

One word – underwaters

hin qaiyang
Reply to  Doe
15 days ago

He has lcm medals in 200 fly

Doe
Reply to  hin qaiyang
15 days ago

Like G Walsh, he is still elite in LC, just not quite as good.

Wahoowa
15 days ago

Caulkins is the overall GOAT in the ‘Swimming Decathlon’: Swim a 50 and 200 of each stroke, 200IM, and 800 Freestyle (credit to fellow Wahoo ‘CavaDore’ for creating this event). Final results are determined by placement in each event relative to the other competitors. All legs of the event are swam in one day, one hour apart from each other. Who are the top 5 male and female GOATS?

Last edited 15 days ago by Wahoowa
HulkSwim
Reply to  Wahoowa
15 days ago

Andrew Seliskar would be a contender here.