By David Rieder
DURHAM, North Carolina, December 8. ON Saturday, Katie Ledecky jarred the collective jaw of the swimming community with her American record in the 1650. The record had been one of the older marks in the book, and it can’t be a surprise that the teenager who swept the 400, 800, and 1500 world titles in Barcelona this summer would take down Katie Hoff’s 15:24.35 from back in 2008. She had nearly taken down Hoff’s 500 free record on Thursday, going out well under the pace before fading towards the end.
In similar fashion, Ledecky took the race out in 4:35.35 at the 500. Missy Franklin was probably warming up for her 200 back when Ledecky flipped at that point, she could have breathed a sigh of relief. Franklin finished second in the 500 in 4:34.63 in that 500, but Ledecky’s split would have beaten third place-finisher Chloe Sutton by almost four and a half seconds. The 500 split would have ranked among the top 20 performers in history and would have finished third at last year’s NCAA Championships.
Now, moving onto her 1000 split. Her 9:14.22 finished three and a half seconds off Hoff’s American record of 9:10.77, took more than 10 off Ledecky’s own personal best. Between 2005 and 2007, Kate Ziegler was the world’s best distance swimmer, and she twice set the American record in the 1000, but the best she ever accomplished was a 9:18.35, which stood as the American record for one day in 2007 before Hoff set the current mark. Say what you want about time conversions, but Ledecky’s split, according to Swimming World’s Time Conversion Utility, to 8:10.46 in long course. Currently, only she has broken 8:14 with her world record time of 8:13.86 from August.
Now, how about that historic final time that wowed the crowd at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville? That time that made Twitter explode as swimmers and coaches tried to fathom 15:15.17, an unfathomable result. When Hoff swam nine seconds slower back in 2008 — at a state championship meet for high schoolers where she made up a seed time to get into the final heat — the swimming community marveled at how Hoff, at that point mainly an IMer, had taken five seconds off the fastest time Ziegler, then the premier distance swimmer in the world, had ever swum.
Ledecky, meanwhile, dumped 13 seconds from her previous best time that she set at Nationals last year. The time would have won the women’s NCAA championships last year by more than 30 seconds, as USC senior Haley Anderson finished first in 15:45.98. Ledecky, in comparison, is still a junior in high school. When Ledecky broke the world record at world championships by eight seconds, she clocked a mind-boggling 15:36.53. Saturday’s swim converts to an even-more-unthinkable 15:29.11. Remarkably, despite how impressive were Ledecky swims in a four gold medal, two world record week in Barcelona, she just made those times look slow.
In Barcelona, Ledecky showed that she could dominate women’s distance swimming for years to come, especially at just 16 years old and continually knocking huge margins off her best time. Remember, it was just 18 months ago when she arrived at the Olympic Trials as a darkhorse candidate to make the Olympic team. After narrowly missing in the 400, Ledecky showed in the 800 final that she had no fear of fading later in the race, going out hard and never looking back on her way to her first ever sub-8:20 performance. Weeks later she won the Olympic gold.
If she showed anything at this week’s Short Course Nationals, Ledecky showed that she still had no such worries about anything when she dives in the water. In both the 500 and 1650 this weekend, she moved well ahead of record pace quickly, although she fell off of Hoff’s record pace in the 500. In all of her world championship performances this summer, she made her intentions known early, blistering the field with all of the confidence in the world to hang on. That combination could be hard to beat for a long time.