By Emma Foster, Swimming World College Intern
On Super Bowl Sunday this year, the brand Always aired an ad highlighting what doing something “like a girl” means in society today. It was an immediate hit. The hashtag #likeagirl began trending on Twitter almost immediately in response to the call for women and girls across the country to share how they do things “like a girl.”
Five days later, on February 6, in the preliminaries of the Washington Metropolitan Swimming and Diving Championships, Katie Ledecky showed the swimming world just how fast a girl can swim, putting down a scorching 4:26.58 to break her own American and National high school records by over two seconds.
Ledecky could be the model of the Always campaign. That is, if she wasn’t saving her eligibility to attend Stanford in the fall of next year. After her prelim swim at the Metro Championships on the February 6, Ledecky would have been seeded second in the men’s final heat of the 500, behind only Matt Hirschberger who held her, and the men’s field, off with a 4:17.13. She is currently the only woman to own an Olympic Trials qualifying standard in the men’s 1500 freestyle.
Ledecky’s story is great because while her speed may be otherworldly, the idea that a girl could swim as fast, or faster, than a boy is not. The sport of swimming is almost unique in that aspect. Young swimmers train together throughout the ranks of club swimming. It is more than common for girls, who typically are taller and stronger than boys until at least age ten, to be consistently beating their training partners.
Later on, there is a certain respect fostered from years of training together. While some high school and college teams may train men and women separately, all but the very best male swimmers typically understand that somewhere out there, there is a girl who can beat them.
Blaise Wittenauer-Lee, a sophomore for the Seattle University Redhawks talked about the thrill of being able to compete with the boys, saying, “Our whole team dynamic is based on support and competition during practice. I feel empowered by the idea of being able to challenge myself on the boy’s intervals and race them head to head.”
This is a draw for many young girls, as swimming gives them a place to train and race without worrying about boys not accepting them or letting them play.
Swimming has historically been good at this, with women competing in the Olympics in swimming since 1912, eight years before they gained the vote in the U.S. While the lack of a women’s 1500 freestyle in the Olympic lineup (the event in which Ledecky owns the men’s US qualifying time) may signify that there is still progress to be made, swimming has historically offered women the chance to pursue a path in sports.
Annika Perry, also of the Redhawks, agreed with this when she discussed how she came to love the sport.
“I love the empowerment that swimming offers. The sport has taught me that there are no boundaries when it comes it speed, it just matters who gets to the wall the fastest- girl or boy!” Perry said.
And for Katie Ledecky, and many other speedy young women throughout the world, that first hand to hit the wall has been a girl’s. Ledecky strengthens the “swim like a girl” slogan with every record she busts. As companies like Always recognize the importance of female empowerment, Ledecky and the swimming world should feel proud of the legacy that has been encouraged in young girls diving into the pool, raring to race the boys.