By Emma Foster, Swimming World College Intern
Unless you have been living under a rock for the last week, you are probably aware of the phenomenon that is Katie Ledecky. Ledecky’s performance at the 2015 World Championships was record-breaking in every sense of the word. Some of the highlights included her twice broken world record in the 1500, the tough as nails finish in the semifinals of the 200 freestyle which came just 30 minutes after her final in the 1500, and the history making 800 freestyle which set her up as the first woman under the 8:10 barrier and the first swimmer to win the 200, 400, 800, and 1500 freestyle in a single meet.
In a meet that was considered by many to be subpar for the USA, with the entire team only winning 23 medals (just above their worst performance of 22 medals in 2009), in many ways Ledecky carried the team on her back.
Excitement started early when she just missed her own world record in the 400 freestyle and it built from there. Her races had everything: huge margins of victory (she won the 400 by almost four seconds, the 800 by 10 seconds, and the 1500 by almost 15 seconds), obstacles to overcome (her 30 minutes between her 1500 final and 200 semifinal could be considered one of the most grueling turnarounds a swimmer could be asked to do) and her awesome celebrations (few things compare to the surprise that flashed across her face when she realized she had broken the world record in the 1500 during prelims).
So what does Ledecky’s success mean for the swimming community? More than even the surface level might suggest. Her accomplishments are great personal achievements, but they are also setting a standard that the swimming community is excited to rise to.
USHERING IN A NEW AGE
Photo Courtesy: R-Sport / MIA Rossiya Segodnya
In a sport that has been ruled by the name Michael Phelps since the lead up to the 2004 Olympics, new recognizable names like Ledecky are great for the sport. When he was just a teenager, Phelps said that he wanted to change the sport of swimming. The excitement that is stemming from the Ledecky buzz is probably exactly what he was talking about.
Swimming desperately needs media attention outside of the swimming community and Ledecky is proving that there is more than just one swimmer worth talking about. Missy Franklin has been recognized for her awesome swimming and sparkling personality, and this is exactly what the swimming community needs to draw attention to the sport beyond the Olympic year. While Ledecky was practically unknown in the lead up to the 2012 Olympics, that will not be the case this time. The more names become recognized by the general population, the more swimming will make its way to a more prominent place on the sports world map.
More than just giving people more swimmers to talk about, this new notoriety is great for the athletes. Instead of the media only talking about one swimmer, with the burden of the sport being put on one set of broad shoulders, the public can start getting behind all of these awesome athletes who work so hard in such a grueling sport.
This generation of swimmers will help continue the legacy that Phelps and others have worked so hard to foster: getting swimming into the public eye.
Ledecky and other female swimmers are teaching young girls that they can do anything they set their minds to, and the significance of this message cannot be understated.
Ledecky is fierce. She is competitive. She wants to win, and she isn’t afraid to be confident about her chances of winning. These are the kinds of role models we want to see in the sports world.
Ledecky (and Franklin, Natalie Coughlin, Simone Manuel, and others like them) are showing young girls that they can be competitive, and fierce, and want to win, and that it is possible to do all that and also carry yourself in a way that makes your country proud.
These women are great examples for young girls and present behavior that they can model themselves after. They are proving that it pays off to go after your goals with all the energy one can muster, and that anyone who dare question their work ethic better step aside, or they will be left in the dust.
Beyond becoming an amazing role model, it cannot be ignored that watching Ledecky absolutely crush a 1500 raises questions as to why the race is not included in the women’s Olympic lineup. Hopefully the more that this is questioned, the closer the swimming world will get to throwing out the sexist model and allowing Katie Ledecky and her competitors to show the world just what a girl can do.
ERA OF DISTANCE SWIMMING
More than anything, what is most impressive is what Ledecky has done for distance swimming. Often shoved aside by even the swimming community, distance swimming has been “boring” for too many years. There is a long history of the 800/1500 being the race that inspires people to take a bathroom break, and for the network to cut to commercial.
That is all changing, as Ledecky’s swims are gluing people to their seats.
Will she break the record? Will she lap someone? Will she really be able to keep up that pace throughout the whole race?
These are questions that commercial breaks disrupt. In the lead up to Rio more and more people are asking that the 800 be aired in its entirety, showing that the popularity of distance swimming is on a steep rise.
The most awe-inducing thing about Ledecky is that just nine short years ago, she was waiting in line to get Michael Phelps’s autograph. Just imagine how many young girls watched Ledecky’s races last week thinking “I want to be just like her.” Picture how many autographs she signed for adoring fans.
It is comforting to think that even as we are awed by the power that is Ledecky, young girls around the world are plotting how one day, they’re going to beat her.