5 Reasons Why Katie Ledecky’s 1500 Freestyle Deserved USA Swimming’s Performance of the Year

Katie Ledecky

Photo by Delly Carr

Commentary by Jeff Commings

PHOENIX, Arizona, September 22. A couple of weeks ago, the folks at USA Swimming asked for my thoughts on the top swimming performance by an American in 2014. This was my email response:

That’s easy. It’s Katie Ledecky’s 1500 free.

So, it was no surprise to me that Ledecky won USA Swimming’s Performance of the Year last weekend, in addition to the Athlete of the Year. And compared to everything in the years since Michael Phelps’ perfect 8-for-8 in the Beijing Olympics in 2008, Ledecky’s 1500 free at the Pan Pacific Championships stands tall above the rest. Better than anything done in the supersuits of 2008 and 2009. Better than Rebecca Soni’s sub-2:20 in the 200 breast. Better than Sun Yang’s 1500 at the 2012 Olympics. Better than Missy Franklin almost skipping over 2:04 in the 200 back in London.

At the time, I thought those swims were years ahead of their time. Ledecky’s 15:28.36 is light years better than anything that was previously thought possible. Those of my era thought Janet Evans’ 15:52.10 from 1988 was Beamonesque. Now, we have to start coining the term Ledecky-esque.

Think about it. No one is within 10 seconds of that time. At the elite level, that’s a monstrous gap. To compare it to the men’s 1500, Sun Yang is just seven seconds ahead of the field. That’s still a big gap, but Ledecky often has a lead of that size by 200 meters.

I present five reasons why Ledecky’s 1500 free is bound to be the best swim of 2014, not just for Americans, but on a global scale.

1. She made distance swimming cool again.

It’s been tough to convince swimmers to lean toward distance events. Very few people want to put in the training, and the biggest stars of the sport specialize in races 200 yards/meters or less. But now little girls are seeing Ledecky breaking barriers, and suddenly Missy Franklin has some competition for America’s Swimming Sweetheart. And that’s a good thing in a sport where the idols tend to be mostly male.

I would imagine Ledecky is inspiring male swimmers, too. Only about 50 men in the United States who race the 1500 free regularly can swim the mile faster than Ledecky. If I were a teenage male who sees a girl swimming faster than me, it would get me out of bed a little bit earlier every morning to put in the extra work so my friends can stop saying that a girl swims faster than me.

2. She’s churning out the meters by herself.

If you saw Ledecky’s 1500 free, you noticed that she was not challenged after 200 meters. By 1300 meters, she was lapping people. That meant she was a full 100 meters ahead of someone, in a race where the other seven swimmers are not slouches. That takes a lot of mental fortitude to keep pushing your body harder than it wants to be pushed with the goal of shocking the world.

Photo Courtesy: Delly Carr

Photo Courtesy: Delly Carr

3. The second gear in the final third of the race was astounding.

I was feeling a little sad when Ledecky started falling off her world record pace around 500 meters. Even though it was a few tenths slower, I felt Ledecky’s engine was running out of gas. She had swum a lot already in Australia, including gold medals in the 200, 400 and 800 freestyles and the 800 free relay.

But once she pushed off the wall at 900 meters, something must have clicked, because an entirely different swimmer emerged before me. This wasn’t a swimmer who – understandably – was a little too ambitious in her final race of the meet. This was someone who downed a can of spinach, flexed her muscles and took down the Brutus that was the world record line. By the 1000-meter mark, she was seven tenths of a seconds ahead of record pace. One hundred meters later, that grew to 1.5 seconds. And it kept growing to six seconds by the end of the race.

How does that happen? Whether Ledecky was “saving up” for a final push or whether she really did get over the wall in terms of dealing with her fatigue, it’s an astounding feat to switch from an average of 31.21 per 50 meters to 30.94 in the final 500. Three tenths might not seem like a lot, but it is.

4. She is only 17.

I am going to knock on as many wooden surfaces as possible before saying the next statement.

Now that I’ve done that, I want to say that, barring injury, Ledecky is bound to take the 1500 freestyle to even more spectacular places. The same goes for the 400 and 800 free as well, but let’s talk solely about the mile. Since it’s not an Olympic event, very few women put any concentration on it, even when preparing for the world championships when it is a featured event. Since she’s just a teenager, there is a possibility that many more years of lifetime bests are in the cards. We might not see that from Sun, her male distance counterpart, as he’s likely to call it a career very soon. But Ledecky’s ceiling is ever-changing, and could continue to rise in this final year of training with coach Bruce Gemmell.

And what will happen when Greg Meehan takes over for Ledecky’s training at Stanford? I’m sure it’s an awesome burden for Meehan to have, but he would not have recruited her if he didn’t think he could handle the challenge. Evans didn’t break any world records in her 20s, something that is commonplace for female distance swimming stars. But I sense that Ledecky has a tight rein on her career, and aims to challenge the myth that female distance swimmers can’t continue to improve as they age. I’m looking forward to that.

5. It wasn’t the best day for a world record swim.

In fact, the entire meet didn’t set anyone up for swimming at their best. Strong winds and rain were a problem, but the cold Australian air in the middle of the country’s winter was likely the biggest factor in the slower-than-expected times at the outdoor facility. Ledecky probably looked at the sky before setting off on her epic 1500 and said “Whatever.”

Every athlete who was at the Pan Pacific championships will tell you the weather was miserable. Athletes were huddled inside tents, wrapped in parkas and wearing boots. The fact that Katie Ledecky was the only swimmer to break a world record (two, when you count her mind-blowing 400 free) was not lost on anyone. Many in the media agreed that Ledecky is not of this world.

Ledecky is definitely human, born of Earth parents with red blood coursing through her veins. But she is of a new mold in swimming, one that might not be found in many years.

We said this of Phelps, too. And of Missy Franklin. And of Matt Biondi. And of Mark Spitz. It’ll take time, but the next woman to shatter our expectations might not be too far away.

6 comments

  1. avatar
    Dr. Buky Chass

    Man, this is a great article but. Yes, but on your last sentense you forgot to mention Janett Evanse whos records stook 17 and 18 years. Doesn’t she deserve to be on of
    the unforgeteles?????

    • avatar
      Jeff Commings

      Yes, Buky. Janet deserves to be a part of that list. So does Mary T. Meagher. And Tracy Caulkins. And Dawn Fraser. And Roland Matthes. And many more. The article would have been twice as long if I had listed all the people that fit that description.

  2. avatar

    Doesn’t janett Evanse deserve to be on the list of the Unforgetables????????

  3. avatar
    Paul WIndrath

    I agree that the 1500 swim is a monster swim – for a 6th reason. When converted to yards, that swim equates to 3 consecutive non-stop 500 frees that are within 1 second of her American record in the 500 Free. The previous 500 Free record was 4:30.++ which means all three 500 splits would have been faster than the old 500 Free record.

  4. avatar
    Duncan

    I agree with every bit of the article and the comments, especially when combined with multiple times she was outstanding this summer (and the remarkable fact Katie was 22 seconds under the newly unveiled Men’s 1500 US Olympic Trials standard; further, you UNDERSTATED the amazing nature of her swim in your reference to 50 Americans males at that time; per the SWIMS database, there have only been 30 American males at that level in the last 4 years), but I can’t resist a supplemental comment: :24.43. Ledecky’s swim and Sjostrom’s 50 Fly are really apples and oranges in terms of styles and energy systems BUT THEY ARE HUGE APPLES AND a HUGE ORANGE. At some point choice between them comes down to preference more than objective analysis. Personally, I like both apples and oranges!

  5. avatar
    Jim C

    Ledecky”s WR was 1.12% lower than the fastest time by any other female in the 1500, but it was 1.15 % faster in the 400 if we only look t textile times. The 400 is an Olympic distance that is far more competitive than the 1500.