Distance Greats Through Time: Female Edition

Photo Courtesy: Christa Weaver

By Proteeti Sinha, Swimming World College Intern.

While sprinters swim one, two or four lengths of the pool, distance swimmers often swim up to 30 lengths of the pool for one race. That’s a lot of swimming and a lot of staring at the black line. Even though it can sometimes get boring, distance swimmers love what they do.

These gutsy swimmers often say that they didn’t choose the distance life: the distance life chose them. Several pioneers of the sport have led the charge throughout history, setting hefty standards for future generations to chase down. Here are five legendary female swimmers who were chosen by the distance life and inspired us all along the way!

1. Ragnhild Hveger


Photo Courtesy: International Swimming Hall of Fame

A silver medalist in the 400 freestyle at the 1936 Berlin Olympics, Ragnhild Hveger’s swimming career was at its peak during World War II. During this period, she set a jaw-dropping 44 world records, winning three golds at the 1937 World Championships. At one point, she had an incredible 19 world records in different events and distances. She had world records in the 200 back, as well as all the freestyle distances from the 200 to 1500. The Olympic Games were not held in 1940 or 1944 because of the war. Post war, she was barred from the Danish team because of her Nazi connections. Even though she was perhaps one of the greatest swimmers in history, Hveger never won an Olympic gold.

2. Debbie Meyer

Photo Courtesy: Swimming World Archives

At the 1968 Mexico City Olympics, Debbie Meyer became the first swimmer to win gold medals in the 200, 400 and 800 freestyles. This astounding feat was unmatched by any man (the men had the 1500 event rather than the 800) or woman until Katie Ledecky in 2016. Over the course of her career, Meyer set 15 world records and has several “firsts” to her name: she was the first woman to break 18 minutes in the 1500, the first to break 5 minutes in the 500, and the first under 17 minutes in the 1650. Like Hveger, Meyer also held the world record in the 200, 400, 800 and 1500 freestyles at various times.

3. Shirley Babashoff

Shirley Babashoff

Photo Courtesy: Tony Duffy

With nine Olympic medals, six world records and 37 national records, Shirley Babashoff is one of the all-time greats of distance swimming. For some time, she held the national record in all the freestyle events from the 100 to the 800. At the 1972 Munich Olympics, Babashoff won gold in the 400 free relay and two silvers in the 100 and 200 freestyle. At the 1976 Montreal Olympics, she won three silvers in the 200, 400 and 800 freestyles and gold in the 400 free relay. The relay gold is widely remembered as one of the greatest races of all time, with the American team of Kim Peyton, Wendy Boglioli, Jill Sterkel and Babashoff upsetting the favored East German team.*

4. Janet Evans

Photo Courtesy: Griffin Scott

Largely recognised as one of the greatest swimmers in history, Janet Evansreign over the distance world included seven world records, four Olympic gold medals and 45 American national titles. Evans’ world records are also some of the longest standing records ever – her 800 freestyle record of 8:16.22 set in 1989 stayed intact till 2008, when Rebecca Adlington broke it at the Beijing Olympic Games. Her 400 free world record stood for 18 years until Laure Manadou broke it in 2006, and her 1500 free world record stood for 19 years, until Kate Ziegler broke it in 2007. The longevity of her records only goes to show what a dominant and inspiring swimmer she was.

5. Katie Ledecky

Swimming: US Olympic Trials: Kathleen Ledecky victorious after winning Women's 800M Freestyle Final at CenturyLink Center. Omaha, NE 7/1/2012 CREDIT: Heinz Kluetmeier (Photo by Heinz Kluetmeier /Sports Illustrated/Getty Images) (Set Number: X155101 TK4 R1 F39 )

Photo Courtesy: Heinz Kluetmeier

At age 15 and swimming in her first international final, Ledecky won gold at the 2012 London Olympics in the 800 free with a time of 8:14.63. In the years since, she has broken world records in the 400, 800 and 1500 freestyle 14 times, won 14 World Championship Titles (the most in history for a female swimmer), and won five medals (four gold, one silver) at the Rio Olympic Games in 2016. From 2012 to 2016, she lowered the world record in the 800 free by almost 10 seconds – from 8:14.10 to 8:04.79. The lowering of the world record from 8:24.62 (1978) to 8:14.10 (2008) took 30 years! Ledecky continues to be a role model for young swimmers everywhere, as she looks to qualify for her third Olympic team: the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

*The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1991 led to revelations about the state sponsored doping scheme in East Germany, under which over 10000 athletes had been systematically doped.

Tag a distance swimmer in the comments below!

All commentaries are the opinion of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Swimming World Magazine nor its staff.


  1. avatar

    Distance swimming is like a marathon – these stories of endurance and grit are truly inspiring! Thank you for a marvellous line-up!

  2. avatar

    Thank you, Proteeti, for sharing this fascinating insight into this world of remarkable sportspeople.

  3. Darrell Reed

    Looking forward to seeing your men’s version of this article soon!

  4. avatar

    Great article! Thank you! Where do you think Shane Gould fits in?

    • avatar

      Shane Gould definitely belongs along with Cynthia Woodhead and others.

  5. avatar
    Aroonava DasGupta

    Outstanding read. What I did not know about Janet Evans , Shirley Babashoff I know now , thanks to this article . And the great contemporary Katie Ledecky – more you read more you want to know. Well done , Protitee .

  6. avatar

    Nicely written…. Beautiful history

  7. avatar

    It is indeed gratifying that Proteeti has chosen this theme.
    Distance Swimming is a test of grit, determination and skill.
    Proteeti’s article redeemed by bio-sketch of five Greats is inspirational to young aspirants.

  8. avatar

    So well written, thanks for this sharing this!

  9. avatar

    I could learn about so many record holder women from the past to the present. I am feeling very proud of them. Thank you Proteeti for the nice article.

  10. avatar

    A fascinating read! Is Katie Ledecky the greatest swimmer of all time?

    • avatar


  11. avatar

    Truly inspiring … in the water and in life!

  12. avatar
    Dipankar basu

    Good read…Very informative…. Keep up

  13. avatar

    Interesting read and well written
    Hats off to these amazing distance swimmers!

  14. avatar
    Arnab Majumdar

    Very nicely written an informative
    Keep it up young lady

  15. avatar
    Simi Haldat

    Great insight about these amazing women’s performances through different ages…great job👍

  16. avatar

    Very informative. Look forward to know more about other swimmers.

  17. avatar
    Pradeep Divgikar

    Interesting and informative read. Thank you Proteeti for sharing some nuggets about these five incredibly inspiring women champions who epitomised and embodied the romance of distance swimming. The success story of each of these super distance champs is worthy of igniting a spark of hope, motivation and emulation for young swimmers pursuing distance swimming events. Thanks once again for your well researched and informative piece. Cheers!

    • avatar
      Dr P.M.Reddy

      its wondeful proteeti for sharing.

  18. avatar

    Superb articles. Very well written.
    Inspiring .

  19. avatar
    Leena Khaneja

    Very good information on the sport and champions