The Great Debate: Phelps vs. Ledecky

Phelps v ledecky
Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick, Rob Schumacher

By Dylan Evangelista, Swimming World College Intern

Since her first Olympic berth back in 2012, it’s an understatement to say that Katie Ledecky has made her mark on the sport of competitive swimming.

At this year’s FINA World Championships in Budapest, it is no surprise that Ledecky was the first member of team USA to find herself on top of the podium. Her finals time of 3:58.34 in the women’s 400 meter freestyle not only broke her own championship record, but it marked her 10th World Championship title!

katie-ledecky-2017-world-champs

Photo Courtesy: SIPA USA

Ledecky splashed her way onto the swimming scene back in 2012 at the London games, taking the gold in the 800 meter free at only 15 years old. Her time of 8:14.63 was not only incredibly close to the world record at the time, but it set the precedence for the stellar career she was about to begin.

Since then, she has tacked on world titles, NCAA championships, and 5 more Olympic medals (4 of them gold) on her way to becoming the most dominant force in women’s freestyle.

With the streak of dominance Ledecky has established since 2012, the time will soon come where the question can be asked: Who is the more dominant swimmer in their prime, Michael Phelps or Katie Ledecky?

Now before any conclusions are made, lets look at some of the facts.

Take the two all time greats and look at their signature events. While you could make the argument that they both have several, for Ledecky lets say it’s the 800 free, and for Phelps the 200 fly, as these were the events that jump-started both of their careers.

When Phelps broke his first world record in the 200 fly at U.S spring nationals back in 2001, no one knew he was about to start the longest standing reign the sport has ever scene by a swimmer in any single event.

After his loss in the 200 fly to Tom Malchow at the 2002 Pan Pacific games, Phelps did not lose that event on a world stage up until his loss to Chad leClos at the 2012 Olympics (Although he opted out of the 200 fly at the 2005 World Championships).

He dominated this event for a decade, while re-breaking his own world record seven times in the process! During this time period, it was clear that if Phelps was in the water during the 200 fly, everyone else was swimming for second.

michael-phelps-

Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

Over the last few years we’ve seen a similar pattern be established by Ledecky in the freestyle events. Since 2012, Ledecky has not come close to faltering in the 800 free even once.

Even in the 200 fly Phelps only owns six of the top 10 fastest swims of all time.

While the 200 fly and the 800 free are difficult events to compare given the difference in distance, it is important to try and consider a few things. For example, lets consider the time gap between the second fastest all-time performers in these events.

In the men’s 200 fly the second fastest all time is Laszlo Cseh with a time of 1:52.70, about 1.2 seconds behind Phelps’ world record of 1:51.51.

When it comes to the women’s 800 free, Ledecky has the world record by a mile, with the second fastest performer of all time being Rebecca Adlington with a time of 8:14.10. Ledeckys latest world record in the event, set at the Rio games, stands at a staggering 8:04.79, nearly 10 seconds faster than Adlington’s time from Beijing.

Now Phelps certainly has other accolades on his résumé that Katie Ledecky currently does not:

  • Youngest male swimmer to ever set a world record
  • Broke 37 LCM world records (29 individual, 2 relays)
  • One of two swimmers to ever win 7 World Championship titles in one meet
  • Only swimmer to ever win 8 Olympic golds in one meet
  • Holds Olympic record for medals won (23 gold, 28 total)

While Ledecky currently has 6 Olympic medals, and has broken 13 world records, she still has things she needs to accomplish in order to add further legitimacy to this debate.

Tokyo 2020

Tokyo-2020-Olympics

Photo Courtesy: The Japan Times

Looking to the future, Ledecky can still make history more than she has already.

The most Olympic medals ever won by a single female swimmer in one Olympics is Germany’s Kristin Otto in 1988 where she won 6 Olympic golds. If Ledecky stays on the pace she’s currently on, perhaps she could surpass this feat and become the first female swimmer to ever win 7 golds in a single Olympic games.

The addition of the women’s 1500 meter free to the Olympic itinerary adds another event in which Ledecky will have a great chance of winning gold in 2020. The big unanswered question in this equation deals with Ledecky’s abilities in the 100 free.

The 6 events she swam in during this summer’s FINA World Championships are the same events she is likely to swim in Tokyo. If she fine-tunes her sprinting abilities, is it possible that Ledecky could compete in the 100 free as an individual event?

*NOTE* (2016 Olympic gold: 52.70, Ledecky’s personal best: 53.75)

The addition of the 100 free would put her at 7 total events for Tokyo when she is 23 years old, and we all know what Michael Phelps accomplished at the age of 23. Perhaps Katie Ledecky will follow in Phelps’ footsteps and make history yet again when 2020 comes around.

If Katie Ledecky continues her dominance in her respected events through the 2020 games, that will mark 8 years in which she has never faltered in the distance freestyle events, which will again allow the question to arise; who is the more dominant swimmer in their prime?

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

57 Comments
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5 years ago

Can’t compare-they are two different types of swimmers. Phelps is better “all around” but Ledecky has the distances claimed.

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5 years ago

Phelps, for men’s swimming and Ledecky for women. In 2020 Ledecky could add the 400 IM. To her schedule if program schedule permits.
8 medals 6 gold , 2 bronze.

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5 years ago

ledecky is more dominant but phelps is better overall

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Carla
5 years ago

Perhaps this debate was already put to rest by none other than Michael Phelps himself when he told Wayne Drehs in December 2016 for an ESPNw article, even prior to Ledecky’s recent 5 NCAA titles, NCAA Team Championship and 6 World Champs medals this summer that–
“…no one is better prepared for this than Katie. She’s that much better than everybody else. When I watch her swim, it’s like an art. It’s beautiful. She maximizes her distance per stroke. It’s just something you don’t see in swimming. Beyond that, she’s one of the hardest-working people I’ve ever seen in training camp. She will swim with the guys and make them look like they’re standing still. I did a set with her once in Colorado Springs, Colorado, at the Olympic Training Center. We were supposed to go together, but I was thrilled when she decided to lead a lane because I didn’t want to get my a– whipped. She’s just special…And for me to have shared part of my career with someone so dominant and dedicated, and yet still so determined, is an honor. I mean it. I’m a fan of this sport as much as anyone. And I can’t wait to see what she does next.”

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5 years ago

unless ure blind ,Phelps is mile ahead and yes i kniw hes retired thats y

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5 years ago

Thumbs up!

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Lane Four
5 years ago

We need to keep a very close eye on the young Chinese distance swimmer, Li Bingjie, who was second to Ledecky in the 800 and third in the 400. Katie seems to be getting close to a plateau while Li is on the rise because of her young age. Then again, maybe this is all Ledecky needed to push her to a higher stratosphere time wise in her races. Still, the young Chinese swimmer could continue dropping her times and eventually pass Ledecky.

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lane3
5 years ago
Reply to  Lane Four

yeah, and Li said she wants to eradicate Ledecky’s WR in tokyo and surpass her.

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Paul Niles
5 years ago

Love them both. Keep us up to date on how many photos of Katy taking bong hits turn up by the time she graduates college 😉

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5 years ago

I suspect that Phelps would win, but I’d be curious to see them literally race like a 5000M freestyle event.

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5 years ago

The answer to this question, will be answered in another 6 or 8 years.

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5 years ago

Why even compare?

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5 years ago

Katie!

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Jacqui Greene
5 years ago

So admire them both but Ledecky is currently only swimming in one stroke- freestyle. She’s the dominant freestyler but Phelps was internationally competitive in fly, free, back, IM and continued this for 5 Olympics. Phelps is clearly the overall winner for now and the foreseeable future.

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af
5 years ago
Reply to  Jacqui Greene

yeah female distance swimmers usually peak early too.
events like 800/1500 are more advantageous to teenagers, hardly any chance if you are age 25+

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Claire
5 years ago
Reply to  Jacqui Greene

Depends on your definition of “competitive” but Phelps “only” won medals in 4 Olympics, not 5, the same number of Olympics in which Ryan Lochte has won a medal. Unlike Phelps, Ledecky hit for Olympic gold in her first Olympics, actually in her first international and Olympic final, at age 15. Also, she broke the American record in the 400 IM SCY as a Freshman in college, so the “Ledecky can only swim freestyle” argument does not hold up. The continuity argument is not a great one for Phelps either, given several unfortunate stoppages in his career.

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Jacqui Greene
5 years ago

So I admire them both but Ledecky is currently only swimming in one stroke- freestyle. She’s the dominant freestyler but Phelps was internationally competitive in fly, free, back, IM and continued this for 5 Olympics. Phelps is clearly the overall winner for now and the foreseeable future.

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Naveh Eldar
5 years ago

We should at least wait until Katie is retired. She’s a sophomore!! But perhaps the fact we can have this debate while she’s so young, is an answer to the question.

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They are both great swimmers.

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5 years ago

Katie!!!!!

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5 years ago

So far,phelps. Longevity.

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5 years ago

do——————-ing

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5 years ago

Kyle Maas

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5 years ago

Peaty.

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5 years ago

Boooooo

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5 years ago

Both are totally amazing

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5 years ago

Murron Roff the boy Goat or the girl Goat??

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5 years ago

This is an absolutely ridiculous premise which does a disservice to the sport of swimming, to Michael and to Katie. Please look for better article topics which might actually be relevant. Thank you.

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5 years ago

You are right Bob Bob Bowman! (Head Olympic Coach)

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5 years ago

Both are great. Period.

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5 years ago

Nick Radziul

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Patrick S
5 years ago

“If she fine-tunes her sprinting abilities, is it possible that Ledecky could compete in the 100 free as an individual event?”

Seriously? There is no swimmer in the world that can be competetive against the best in the world in both the 100 and 1500 at the same time. Even if she stopped training for the distance events today, and only focused on the 100m free i seriously doubt she would be able to go much faster than 53 low, and that’s not gonna get her anywhere near a gold medal in Tokyo (it probably won’t even make the final). Anyone who seriously think that Ledecky could ever have any kind of chance against Sjöström and Manuel in the 100m free is completely delusional. I mean, seriously, Sarah Sjöström’s PB in the 100m free is over two seconds better than Ledecky’s. Thath’s not something you make up just by “fine-tuning sprinting abilities”.

If anything Ledecky have to start thinking about which race she should drop in Tokyo, the 200m free or the 1500m free. She’s probably gonna have some serious competition from Li Bingjie in the distance events and she there’s already swimmers in the 200m free that can beat her if she’s not in absolute top shape.

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owwhat
5 years ago
Reply to  Patrick S

There’s always Shane Gould at age of 15. complete WR sweep from 100 to 1500.

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Patrick S
5 years ago
Reply to  owwhat

The competition 45 years ago wasn’t anywhere near as tough as it is now. Nowadays there’s hardly anyone who even combines 100m and 200m freestyle at the highest level. The past five years or so only two swimmers have been among the best in the world in both of those two events: Sarah Sjöström and Femke Heemskerk. There’s a reason for that, long/middle distance training destroys some of the speed you need in the shorter races.

Just look what happened when Sarah Sjöström stopped training for the 200m freestyle, and only did sprint training this year. She immediately dropped huge amounts of time in both the 50m free and the 100m free.

To think that Katie Ledecky could compete with the best sprinters in the world just by throwing in a bit of sprint training among all her long distance training is like thinking that Mo Farah could be one of the best 200m runners in the world just by doing some extra gym work and speed training.

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af
5 years ago
Reply to  Patrick S

Ledecky probably don’t think about what’s gonna happen in three years. I think in interview she said she only looks at things year by year.

Plus, Li has such a high training load at a young age since she’s from a family of distance swimmers.
Agree that she does have the advantage in Toyko. But then again, 3 years is still far away

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Steven
5 years ago
Reply to  Patrick S

Disagree with Patrick S that only two swimmers (Sjostrom and Heemskerk) have been “among the best in world” at both 100-200M Free in past 5 years. All I know is that at 2017 Budapest WC, Ledecky swam her second fastest 400 M Free ever (3:58) for gold in finals, then turned around just a few minutes later for a gutsy 100 m split for 4×100 Free relay gold. At 2016 Rio Oly, Ledecky had the second fastest 4 x 100 relay splits (:52 something) for USA while also going on to beat Sjostrom in 200 M Free for gold and setting WR’s in 400 Free and 800 Free. Though they came in relays, ignore those 100 M free performances at your own risk. In spite of distance swims, Ledecky has already combined 100 M and 200 M swims at the highest world level much more successfully than Heemskerk, who has never won either an individual 100 M or 200 M LC Free gold at the Olympics or World LC Champs. Neither has Sjostrom btw.

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5 years ago

I would say Phelps

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5 years ago

Two different styles however Phelps

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5 years ago

Ledecky

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5 years ago

Let’s wait about 8 years

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5 years ago

both!!

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Louis Evangelista
5 years ago

It’s always great to write and publish an article about competitive swimming that causes opinions, passion and debated responses about the sport.

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af
5 years ago

both of them are GOAT

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5 years ago

Kind of an asinine conversation. It’s like comparing Usian Bolt to Jackie Joyner-Kersee

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5 years ago

Amazing phelps,amazing ledecky …two great Styles ??

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They are both incredible world class athletes! Please don’t compare.

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5 years ago

What would have happen if they had gotten married and had little swimmer kids ?

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5 years ago

I feel this is a little apples to oranges. They are two totally different swimmers….they have very different skill sets with regards to specialty stoke/IM as well as specialty distances. They are both awesome…let’s just leave it at that.

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afds
5 years ago

phelps for longevity.

but Ledecky’s dominance is too amazing this 5 years.
Didn’t lose an international race until this WC.

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5 years ago

Phelps excelled at all strokes which requires a superior swimming ability so for me he is the most dominant swimmer ever, maybe not by time margins but by sheer dominance.
Ledecky is simply a phenom that is a joy to watch. But she still needs to set the WR in the 100 & 200FR to equal Shane Gould in holding (at the time) all Freestyle WR’s from 100-1500 simultaneously.

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mm
5 years ago
Reply to  Rich Davis

Shane Gould is too much of a mystery when she retired at age 16.
maybe only young teenage girls have the versatility to sweep 100-1500? sometimes things shatter apart when you start puberty.

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Both

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5 years ago

Why must there be a debate? Appreciate them each for their individuality as well as greatness!

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5 years ago

I Love this articole!!! They both are AMAZING!!! I LOVE THEM SO MUCH!!! ♡♡♡ Katie Ledecky is my idol and my dream is meet her!!!♡♡♡ She is everything for me!!! She changed my life! FOREVER A KATIE LEDECKY FAN!!!

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happyfeet
5 years ago
Reply to  Cecilia Mancin

She’s my idol as well !!!

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Tim
5 years ago

I have to give it to Ledecky on domination. There are at least ten things Ledecky has done in the sport by age 20 that Phelps never accomplished including: 1. winning a gold medal in first Olympics and first international race against defending Oly and World Champ, and then winning 18 more int’l finals in a row; 2. winning gold medals at first two Olympics, both times as youngest swimmer on Team USA; 3. winning at least three individual races in three World Champs meets in a row (in first three WC meets); 4. USA-S Athlete of Year four consecutive years; 5. USA-S Performance of Year five consecutive years, across two straight Olympics; 6. finest ever gold-silver medal Olympic performance at a single Oly Games of any Team USA athlete of her gender at just age 19; 7. having the range at age 18 to be first swimmer ever to win 200-400-800-1500 Free in a single WC meet; 8. by age 20, winning 14 World Champs LC gold to 10 by Phelps at same age in same number of meets, there is an apples-to-apples comparison; 9. in a 12-month stretch, winning 5 NCAA titles, a college Conference and National Team Championship, breaking 12 NCAA and 9 American records (including in 400 IM) in between winning 5 Olympic medals and 6 WC medals; 10. being a collegiate athletic All-American, Scholar All-American, and being recognized as top collegiate athlete of her gender across all sports in Freshman college year.

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Michael Maloney
5 years ago
Reply to  Tim

Touche’..Tim…Touche’..