Is Katie Ledecky Beatable In Her Domain Events?

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Photo Courtesy: SIPA USA

Commentary by Andy Ross, Swimming World Contributor. 

In a report recently from The Straits Times, Chinese rising star Li Bingjie said she had her eyes set on catching American superstar Katie Ledecky in the 400 and 800 freestyle events.

She has been dubbed the “female Sun Yang” and has already won a silver (800 free) and a bronze medal (400 free) at the World Championship level, and yet she is still only 15.

Her rapid rise to the top has many people reminiscing Ledecky’s rise to the top when she won the 800 at the London Olympics in 2012 when she too was only 15. Li’s times are not far off of Ledecky’s either, as she swam an 8:15.46 and a 4:03.25 in the finals in Budapest while Ledecky was a 4:04.34 and an 8:14.63 in her events at the London Olympics at the same age. So Li is not far off at this point. But is it possible we could see a similar four year run from Li that Ledecky had from London to the Rio Olympics in 2016?

In the history of women’s swimming, there have been three women (Mary T. MeagherJanet Evans and Krisztina Egerszegi) that were generations ahead of their time during their careers. Meagher held her 200 fly record from 1981-2000. Evans held her 800 free world record from 1989-2008 and Egerszegi held her 200 back world record from 1991-2008, averaging about 18 years to hold a world record.

By the time Ledecky’s career is done, she may have surpassed all three of them. Heck, she may have passed them already. But one thing that Krisztina, Janet and Mary T. have in common is that they were all beaten in their third Olympics. Mary T finished third in the 200 fly in 1988, some five seconds off her world record from seven years prior. (Yes, she only swam in two Olympics, but her time from the Olympic Trials in 1980 would have won the Moscow final by four seconds).

Janet failed to make the final in the 400 in the 1996 Olympics, finishing some 10 seconds off her world record. She rebounded to finish sixth in the 800, but she was still 22 seconds off her record. Egerszegi still won the 200 back in the 1996 Olympics, but was third in the 400 IM, an event she was the defending Olympic champion in. She was six seconds off her winning time from the Barcelona Olympics four years prior in the 400 IM.

It is too early to speculate, but is Ledecky in danger of losing to someone who is on the verge of greatness? Ledecky has stated she was off her game at the World Championships, where she got beat in the 200 free to Italian Federica Pellegrini. But she remained untouchable in the 400, 800 and 1500 finals. The latter being an event Li Bingjie did not compete in.

But the 800 final had to be too close for comfort for the now 20-year-old Ledecky. She beat the Chinese teen by almost three full seconds. For reference, Ledecky won the last two major titles in the 800 by 11 and 10 seconds respectively. She has not had an 800 race that close since she beat Lotte Friis by less than three seconds in 2013.

Ledecky has already hinted that she isn’t slowing down. But is Li capable of getting in Ledecky’s head?

“I think I’m getting closer and closer to Ledecky right now and the important thing for me is to keep working as hard as I can,” said Li, who won the short-course 800m free in 8:12.36 at the Beijing World Cup last month.

Ledecky hasn’t lost a race longer than 400 meters at the international stage, and it’s going to take the swim of Li’s life if she is going to end that streak, because Ledecky is a fighter. But if Ledecky can hold off Li by the time we hit the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, then she could officially be known as the greatest female swimmer of all-time, if that hasn’t already been established. (Will see by 2035 if her world records are still standing).

Historically, the third Olympics at peak performance is one of the toughest for any swimmers. There is a reason only four people (Dawn Fraser, Egerszegi, Vladimir Salnikov and Michael Phelps) have won the same Olympic event across eight years. We already mentioned Mary T and Janet Evans’ efforts in their third Olympics, becoming almost shadows of themselves the third time around. (Egerszegi was able to win the 200 back with ease the third time around, which is who Ledecky’s career has been the most comparable to so far.)

The third Olympics has been a rough go for many other swimmers in the past as well. Natalie Coughlin still made the 2012 Olympics for her third team, but it was only in a relay by virtue of her sixth place finish in the 100 free. She didn’t get a chance to swim the 100 back, an event she won twice at the Olympics. Kirsty Coventry finished sixth in the 200 IM and 200 back in her third Olympics at her peak in 2012 after winning the 200 back twice. Even the great and almighty Phelps struggled in his third peak Olympics in 2012.

Kosuke Kitajima couldn’t win three times. Neither could Pieter van den Hoogenband or Alexander Popov. Australian legend Ian Thorpe wasn’t even swimming by the time 2008 rolled around for his third campaign. Grant Hackett and Kieren Perkins got beat their third time around and Yana Klochkova didn’t even qualify for the 2008 Olympics to try and three-peat her IM titles.

The moral of the story is that an eight-year run at the top is hard to do, no matter what you swim. We have seen it before, but it doesn’t happen often. If Ledecky can hold off the world by the time we hit Tokyo, it will be a feat we rarely see in swimming.

If anyone can do it, can Li pull it off?

China has had a history of female swimmers who have peaked in their teens (think Ye Shiwen and many other girls you’ve never heard of) who have had one or even two spectacular years, but end up fading after that. But if Li has been dubbed the “female Sun Yang,” who has been consistently one of the best 400 freestylers in the world since 2010, then maybe she could seriously challenge Ledecky. Only time will tell, as the next time these two will meet at a major meet will be the 2019 World Championships in South Korea.

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

15 comments

  1. Rick Avila

    Absolutely! However, as a competitor ante-ups, so will her game. I love watching her compete.

  2. Halim Yussuf

    Not if Katie is healthy and motivated.

  3. Brandon Simpson

    No…. but if, nope, wait, STILL NO…. but what if, NOPE 😂

  4. avatar
    Cupid

    London 2012 was number 4 Olympic for both Phelps and Coventry. They both did extremely well in their 3rd Olympics. Get it right please. Oh, and Katie Ledecky doesn’t need to prove anything….

    • avatar
      Andy Ross

      What I meant was that Phelps and Coventry were both at the prime of their careers between 2004 and 2008, and it was hard for them to hold that dominance an extra four years. They were no where near their potential in 2000 in their first official Olympics. I meant it is hard for ANY athlete to be dominant at the top of their game for eight straight years. Phelps got beat in the 400 IM and the 200 fly in London. His 100 fly wasn’t that fast (although he still won) and he might have lost to Lochte, if the latter didn’t swim the 200 back final that same night in the 200 IM.

      • avatar
        Dave

        Phelps totally thrashed Lochte in the 200 IM. If Lockte really wanted to win the 200IM, he shouldn’t have been messing with the 200 back. Phelps beat him handily in the 200IM in the previous Olympics too.

  5. Carlos J DeCisneros

    Everyone is. It’s why they hold the races.

  6. Andrew Webber

    Of course. And it doesn’t matter how gritty and determined she is, if she comes up against a better swimmer she’ll lose. But that’s not very likely is it.

  7. Bob McKeon

    In their dreams love Katie

  8. Brett Davies

    No bar injury or illness it is just not going to happen.

  9. Coral Whisenand

    Katie is tops in many ways, always

  10. Dave Hoover

    Theoretically but in practice that person is no where in sight….