League Of Olympic Swim Legends: Katie Ledecky/ Janet Evans Top 800 Podium With Adlington/Meyer

Janet Evans -Image Courtesy: SwimSketch

What would have unfolded had Tokyo 2020 gone ahead as planned this week – and where would it all have fit in the thread of Olympic swim legends and pioneers like Janet Evans, Katie Ledecky, Debbie Meyer and Rebecca Adlington? To mark the eight days over which the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games would have unfolded had the coronavirus pandemic not forced postponement, the team at Swimming World is filling the void with a Virtual Vision Form Guide and League of Olympic Swimming Legends.

Day 7, event 2 – Two Time-Warp Stars …


Photo Courtesy: International Swimming Hall of Fame

Katie Ledecky of the United States of America (USA) reacts after winning in the women’s 800m Freestyle Final during the Swimming events at the Gwangju 2019 FINA World Championships, Gwangju, South Korea, 27 July 2019.

Katie Ledecky – Photo Courtesy: Patrick B. Kraemer

Women’s 800m Freestyle

The Podium

1. Katie Ledecky (USA) / Janet Evans (USA)

3. Rebecca Adlington (GBR) / Debbie Meyer (USA) 

The Other Finalists (Listed Alphabetically): 

  • Brooke Bennett (USA)
  • Keena Rothhammer (USA)
  • Ilsa Konrads (AUS)
  • Tracey Wickham (AUS)
  •  Our Lane 9* place is a swim off, a reflection of the rollercoaster women swimmers, in particular but not exclusively, have been forced to ride. The first entry was beaten to silver by a product of the GDR; the second and third set Olympic records for victories at boycotted Games … who gets the place? All are deserving as far as this virtual exercise goes, as would be others like Ai Shibata and some who never won but provided the essential competition driving the winner on, Shane Gould, Yana Klochkova, Laure Manaudou and Mireia Belmonte spring to mind. Our three with an edge of circumstance:
  • Shirley Babashoff (USA); Michelle Ford (AUS); Tiffany Cohen (USA) … 

* – in our series, we will use Lane 9 to add an athlete whose story reflects extraordinary situations of different kinds, including being deprived by those who fell foul of anti-doping rules or by political decisions or, indeed the Olympic program, as well as simple facts such as “he/she was the only other title winner who claimed gold in a WR but didn’t make out top 8 on points”

All-Time Battle Of Olympic Swim Legends Shared by Katie Ledecky & Janet Evans


Debbie Meyer


Rebecca Adlington

One was a pioneer who set the standard for all to follow. The other has been sensational in her own right, and used the pioneer as a role model. So, it is fitting that Janet Evans and Katie Ledecky share gold in the 800 freestyle.

Keep scrolling. Go ahead, keep going. A look at the all-time performances in this event requires scanning a few screens worth of data before a second name appears. The United States’ Ledecky has dominated the 800 freestyle to the extreme, logging the 22-fastest times in history, including her world record of 8:04.79. That effort is nearly 10 seconds clear of the second-best performer, Great Britain’s Rebecca Adlington.

A 15-year-old Ledecky snared her first Olympic gold in 2012 and hasn’t stopped since that breakthrough performance. She has set five world records and has as many performances under 8:10. At the 2016 Olympics in Rio, Ledecky made it back-to-back victories, with her world record turning back runnerup Jazz Carlin of Britain by almost 12 seconds.

Before Ledecky came along, ownership of the 800 freestyle belonged to the United States’ Evans. The 1988 and 1992 Olympic champion held the world record for 20 years and her top performance of 8:16.10 would have medaled at every Olympics, including being good for silver in Rio. This event marks Evans’ third Legends medal, complementing a victory in the 400 freestyle and a silver in the 1500 freestyle.

Ties are usually seen in the sprint events, but a tie is indeed what also unfolded for the bronze medal, with Adlington and American Debbie Meyer sharing the third step. Adlington broke the longstanding world record of Janet Evans on the way to gold in 2008, and added a bronze medal in 2012. Meanwhile, Meyer set five world records during her career and her 800 free title in 1968 in Mexico City was part of a 200-400-800 sweep.

The ‘Unorthodox’ Janet Evans … Seoul 1988:

1988 Seoul – Women 800m Freestyle – Athletes: 27 Nations: 19

  1. 8:20.20or Janet Evans USA
  2. 8:22.09 Astrid Strauss GDR 
  3. 8:22.93 Julie McDonald  AUS
    8:23.09 Anke Mohring GDR
    8:30.86 Tami Bruce USA
    8:30.94 Janelle Elford AUS
    8:37.47 Isabelle Arnoud BEL
    8:41.05 Antoaneta Strumenlieva BUL

Date of final: September 24, 1988

On July 27, 1987, a whirlwind called Janet Evans blew into view with an 8:22.44 world record that consigned Australian Tracey Wickham’s 1978 standard to history. On August 19, the world record fell to Anke Möhring in 8:19.53. In December, Evans took out another Wickham milestone with a 4:05.45 world record over 400m and on March 22, 1988, took an axe to Möhring’s standard with an 8:17.12.

Evans arrived in Seoul as a favourite to win the Olympic distance freestyle crowns but started her campaign with a victory over 400m medley. Three days later, she set a stunning world record of 4:03.85 to win the 400m freestyle. A day later, the heats of the 800m passed without incident, Tiffany Cohen’s 1984 Olympic record safe and all favourites through with ease. The final line-up was an odd sight. Evans, at 1.66m tall and 45kg in weight, was flanked by East German rivals, Astrid Strauss, 1.87m tall and 82kg, and Möhring, 1.81m tall and 69kg.

Strauss turned out to be the bigger danger to what became Evans’s third gold medal. The American, coached by Bud McAllister (who would later coach Jazz Carlin, silver 2016, see below),  turned first all the way, on 1:01.13, 2:04.04 and 4:10.06. Her advantage of 2sec was enough: Evans, with an eye on Strauss all the way home, paced to victory in 8:20.20, an Olympic record, with the East German improving her best time by 4.43sec for silver in 8:22.09.

Had the race been 5m longer, Strauss would have succumbed to Julie McDonald, who in the tradition of the great fellow Australian Tracey Wickham, swam an incredible negative split. Out in 4:14.73 and seemingly out of the hunt for medals, McDonald sped home in 4:08.16, sweeping past Möhring in the closing metres to claim bronze in 8:22.93, 0.16sec ahead of the former world record holder.

Evans – Encore!

Katie Ledecky and Janet Evans – Photo Courtesy: Jeff Commings

1992 Barcelona – Women 800m Freestyle – Athletes: 25 Nations: 18

  1. 8:25.52 Janet Evans USA
  2. 8:30.34 Hayley Lewis AUS
  3. 8:30.99 Jana Henke GER 
    8:35.57 Phillippa Langrell NZL
    8:37.12 Irene Dalby NOR
    8:37.66 Olga Splichalova CZE
    8:39.25 Erika Hansen USA
    8:41.86 Isabelle Arnould BEL

Date of final: July 30, 1992

In 1989, triple Olympic champion Janet Evans (USA) set a world record of 8:16.22 to win the Pan-Pacific title in Tokyo. In Barcelona, she was supreme still and entered the 800m final as the favourite, having won every 16-length race in which she had swum for the past five years.

The heats saw the surprise elimination of Julie McDonald, the 1988 bronze medallist but now almost half a minute slower. Evans was also slower than she had been in 1988, but only by 5sec: in 8:25.52, the American became the first woman to retain the crown in 8:25.52. At the dawn of 2008, her world record remained in place.

The silver in 1992 went to multiple Commonwealth champion and world champion in the 200m freestyle in 1991, Hayley Lewis (AUS), while bronze went to Jana Henke (GER), who produced a negative split of 4:16.70 and 4:14.29. In 1988, Henke had won two bronze medals for the GDR at the European Junior Championships, while in 1991, she claimed silver at the senior European Championships in the 800m for a reunified Germany and bronze at the World Championships behind Evans.

In 1993, Henke, who trained in Potsdam, claimed the European title for herself. At the 1994 and 1998 World Championships she placed fourth in the 800m and at the 2003 world event finished fifth, a year after winning the European crown nine years after first having done so and in a lifetime best of 8:23.83.

In Olympic waters, after missing out in 1996, she was back in the 800m finals in 2000 and again in 2004, finishing seventh in both cases. Her 2004 appearance made her the last swimmer to have raced for the GDR to compete at world level.

Janet Evans also raced in the 1996 final, finishing sixth when the crown was won for the first time by Brooke Bennett, the American who ate Sydney 2000 became the first champion to race inside 8:20 at an Olympics, on 8:19.67.

Katie Ledecky: Time-warp 8:04.79 WR; 4th Gold + Match Of Meyer’s Triple

Quick recall on the London 2012 result:

2012 London – Women’s 800m freestyle – Athletes 36 – Nations 30

  1. 8:14.63AR Katie Ledecky USA 
  2. 8:18.76nr Mireia Belmonte ESP 
  3. 8:20.32 Rebecca Adlington GBR
  4. 8:22.72OR Lauren Boyle NZL
  5. 8:23.86 Lotte Friis DEN
  6. 8:23.89nr Boglárka Kapás HUN
  7. 8:29.26 Coralie Balmy FRA
  8. 8:29.28 Andreina Pinto VEN

Date of Final: August 3, 2012

Gold No 1 for Katie Ledecky, 15.

2016 Rio de Janeiro – Women’s 800m freestyle – Athletes 30 – Nations 21

  1. 8:04.79 WR Katie Ledecky USA
  2. 8:16.17 Jazmin Carlin GBR
  3. 8:16.37NR Boglárka Kapás HUN
  4. 8:18.55NR Mireia Belmonte ESP
  5. 8:20.32 Jessica Ashwood AUS
  6. 8:20.95 Leah Smith USA
  7. 8:24.50 Lotte Friis DEN
  8. 8:27.75 Sarah Köhler GER

Date of Final: August 12, 2016

The cool tones of Rihanna suited the mood as Katie Ledecky paraded around the burning deck:

“Baby, this is what you came for; Lightning strikes every time she moves; And everybody’s watching her..”

They’re not betting on her though. No point: 1/100 for the win. Here at the home 2036 Games in Washington DC … Oh, alright then, Rio 2016 (more on 2040 below) – but Jazz Carlin, Boglarka Kapas, Mireia Belmonte and the rest must surely have felt the time-warp just as keenly as we watched it. Ledecky, a 19-year-old from Bethesda, Maryland, roared into the history books with a world record of 8:04.79.

That was her 13th global standard since the world championships in Barcelona three years ago. If Adam Peaty’s 57.13sec win in the 100m breaststroke is the performance of the meet among me, with a day to go, then Ledecky’s 8:04 is the prize-winner among women.

The metronomic maelstrom was followed home by Britain’s  Carlin, her 8:16.17 delivering a second silver behind the American pioneer after second place in the 400m on the first day of action.

With her two silvers, Carlin completed a full set of colours for a British treasury at the past three Games that no nation can match, Rebecca Adlington having celebrated double gold in 2008 and double bronze at a home Games.

The bronze went to European champion Kapas, of Hungary, in 8:16.37, with London 2012 silver medallist behind Ledecky’s 8:14 breakthrough at 15, Mireia Belmonte, of Spain, on 8:18.55.

With Carlin taking silver in 8:16.17 a touch ahead of Kapas, Ledecky’s winning margin of 11.38sec was just shy of the biggest gap twixt gold and silver ever. Debbie Meyer (USA) won in 1968 by 11.7sec. And it is to Meyer we turn to find the last woman to win the 200, 400 and 800m titles at a single Games.  Ledecky is the second member of that club, one founded in Mexico at the first Games to feature the 200m for women.

The Timewarp

  • At 100m: faster than the first two of Kornelia Ender’s world records over 100m in 1973
  • At 200m: faster than Don Schollander’s first world record over 200m free among men in 1962
  • At 400m: faster than every woman in history over 400m barring 5 – the 2012 400m crown went to Camille Muffat in 4:01.13 and the Olympic silver medallist of 2016, Jazz Carlin, on 4:01.23.
  • At 500m: faster than the first seven of 8 world records that stood to Ragnhild Hveger (DEN) in 1937-40 over 400m – at this point Ledecky is 100m ahead
  • At 800m: faster than the 800m world records held in 1975 and 1976 by Australian Stephen Holland and American Tim Shaw.

The Ledecky world-record splits compared:

  • 57.98; 1:59.42; 3:00.76; 4:01.98; 5:02.94; 6:04.30; 7:05.44; 8:04.79 WR Olympic gold Rio 2016
  • 58.82; 2:00.20; 3:01.80; 4:03.22; 5:04.62; 6:06.00; 7:07.37; 8:06.68 WR Austin, January 2016
Katie LEDECKY of the United States of America (USA) celebrates after winning in the women's 800m Freestyle Final

Katie Ledecky – by Patrick B. Kraemer

Take stock, for that is what she did and what brought the tears welling:

  • Day 1: 4x100m freestyle SILVER with teammates in an American record
  • Day 2: 400m freestyle GOLD in 3:56.46 WR
  •  Day 3: heats and semis of the 200m free
  • Day 4: 200m freestyle GOLD in 1:53.73
  • Day 5: 4x200m freestyle GOLD 
  • Day 6: heats of the 800m freestyle
  • Day 7: 800m freestyle GOLD in 8:04.79 WR

All week long, this teenager at her second Games has held it together, taken each moment for the moment, each day for the day. Today, she no longer needed to and relief filled every teardrop as the choked her way through the Star Spangled Banner, as she walked round the deck, as she soaked up the appreciation and, it seemed, regarded all things about her as though committing it all to photographic memory.

What a day to tell the kids, the grandkids about one day. Asked about the tears, she said:

“Because it was the last one of the week and I’ve had so much fun with my teammates. When the flag was going up, my family was right there and I was looking at them the whole time so that was a pretty emotional moment.”

Katie LEDECKY of the United States of America (USA) celebrates after winning in the women's 800m Freestyle Final

Katie Ledecky by PBK

That spilled to coach, too. Ledecky later revealed:

“He was crying too and if you know Bruce, he doesn’t cry very often and I don’t cry very often. It was just a very happy moment and It’s been incredible to share that journey with him.”

Ledecky revealed that Meyer had sent her a message of encouragement today: “She has been texting my Mum a little bit and my Mum always forwards her messages and they mean a lot to me.

There was a video message today before my final. I try not to think about the history much but joining Debbie in that history is incredible and just to be mentioned in the same sentence as Debbie.”

Carlin has been training with the boys at Bath University with Dave McNulty to steel herself for battle with a pioneer heading for a special plinth in the pantheon. Ledecky may still be the standard to beat come the 2040 Games.

By then, at least 12 of the 15 members of the International Olympic Committee’s Board will be past 90 or sailed, while Ledecky may only be half-way to matching the longevity record held since 1968 by Meyer.

Ledecky has now matched Meyer and had joined the club, along with the great Janet Evans, Brooke Bennett who went back-to-back titles over 800m.

To get a measure of just how dominant the 19-year-old is in the longest of the three races, we turn to the biggest victories in Olympic history: Meyer was nearly 12sec ahead of next home in 1968. Since then, 2sec has been nearer the average size of win, while Adlington broke the modern mould when she claimed gold by 6sec at Beijing 2008 in a world record of 8mins 14.10.

Ledecky was 10sec inside her London 2012 winning time and won by 11.38sec.

How to race a shark? Says Carlin: “It is tough. She’s set incredible times, so far ahead of the field but we’re all individuals and we bring the best we can, we strive for the best we can be. You never know what can happen on the day. With the Olympics its best to expect the unexpected: you’ve got to be on your game and at the very best you can be. That’s what all the work is for. We’re chasing history.”

End of extract…  more soon on what that 8:04 meant and how it was achieved with coach Bruce Gemmell

Rebecca Adlington At The Double As Janet Evans WR Reign Comes To And End

2008 Beijing – Women’s 800m freestyle – Athletes 36; Nations 29 
  1. 8:14.10 WR Rebecca Adlington Great Britain 
  2. 8:20.23 Alessia Filippi Italy
  3. 8:23.03 Lotte Friis Denmark
  4. 8:23.11 Camelia Potec Romania
  5. 8:26.34 Li Xuanxu China
  6. 8:26.39 Kylie Palmer Australia
  7. 8:29.79 Yelena Sokolova Russia
  8. 8:32.35 Cassandra Patten Great Britain

Date of the final: August 16, 2008:

Contemporary notes by Craig Lord – Rio 2016

Rebecca Adlington might have been forgiven for declaring: “It doesn’t get any better than this – I quit”.

She had just become the greatest Olympic swimmer Britain has seen since 1908, with two gold medals and a world-record performance that will go down in history as one of the most monumental of all-time. The 19-year-old from Mansfield had bigger things in mind: “London 2012, here I come – it’s going to be fantastic. I wouldn’t miss it for the whole world.”

On the first day of racing she became the first British woman to lift an Olympic crown in the pool since 1960 and the first of either sex for 20 years when she won the 400m freestyle.

Today, Adlington crashed into uncharted waters as one of the greats of distance freestyle swimming in a world record of 8mins 14.10 in the 800m. The standard, which had stood at 8:16.22 to the legendary American Janet Evans since August 20, 1989, was the last to survive from the last millennium. Yes, there was a 50% polyurethane suit but the longer the distance, the less the impact, the evidence suggests … and Adlington’s victory was never in question: she dominated.

The impact of the British teenager’s tactics was devastating: by the end of 16 lengths at a pace few have dreamt of let alone imagined possible, the result sheet showed that six of the eight finalists had swum slower than their heats time.

Adlington, who before the race had to lie down on the floor and ask teammates to talk to her to avoid “standing up and being sick because I was more nervous than I’ve ever been in my life”, dealt a killer psychological blow by racing through a timewarp:

  • the first turn was the last at which she was led
  • by 100m she was travelling as fast, at 59.37sec, as the speed in which Johnny “Tarzan” Weissmuller won his first Olympic 100m freestyle title, in 1924
  • at 400m, on 4:05.72 her time would have won the silver medal in the straight 400m at the 2004 Games in Athens
  • and by the end she was 2.12sec inside a standard that was set when she was six months old.

Bill Furniss, her coach at the Nova Centurion club in Nottingham since she was 12, summed up the enormity of what had just unfold:

“It’s an awesome achievement. This has been an awesome Olympics. It’s frighteningly fast but I think that Rebecca’s performance is right up there with all the best swims. That’s got to be one of the all-time great swims. It’s such a magnificent record and to take it down by so much – and in the morning … The other girls couldn’t repeat, couldn’t back up on their heats swims. She just destroyed the record – and destroyed the field.”

When Britain’s Kelly Holmes won two golds on the track in 2004, honours came flooding in, including the ultimate one from Her Majesty. Will it be Dame Becky by Christmas? “No! I’m only 19,” said Adlington.

“It would be an honour, of course. But that’s not why I came here. I came here to do a job, to race for what I’ve worked for. It wasn’t about anything that might go with it.”

Adlington broke away from main rivals Camelia Potec, of Romania, and Alessia Filippi, of Italy, at the 150m mark. By 400m, the British champion had established a clear lead and was 2.20sec inside Evan’s world record pace. Her metronomic excellence was never in question from that point on:  Adlington opened up a stretch of clear blue water that left no room for her rivals to hope of striking back.

Filippi ended with the silver on 8:20.23 and was the only other swimmer to improve on her heats time. The bronze went to Lotte Friis, of Denmark, in 8:23.03, while the winning margin has only been greater on one occasion in history, the 1968 title at altitude in Mexico going to American Debbie Meyer, a legend of the pool and the first woman ever to win three titles in the pool, by 11.7sec.

Adlington has joined the league of swimming legends in Beijing. The first British woman since Anita Lonsbrough in 1960 to reach the top of the Olympic podium in the pool. Lonsbrough was also the last to hold a world record in an Olympic event. Up in the media stands, the 1960 champion said:

“I’m delighted that the records I held for being ‘the last British woman to …’ are finally gone – and they could not have gone to a more lovely or deserving athlete.”

Adlington was the fifth woman to win the 400m and 800m double after four Americans: Meyer (1968), Tiffany Cohen (1984), Janet Evans (1988) and Brooke Bennett (2000).

“I can’t believe it, I went out so quick. It’s fantastic that all the hard work over the years has paid off, I’m so pleased,” Adlington said. “At 400m, I thought ‘that’s ony half-way’.” The pain set in sometime between 500 and 600:

“It just hit me how fast I’d gone out. I just stuck with it, just tried to go with it. Just kept thinking about what I had to do. When I realised I was on my own I just went for it.”

Adlington punched the air, waved to teammates, slapped the water and sought out the place in the crowd where mum Kay, who gave up her career as a PA when her 12-year-old daughter’s talent shone through, and dad Steve, co-owner of a steel manufacturing company, had been standing for the last 200m of the race, Union flags flying, voices scorched with passion. Said Kay through floods of tears:

“We are the proudest parents in Beijing. Mrs Phelps must be pretty proud too but we are just overjoyed. It’s just unbelievable.”

Furniss said of his charge:

“Talent comes in different ways. She had physical takent and I’ve coached swimmers who’ve had great physical talent but she’s got a psychological talent as well. She’s got an inner strength. She just hates to lose, and she’s driven. She’s been under such pressure. She was nervous today.  Really nervous. But I told her that’s just human and its your body just getting you ready for what you have to do. If you can embrace that and it doesn’t throw you … and she did just that. There’s a lot of swimmers who can stand on the block and under the most intense pressure they just crack. And there’s a few swimmers who stand on the block and they get better. She’s one of those. That’s the main talent. She’s just a winner.”

His first words to her after the 400m were “Rebecca Adlington – Olympic champion” because he wanted to be the first to speak the honour. Yesterday, he said: “What have you gone and done?!” Taken an axe to expectation, that’s what.

“When she turned in 2mins 01 at the 200m, I was standing with the other coaches and they said ‘that’s a bit fast’. I said ‘no, its not, because she just looks so easy’. She just floated to 2minutes 01.  She has an awesome technique. Everyone talks about the work that swimmers do. And we do have a punishing regime. But we do as much work on technique. The limiting factor is technique. The thing that will make the difference is technique. The thing that will win it is technique.”

Consistently training near to world-record pace helps too. “When you work with someone day in and day out and you see some amazing things and sometimes its difficult to keep your mouth shut because its just amazing what you’re seeing. She swims four of five sessions a week at world-class pace. People have been asking me if I’m surprised,” said Furniss.

“Yes, I’m surprised but part of me is not. It’s only a surprise in that you don’t expect it all to come together in that point in time. But I knew she was capable of doing that time. I think that down the line there’s more to come.”

Within half an hour of the race, Furniss had taken Adlington aside to prepare her for the impact of success.

“I said to her, ‘look, your life is going to change’. I’ve protected her pretty much in the run-up to this and I’ll do my best to look after her. I’ve told her ‘what you need to do in the next four years is remember that you’re performance comes first. It’s a home Olympics in London 2012 and to actually repeat this [Beijing result] there in London is our target. We are very much trying to focus on that objective and try and fit the other stuff around it.”


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