The Tours de Force of Katie Ledecky

Photo Courtesy: Azaria Basile

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By Kennedy Cutler, Swimming World College Intern

All throughout the Olympic Games in Rio so far, I have happily watched as the women – both from the United States and from other countries – have dominated in their events, breaking perhaps more world and Olympic records than their male counterparts. But there is one person I really want to commemorate.

Friday night I sat down to watch Katie Ledecky go off in the 800 freestyle, as I’m sure many of us did. She was already a body length ahead of the field after the first hundred, and had settled nicely right on the world record line – her world record line, which she had set earlier this year at the Arena Pro Swim Series in Austin. She started to pull away, from both the field and the record line, and didn’t stop until she finished.

I’m not a distance swimmer, I never have been, even though I attempted the mile two or three times throughout my high school years. But I have huge respect for Ledecky and every other distance swimmer in this sport. It is not easy to push your body that hard for that long. It is not easy to swim all of these challenging distances every time you show up at a meet.

That said, as much respect as I have for Michael Phelps (which at this point is an immense amount), by the time Ledecky is done, I don’t think he’ll have anything on her. I’ll get back to that and it’s relevance in a moment, but first, a quick review.

Ever since she stepped up onto the international stage at 15 years old and swam in her first Olympics, she has dominated the pool. At her first Olympics in 2012, she only had the 800m freestyle, which she casually won and set the American record in, missing the world record by less than a second.

In 2013 she showed up to the World Championships, won gold in all three of her individual events, set two individual world records (800m and the 1500m freestyles) and an American record (400m freestyle), then helped her relay to win gold as well.

2014 rolls around. At this point she’s popping up on everyone’s radar, this time with six golds between her four individual events and a relay at the Pan Pacific Championships in Australia. She set the world record in the 400m freestyle, reset it in the 1500m, just missed her previous record in the 800m, and set a meet record in the 200m freestyle (the first time we see her swim the event on the international stage individually).

At World Championships in 2015, again she won all four of her individual events, (the 200m, 400m, 800m, and 1500m freestyle events) resetting her world records in the 800 and 1500, and helping team USA to another win in the 4x200m relay.

Going into Rio this year, Katie Ledecky had won every single time she went out onto the international stage, individually and as a participant of relays.

She finished the 800m freestyle on Saturday night in a time of 8:04.79, nearly ten full seconds faster than her time in the event four years ago. Think about that for just a moment. Then consider that she’s only getting started. After completing her second Olympic Games in Rio this past week, she has six total Olympic medals, five gold (four for individual events, one for a relay) and one silver from this year’s 4×100 freestyle relay. In total for every international meet she’s competed in, she owns 19 gold, and one silver.

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Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

Back to why I brought Phelps up a few moments ago. A lot of people I’ve heard comment that Ledecky is “the Michael Phelps of women’s swimming,” and comparing her to him just because they’re of opposite gender competing in the same sport. We should stop doing that, not only for Ledecky, but for all female athletes being compared to their male counterparts. In Ledecky’s case, she is not the Phelps of women’s swimming, she is the Ledecky of swimming, regardless of gender.

The comparison of Phelps and Ledecky shouldn’t even exist – their swimming careers are only similar in a few areas, such as competing at their first Olympic Games as 15-year-olds and dominating in their events just about every time they step up to the block. But that’s the thing. They don’t even swim the same events. You cannot compare a distance swimmer to someone who swims butterfly and individual medley races. It takes hard work to reach the level they both have reached, but a different kind of work and training for each because of how completely different their events are.

If she chooses to keep at it the way she is, I believe that by the time she’s done, her records will be untouchable for many, many years. By the time she retires, she might be considered the greatest of all time (in my mind, she already is). After all, while the television commentators may have been referring to Phelps as the “King” during his fifth (and as he currently says, final) Olympics, Ledecky is only on her second and already those same commentators have dubbed her the “Queen.”

2 comments

  1. avatar
    Todd

    I believe that being called the Michael Phelps of women’s swimming is meant as a compliment. She is as dominant as he was early on with multiple golds and works records. Why is this is somehow slighting Katie? Who I agree is absolutely amazing. I even got my never swimming wife interested. I have not swam in many years and am considering trying my hand at the 400 because of her. I will bet if asked Katie would agree it’s a compliment.

  2. avatar
    YY

    Some angry woman. I’ve read this article twice and still haven’t gotten what it is all about. Really.
    BTW in four years in Tokyo there will be something that makes Phelps’ and Ledecky’s achievements comparable:
    800-400-200-100-400IM-4×100-4×200-4x100Medley. Total – eight gold medals.
    Don’t believe it?
    At 400IM Hosszu will be 31 yo and nobody on horizon by far.
    At 100 Cate Campbell will be 28. 52.7 will be the time to beat if Oleksiak doesn’t get crazy 🙂
    At 4×100 free American have already three 52 splits.
    Eight medals sounds like a reachable goal. The probability of such event is definitely greater than zero.