The wall-to-wall coverage of the soccer World Cup has tended to obscure what the American swimmer Katie Ledecky did at a low-key meet that concluded Sunday near Houston. It shouldn’t. It isn’t just that Ledecky set two world records in the 1500 and 800, the two women’s freestyle races that for decades featured records impervious to change. She won across the board — 1500, 800, 400, 200, 100. It has been more than 40 years since Australia’s Shane Gould held every women’s freestyle record, from the 100 up to the 1500. (The 50 didn't come until later.) That is borderline preposterous. Then again, so is what Ledecky did this weekend.
Granted, many of America’s top swimmers were racing elsewhere, at the Grand Prix event in Santa Clara, California. Even so, her times in Texas were almost unbelievable.
If she didn’t get airtime on ESPN’s “SportsCenter” because it was being hogged up by the U.S. men’s soccer team’s 2-2 tie with Portugal, or even because golfer Michelle Wie won the women’s U.S. Open, you can bet that everyone in swim circles snapped to when they saw what Katie Ledecky did near Houston.
Because — as amazing as she was in 2012, when at 15 she won Olympic gold in the 800 free, or as dominating as she was in 2013, when she won four golds in Barcelona at the world championships amid two world records — the 2014 version of Katie Ledecky appears to be just as ruthlessly competitive but far more versatile.
When she is not swimming, Ledecky is, by all accounts, a delightful young woman. She is modest. She is a team player. She has announced she intends to attend Stanford when she finishes high school. She is still — let’s remember — only 17.
“She has unbelievable work ethics and work habits,” said Jon Urbanchek, the former University of Michigan coach who has for years been affiliated with the U.S. national team and worked with Ledecky in London in 2012, adding, “She was pushing the boys in practice a lot.”
When she is racing, however, she is a killer, and that is meant to be a high compliment. Simply, Ledecky goes out and means to break you by the force of her incredibly intense competitive will.
Afterward, she smiles, and sweetly.
Just like Missy Franklin.
The idea of the two of them — and Allison Schmitt — racing the 200 free is pretty unreal.
Schmitt is the London 2012 Olympic 200 free gold medalist. Franklin is the Barcelona 2013 world champion in the 200 free. Schmitt didn’t swim in Barcelona. Franklin and Ledecky together swam on the winning U.S. 4x200 freestyle relay team.
“She is unreal,” Franklin said at a news conference Thursday in Santa Clara.
Here is how unreal Ledecky is, starting with the 1500, which in swimming lingo is called the mile:
— Janet Evans swam the 1500 in 15:52.10, on March 26, 1988, at the USA spring nationals in Orlando, Florida. No one broke that record for nearly 20 years.
Finally, on June 17, 2007, Kate Ziegler did it, going 15:42.54, at a meet in Mission Viejo, California. That is not quite eight seconds.
At that meet, Ziegler had just come down to California from attitude training. She is what Urbanchek calls a “responder” — that is, someone whose body responds immediately to the effects of altitude training, designed to increase oxygen-carrying capacity.
“You train up there at altitude, you come down and you’re like, ‘Oh my gosh, I can breathe,’ “ Evans said. “It’s awesome. It’s amazing.”
In warmups, Ziegler recalled of that race, she was off. But when the gun went off, something clicked:
“It was as easy as a mile could be. Lap after lap, I felt so consistent, so strong. I didn’t know how fast I was going. I saw people going alongside and cheering me along. I didn’t have that many teammates there so I knew something must be going on — I saw so many people cheering!”
Last summer in Barcelona, Ledecky lowered the mile mark almost six seconds, to 15:36.53.
In Texas this weekend, Ledecky, too, had just come down from altitude. She, too, is a “responder.”
In the mile, she went 15:34.23 — lowering the record by two and a half seconds.
As an indicator of how good Ledecky’s performance is, Lotte Friis of Denmark, who is maybe one of two or three women in the world right now who might be able to give Ledecky a race in the mile, swam the same event Thursday in Santa Clara. Friis won convincingly, by 10 seconds. Friis’ time: 16:00.35.
Math: Ledecky’s time is better by 26 seconds. 26 seconds!
The career progression & trend line for Katie Ledecky in the 1500m Fr. An amazing WR but the trend line is awesome: pic.twitter.com/sCABWO0pGl
— USA Swimming Stats (@USASwimStats) June 22, 2014
— It was Aug. 20, 1989, when Evans, again, set the world record in the 800 free, 8:16.22, swimming in Tokyo at the Pan Pacific championships.
It took 19 years until someone broke that record — Rebecca Adlington of Great Britain, on Aug. 16, 2008, at the Beijing Games, going 8:14.10.
In Barcelona last year, Ledecky went 8:13.86.
In Texas on Sunday, Ledecky went 8:11 flat. Again, she took more than two seconds off her own record.
In Santa Clara, Cierra Runge of the North Baltimore Aquatic Club, swimming Sunday, won the 800 free in a lifetime-best 8:26.71.
Math: Ledecky’s time is 15 seconds-plus better.
Katie Ledecky's new World Record in the 800m Fr 8:11.00. A look at her progression with a trend line showing sub 8:00 pic.twitter.com/WqPsUN8vbO
— USA Swimming Stats (@USASwimStats) June 22, 2014
At that Texas meet, beyond the two world records, Ledecky also won three other freestyle races, the 400, in the fastest time so far this year in the world; the 200, in a time a tenth away from what she did at the 2013 world championships; and the 100, just off her season- and personal-best.
“I think she is in a really sweet spot,” Evans said. “There are a lot of eyes on Michael, a lot of eyes on Missy,” referring to Phelps and Franklin. “As well as she did in London,” meaning Ledecky, “she’s still going to college. There’s not a lot of adulation on her yet. There’s not a lot of pressure. That’s how I felt. Not a lot of pressure. It’s all fun. You just go.”
One of Urbanchek’s former Michigan swimmers, Bruce Gemmel, is now Ledecky’s coach, and Urbanchek said, “She is like Janet. She has the range across the continuum — except for maybe the 50. She is extremely talented. She is extremely hard-working. She is a racer, an attacker. And she is learning to control her races.”
Ledecky’s London 800 is already the stuff of swim legend — she went out super-fast, so fast that almost no one thought she could hold on. Of course she did.
The Barcelona 1500 — she and Friis dueled throughout the race until Ledecky dropped the hammer late — proved that Ledecky had developed great closing speed. Now, Ziegler said, “The more speed she develops — and she has speed — she also has finishing endurance and she has guts. That is an incredible, unstoppable combination. I wouldn’t begin to predict what we will see from her. She keeps raising that bar. I would not set a limit on her.
“Whatever she she sets her sights on is within her realm,” Ziegler said, adding, “It’s very exciting.”