BUDAPEST — If you listen closely, very closely, to Katie Ledecky this week at the 2017 FINA world championships, you can hear — appropriately — a college sophomore-to-be.
Someone who sees that there is a big world out there beyond swimming, that swimming is just a piece of a long and meaningful life as part of a loving and supportive family. Who also sees that many of the big stars on the American team who have come before her in recent years have wrestled with some big issues and maybe — probably — could have benefitted from some quality time between Olympic Games.
If you were Katie Ledecky and you had done pretty much everything there is to do at the highest levels, and now, after Wednesday, in the women’s 200-meter freestyle, you were proven human after all, which in its way is the lifting of an incredible burden, might you be inclined to maybe think of 2018, or at least some portion of it after the college swim season, as, well, me time?
As a constructive and positive stroke all around?
In that 200 free, Italy’s Federica Pellegrini came on strong over the last 50 meters to win, in 1:54.73. Ledecky and Australia’s Emma McKeon tied for second, at 1:55.18.
For the record: Pellegrini is no slouch. She is the Beijing 2008 200 free Olympic gold medalist, the Athens 2004 silver medalist. She is also the world record holder in the event, 1:52.98, set at the 2009 Rome worlds. McKeon is the Rio 2016 200 bronze medalist.
Also for the record:
Ledecky is the Rio 2016 200 free gold medalist.
Wednesday’s race marked the first time in her career that Ledecky proved faster in the first or semifinal rounds than in the final at a major international meet. More, she swam the 200 final 1.45 seconds faster in Rio than in Budapest.
It’s not that Ledecky is swimming like molasses here in Budapest. This is all a matter of expectation.
Ledecky’s winning 400 freestyle here — second-fastest performance ever.
Her winning 1500 free — fourth-fastest ever.
Which she followed up, 47 minutes later Tuesday evening, with a time in the 200 semifinal, 1:54.69, that far and away would have won gold at the world championships in 2015 in Kazan, Russia.
The 1:53.73 that Ledecky swam to win the 200 free in Rio last year is the third-fastest swim of all time in the event. The 1:55.18 Ledecky swam Wednesday night was just two-hundredths of a second slower than her winning time in Kazan.
Before Wednesday, Ledecky had gone 13-for-13 in major individual finals, dating to London 2012, when she burst onto the scene by winning the women’s Olympic 800-meter free as a 15-year-old.
If Ledecky had won Wednesday night, she would have scored a 13th world championship individual gold medal. So, unlucky 13.
Pellegrini, who indisputably has had great 200 swims in her over the years, pulled out another great 200 swim.
Afterward, the 28-year-old Pellegrini had an announcement.
As for Ledecky, she said moments after the race: “It happens.
“It happens to every athlete at some point. i know this race will really motivate me moving forward, and the rest of the week as well.”
Here is what some smart people know have also happened to the people who were asked to carry forward the banner of U.S. swimming in recent years, and understand these are observations, not criticisms of these exceptional athletes:
Michael Phelps: got right after rehab following well-publicized episodes with alcohol and a marijuana-style pipe.
Ryan Lochte: um.
Missy Franklin: injuries.
Ledecky is now heir to that line.
The spotlight brings expectations that, even if well-meaning, have already proven in Ledecky's case outrageous to the point of absurdity.
Ledecky’s winning 1500 free time, 15:31.82, was more than 19 seconds ahead of runner-up Mireia Belmonte of Spain. Belmonte is no slouch; she is the Rio 2016 200 butterfly gold medalist.
After that 1500, Belmonte said, “Katie Ledecky is on another planet, so the goal of the race was to win the silver medal. For me, it is gold!”
At that same late Tuesday night news conference, Ledecky, asked by a moderator about those words, said, “Yeah, I think I’m on earth.”
Asked about such expectations after Wednesday’s 200 final, Ledecky had a ready answer:
“Maybe I haven’t been quite on point as much as I would have hoped to have been this week. I still have been feeling good. That,” meaning the 200 free, “was mostly a matter of how I executed my race. It wasn’t anything really too wrong or [more than] that. I think I’m still learning — over the years, over the months — how to manage those expectations. I don’t think any of that had any effect on me.”
All the same, it is crystal clear that the 2017 worlds are not the 2016 Olympics nor the 2013 or 2015 worlds, which pointed to those Rio Games. Through her 200, 400 and 1500 swims here, Ledecky pretty clearly has not been chasing world records.
That is more than OK.
People, it has to be OK that Katie Ledecky is not hammering out a world record every time she swims. Good lord.
She is a 20-year-old Stanford sophomore-to-be.
“I certainly want to figure out what I want to do over the next couple years,” Ledecky had said at a sparsely attended news conference late Tuesday night, after the 1500 final and 200 free semifinals, and this is where, as your kindergarten teacher said, put on your listening ears, “and I don’t know what my next couple years will look like in terms of how I'm swimming.”
Looking at the calendar, at the four-year cycle between Rio 2016 and Tokyo 2020, which in Olympic jargon is called a quad, it’s pretty obvious that 2018 is something of a lull year, swim-wise. There’s a meet called the Pan Pacific championships that serves as the year’s highlight, next August, in Tokyo.
“So,” she said, “I’m just taking it step by step, and just kind of laying the groundwork this year, and seeing where I can go from here.
“It’s the first year of the quad. It’s a little bit more relaxed. It’s good to take that first step toward 2020 but not really think about it too much.”
It’s for sure a bit more relaxed. So maybe 2018 should be, too. Rest up. Re-set. Recharge. Pause.
Get that elusive driver’s license.
Learn to throw clay pots.
Develop a groundbreaking New York Islanders hockey analytics spreadsheet.
Ok, maybe not that.
Thursday brings the women’s 4x200 relay. Ledecky’s next individual event comes Friday morning, the 800 free prelims. Assuming she’s in the relay, she likely won’t swim until Thursday night’s finals. That gives her some time.
To rest up. Re-set. Recharge.
Then, at least for a couple more days at this meet, charge ahead.
“That’s some good motivation,” that 200 free, Ledecky said one more time, “for moving forward.”