Katie Ledecky swam a marathon at the 2015 FINA World Championships over the past week. Not literally. But in winning the 200-, 400-, 800- and 1,500-meter freestyle races and helping the U.S. women win the 4x200-meter freestyle, she swam 6,200 meters.
By comparison, when Missy Franklin won her record six gold medals at 2013 worlds, she raced 1,750 meters total. And even Michael Phelps, when he won seven golds at 2007 worlds, swam only 3,200 meters.
Perhaps most impressive was Ledecky’s final race at worlds when she shattered her own world record.
On the eighth day of the eighth month, on what would have been her grandfather’s 88th birthday, the 18-year-old swimming savant swam the 800 and demolished her own world record by almost four seconds in a time of 8:07.39. She is the only woman to ever swim the distance in a long-course pool under 8:10.
“It would have been really cool if it had been 8:08,” she said after the race. Not that she was complaining about 8:07.
It was her ninth world championship gold medal and fifth in this championship.
Ledecky has reestablished the U.S. as a dominant force in women’s distance swimming. And she has joined the likes of legends Janet Evans, Shirley Babashoff and Brooke Bennett, all of whom also won Olympic medals in the 800-meter freestyle, the longest race that women swim in the pool at the Olympic Games.
Before Ledecky made her big splash at the London Olympic Games, where she won gold in the 800, distance swimming in the U.S. appeared to be languishing. Bennett’s gold medal at the 2000 Sydney Olympics was the last time an American woman had won the event. And at the Beijing Games, no U.S. woman made the 800 final.
What had happened?
“There was a time when there was a sense of pride with being a distance swimmer,” said Greg Meehan, Stanford University’s women’s swim coach, “and I think maybe that shifted a little bit over the years.”
What caused the shift?
When asked four years ago (when Ledecky was still an unknown), many coaches pinned the blame on the NCAA, which began awarding double points in the relays. A team that wins a relay at the NCAA Championships receives 40 points; swimmers only score 20 points for their teams by winning individual events. And most distance swimmers do not compete in relays, which favor sprinters.
The result? Distance swimmers are offered fewer scholarships at the Division I schools.
“It is difficult to justify giving a full scholarship to a distance swimmer who’s maybe going to swim two times in a meet versus a sprinter who will swim six times,” explained Bob Bowman at the time. Besides being Michael Phelps’ coach, Bowman is head coach at Arizona State University and former head coach at the University of Michigan.
Jon Urbanchek, also a former Michigan coach, also pointed out that many swimmers no longer wanted to put in the work required to compete at the longer distances. Many wanted more immediate gratification, he said.
At the London Games, the women’s 800 was not on most of the American media’s radar. On Aug. 3, 2012, Michael Phelps had just won the 100-meter butterfly — what many thought would be his final individual race at the Olympic Games — and most reporters were busy interviewing him while Ledecky swam.
But as the race neared its conclusion, Phelps stopped talking and switched his attention to the TV monitor behind the reporters. Fifteen-year-old Katie Ledecky was far out in front. She ended up swimming the second fastest 800-meter freestyle time in history at the time and beating the American record that was held by Janet Evans since 1989.
Since the London Games, Ledecky has watched the American flag raised for her — multiple times — at every international meet she has entered.
Growing up, Ledecky was “very aware of U.S. dominance in distance swimming over the past 20 to 30 years, with Janet Evans, Tracy Caulkins, Brooke Bennett.”
But she doesn’t think that American dominance in distance swimming ever did fall off.
“I really looked up to Kate Ziegler, Katie Hoff and many other great distance swimmers growing up,” she said. “Katie Ziegler is from the Potomac Valley-Washington, D.C., area. I witnessed her breaking American records in distance races back home. I always looked up to her and all the U.S. distance swimmers in the past.”
The 2005 and 2007 world champion in the 800, Ziegler held the short-course world record in the 800 in 2007. But she failed to qualify for the 800 final at either the Beijing or London Games.
Hoff is a two-time Olympian and former world champion in the 200- and 400-meter IM. Her best Olympic finish was a silver medal in the 400-meter freestyle at the Beijing Games.
While Stanford’s Coach Meehan won’t say that Ledecky is reigniting distance swimming in the U.S., he thinks that she is definitely drawing attention back to it.
“She’s absolutely changing peoples’ perspective as to what distance swimming is, and she’s making it cool,” he said.
Ledecky will matriculate at Stanford in the fall of 2016 — after the Rio Games — and Meehan sees the wunderkind as more than just a NCAA point-scorer for the Cardinal.
“If you ask any of the folks who know her, if you ask her coach, they’ll tell you she’s an even better person than she is a swimmer,” he said. “Obviously, we’re looking forward to having her talents in the pool. But we’re also looking to have her personality in our team dynamic on a daily basis.”
So what is USA Swimming’s sensation doing this week to celebrate?
Don’t look for her on a media tour. Or even at a restaurant with her family. Her coach, Bruce Gemmell, said she must first undergo another rite of young adulthood.
She’s getting her wisdom teeth pulled this week.
A freelance writer based in Vermont, Peggy Shinn has covered three Olympic Games. She has contributed to TeamUSA.org since its inception in 2008.