(L-R) Michelle Coleman of Sweden, Katie Ledecky and Emma McKeon of Australia competes in the women's 200-meter freestyle heat at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games at the Olympic Aquatics Stadium on August 8, 2016 in Rio de Janeiro.
RIO DE JANEIRO - Every day, as Katie Ledecky gets closer to matching Debbie Meyer’s singular Olympic swimming triple, Meyer finds herself feeling closer to Ledecky.
In ways big and small.
“The similarities seem more and more as time goes on,” Meyer said via telephone this week from Truckee, California.
From some 7,000 miles away, she is assiduously following Ledecky’s quest to become the second woman to win the 200, 400 and 800 freestyles in the same Olympics.
Meyer did it in the 1968 Olympics. Now that Ledecky has won the 200 freestyle, the only race in which she was not an overwhelming favorite, it seems a foregone conclusion that she will attain the same elevated status as Meyer after Friday’s final of the 800-meter. In 2016, no one has come within 11 seconds of Ledecky’s time in the event, a world-record 8 minutes, 6.68 seconds.
Ledecky also has anchored two freestyle relays, winning gold in the 4x200 and silver in the 4x100. A win in the 800 would tie Amy Van Dyken (1996) and Missy Franklin (2012) for most by a U.S. female swimmer in a single Olympics.
In Thursday afternoon's 800 prelims, Ledecky did not really kick until the final lap and merely broke the Olympic record (8:14.10 by Great Britain's Rebecca Adlington in 2008) with a time of 8:12.86, more than six seconds faster than any of the other 26 competitors. It was the eighth fastest 800 ever, and Ledecky now has the top 12 on the all-time list.
Before Tuesday’s 200 final, Meyer had some friends say of Ledecky, “We want her to win….but we don’t want her to win.”
Meyer understood their wishing her achievement to remain the gold standard, but she has been an all-in Ledecky fan since they met at an aquatic sports convention in 2014.
“I want her to do it,” Meyer said. “She is an amazing young lady.”
Meyer and Ledecky’s mother, Mary Gen, have been exchanging text messages between California and Brazil. Mary Gen has passed some on to her daughter.
Said Katie: “I’m glad she’s rooting.”
Meyer could not help but be struck by a coincidental link between them when she read that Ledecky had broken an arm playing basketball in the fourth grade.
“I broke my arm in fourth grade, too,” Meyer said. “I was running to base in a tag game and tripped on the tar between the cracks of a side walk.”
Then there are the family nicknames. Meyer’s father was a Bud. So was Katie’s maternal grandfather.
And Ledecky’s quest has brought Meyer, who turns 64 Sunday, out of the history books. At a time when she had begun to favor being known by her married name, Debbie Weber, she is Debbie Meyer again in the many stories connecting her past to Ledecky’s present.
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“She is so phenomenal,” Meyer said. “And she has such a career ahead of her after this.”
That is the biggest disconnect between Meyer and Ledecky.
Meyer was barely 16 at Mexico City in 1968. She came of age in the days before Title IX gave female swimmers competitive opportunities in college, Meyer tired of training essentially on her own in a club program.
“I didn’t even swim in high school because we didn’t have a women’s team,” she said.
After setting 20 world records between 1967 and 1971, she retired from competition nine months before U.S. trials for the 1972 Olympics. She was, at 19, older than anyone else in her club program. And the man who had effectively been her training partner, Olympic champion Mike Burton, had a coaching job that meant he no longer could come to the afternoon practice.
“You have to have that internal drive to keep going, and I didn’t have it anymore,” Meyer said. “I wasn’t having fun. It had always been fun chasing someone, but I didn’t have anyone to chase any more.
“She has her (Stanford) scholarship to work for. I remember when I was coaching at Stanford (in 1976 and 1977) how envious I was of all the swimmers, of the camaraderie and the companionship you have. It is a team effort. We were a (club) team but we were all individuals swimming for ourselves.”
Ledecky, who took a year off after high school to concentrate on the 2016 Olympics, is set to begin Stanford in September. At this point, she intends to use all four years of her college eligibility.
Meyer, who runs an eponymous swim school in Carmichael, California, sees a lot of herself in Ledecky, not only in working with men to get faster but in the way she attacks every race from the start, no matter the distance. That is why she feels the 12 world records Ledecky has set at 400, 800 and 1,500 meters in the past three years are just the beginning.
“Where is she going to stop?” Meyer asked. “How much further can she drop the times? I know she can keep dropping them. I would just love to get her to keep the momentum going and make sure it stays fun when she does it, so it doesn’t become a chore.”
Meyer is thrilled that Ledecky has spurred a resurgence of distance swimming in the United States, which had stagnated since Janet Evans rewrote the record books in the late 1980s. Evans’ U.S. records in the 400, 800 and 1,500 all lasted nearly 20 years.
As Meyer did an autograph-signing session at the 2016 Olympic Trials in Omaha, Nebraska, she would ask young swimmers what events they liked.
“Distance,” they told her.
Philip Hersh, who is covering his 18th Olympic Games and was the Chicago Tribune’s Olympic specialist for 30 years, is a contributor to TeamUSA.org.