A question of distance

A question of distance

Women are ready for the 1500M at the Olympics but the IOC is yet to give its nod for the event.

The other day in Irvine, California, Nike ran a full-page ad in a local newspaper’s sports section recognising the 30th anniversary of Joan Benoit Samuelson’s victory in the inaugural Olympic women’s marathon. The next day, the USA Swimming long-course national championships opened with the women competing in the 800-metre freestyle and the men contesting the 1,500 metres.

Forty-six years after the 800 was added to the women’s Olympic programme, swimming’s math is stuck in the 1960s: 800 metres + women = 1,500 + men.The shame of shutting out the top female milers from the sport’s showcase meet has deepened since the London Olympics with the ascendant magic act of Katie Ledecky, who makes world records disappear.

In the past two years, Ledecky, 17, has shaved eight seconds off the global mark in the women’s 1,500. Her personal best of 15 minutes 34.23 seconds, clocked in June, would have made her 28th, in a field of 59, in the men’s event Wednesday at the national championships. She opted not to swim the women’s event, during the concluding session of competition, but will be able to contest it at the Pan Pacific Championships later this month because she qualified for the US team in the 200, 400 and 800 freestyle.

There are sports fans who would rather follow a chess match than watch swimmers churn up and down a 50-metre pool for 30 laps. Ledecky, who sprinted to a world record in the 400 freestyle during the competition, has the ability to change that.She possesses the ability, rare in an event known for its back-half performers, to come out hard and lock into a pace more typical of a 400- or 800M race. Pianists could set their rhythm by her stroke, which is a metronomic 1.4 seconds per arm cycle.

Bruce Gemmell, who coaches Ledecky at Nation’s Capital Swim Club, said he could close his eyes and hear how well she was doing because of the cadence of her stroke.“Once I get into a rhythm,” said Ledecky, who won the 800 at the London Games, “it’s pretty hard for me to stop holding that rhythm.” Debbie Meyer, the first female swimmer to win three individual gold medals at an Olympics with her victories in the 200-, 400- and 800-metre freestyle in 1968, was the same way. For that reason, Meyer said, she considered her best event to be the one she was not able to swim in those Games. “I probably was better at the 1,500,” she said, “because I really didn’t get tired. I pretty much held the same pace.”

After the 800 freestyle was added to the women’s Olympic programme, Meyer asked coaches and swimming officials why she couldn’t go for the gold in the 1,500 like her Sacramento training partner Mike Burton (who went on to win).

“The reasoning I got at the time,” Meyer said last week in a telephone interview, “was, a certain amount of countries had to swim the event, and more countries swam the 800.” The first world-record holder in the women’s 1,500 was Jans Koster of the Netherlands. Between the reign of Koster in the late 1950s and that of Meyer, who broke the record for the first time in 1967, the mark was held by swimmers from Australia, Sweden and the United States. The event’s global reach is now beyond dispute. The 10 top performers in history represent eight countries: the United States, Denmark, New Zealand, Italy, Britain, Romania, Chile and Switzerland. The list for the women’s 50 freestyle, by comparison, has swimmers representing six countries. The 1,500’s exclusion from the Olympic programme in her day, Meyer said, was a sign of the times.

“It really was all about the thinking then,” Meyer said, “which was, women were the weaker sex and because men were stronger people, they could last the distance.”She added: “Definitely it gnaws at me a little bit more now than it did at the time I was competing. I wonder what the thinking is behind it now, why they don’t have it in.”

Coach Bob Bowman of North Baltimore Aquatic Club, whose swimmers include Ledecky’s main rival, Lotte Friis of Denmark, was a competitive swimmer in the 1970s. “It always seemed weird to me that there was no women’s 1,500 in the Olympics,” he said. “I actually think women are better suited, physiologically, for 1,500 metres than they are for the 800 because they’re more endurance-oriented.”

Haley Anderson, one of the top-20 US performers in the 1,500, turned to the 10-kilometer open-water event because the 800 was too short for her — “especially with how fast Katie is swimming it,” said Anderson, the Olympic silver medalist in the 10K in 2012. Anderson said that in the 800, Ledecky “goes out faster than I can ever go in the 200.”

At a 2012 Olympic qualifying race, Anderson’s winning time in the women’s 10K was 48 seconds faster than the top men’s time the next day. “I think that had more to do with the currents that day,” she said. But still...Pushing the women’s 1,500M freestyle past members of FINA, the sport’s international governing body, and onto the Olympic programme has become a Sisyphean battle. The path grew steeper with the addition in 2008 of open-water swimming events.“We’ve been working on it for decades,” said Jon Urbanchek, who coached at Michigan for over two decades and served on many USA Swimming national team staffs. “It’s on the table, but it seems like FINA is trying to push it back.”

A 15-minute race is a tough sell in an era characterised by 140-character communications. “The public interest is in shorter races, in the 50s of the strokes and mixed relays and that sort of thing,” Urbanchek said. “The 1,500 is kind of, for most people, boring unless you’re really into it.” Noting that Ledecky had expanded her programme to include the 200 freestyle, which she won at the nationals, Urbanchek said: “Katie was smart. She said, 'Well, if there’s no 1,500, I can move down to the 400 and the 200.'”

Can Ledecky imagine an Olympics with a women’s 1,500?

“It’s hard to say,” she said. “It’s hard to think what my training would be like if it was part of the programme. Definitely the 200 is much more in play; I’m getting that together because I can do the 200 through the 800 because the mile’s not there.”She added: “Whatever happens, I can’t control it. It’s not my thing to decide. I’ll just swim whatever’s in the Olympics.”