Formidable in freestyle

Swimming : Katie Ledecky lit up the World Championships with a remarkable combo of endurance and speed
Last Updated 08 August 2015, 18:46 IST

Before Katie Ledecky embarked on a mission many onlookers at the swimming World Championships considered pure madness, she consumed two meals. The first was a plate of pasta with pesto sauce, a mound of rice, a piece of bread and green beans. The second, roughly three hours later, consisted of another plate of pasta.

All the carbohydrates in Kazan did not figure to load Ledecky’s tank sufficiently for her odyssey last Tuesday, which started with the 1,500-metre freestyle final and ended with a 200-metre freestyle semifinal, all in less than 50 minutes.

The 1,700-metre session was thought to be unprecedented. It amounted to 1,300 metres more than the doubles Michael Phelps pulled off during his eight-gold-medal jaunt at the 2008 Olympics. It was 1,400 metres more than Missy Franklin totalled when she swam a 200-metre freestyle semifinal and a 100 backstroke final, with 13 minutes in between, at the 2012 London Games.

Ledecky, who is always up for a challenge, succeeded, although she conceded afterward it was tougher than she had expected. In the 1,500, she was under world-record pace from the first 100 and broke her day-old mark by 2.23 seconds with a time of 15 minutes 25.48 seconds. Only 80 men in the world have gone faster at that distance this year.

Twenty-nine minutes later, Ledecky, 18, was back in the water at Kazan Arena for the four-lap freestyle race, an event she was attempting against Olympic-calibre competition for the first time. Imagine Usain Bolt competing against the world’s best in the 1,500M and 200M. Now picture him doing both in the span of an hour. It required a range that would have turned anybody’s legs to Jell-O.

Ledecky looked spent after 150 meters of the 200, proving that she is mortal, after all. She made the final turn in seventh place, but she summoned enough energy in the final 50 metres to overtake four swimmers and post a 1:56.76, the sixth-fastest time among the two heats of semifinalists. She advanced to the final with roughly two-tenths of a second to spare and then went on to win it. In what is proving to be a sensational meet for her — with wins in 200, 400 and 1500 freestyle races — this was the most gruelling part.

“There are very few, if anyone, in the world who can do what Katie just did,” said Franklin, who won the heat in 1:56.37, the second-fastest time overall, while racing next to Ledecky.

“I can’t even imagine.”
Franklin was correct not to qualify Ledecky’s achievement. She succeeded at something no woman before her is believed to have tried at the sport’s highest level. No wonder some of the eyewitnesses were struggling to make sense of what they had seen. At Ledecky’s news conference, a man asked a question in Russian that was translated as, “What do you think about when you are in the water? Maybe you sing, maybe you talk to yourself or maybe you’re just like an animal who is feeling everything through its senses?”

It is a wonder Ledecky had the energy left to laugh, but she did. She said she thought about her rhythm and listened to the rush of water as she powered through it.

“I wasn’t afraid to fail,” she said, adding, “I had nothing to lose.”
Elementary, right? Ledecky’s coach, Bruce Gemmell, sighed. Most children, he said, start out carefree only to be tripped up by fear as they venture deeper into their pursuit.

“Sometimes we’re not kind to them, the sport’s not kind to them and they sort of become that way,” Gemmell said, adding, “It could be classmates, it could be media, it could be teammates, it can be various people who are trying to be very helpful and sort of cast this net of creating failure as something to be afraid of.”

Ledecky is the way she is partly because of a combination of her mental toughness and the unconditional love of her inner circle. Ledecky’s parents, Mary Gen and Dave, dispense hugs, not technical advice, leaving the post-race analysis to Ledecky’s coaches. They support her swimming but do not smother her with expectations. Their view is that whatever she accomplishes in the water is but one strand in a rich life tapestry that includes academics and service and family.

The most emotion Ledecky showed all day was when she talked about making her first trip abroad, to the Czech Republic in 2007 for her grandfather’s 80th birthday. Both her grandfathers are now dead, and Ledecky’s voice cracked as she recalled thinking of her grandmothers during her 1,500 race.

“And I dug deep,” she said.
Gemmell said: “It’s such a safe environment to go out and do something that you love and try your hardest. At the end of the day, Mom and Dad are still going to love you, your coach is still going to coach you, your friends are still going to be your friends. To get kids to grasp that, that’s sometimes difficult.”

The high degree of difficulty in rising to meet great expectations has been borne out throughout the week in the US team’s performances. Till Thursday, only Ledecky had struck gold, before Ryan Lochte and 4x200M freestyle team claimed top placings.

“When you’re the world-record holder and you’re swimming that event, there’s that pressure of you’re the world-record holder,” Franklin said, referring to Ledecky. “For her to get out there and do what she does, it’s amazing.”

The way Ledecky split the 1,500 was remarkable. She swam the final 50 as if it were her last lap of the night. Kicking furiously over the final 25 meters, she made the 30th lap her second-fastest, clocking a 29.02. It was less than seven-tenths of a second slower than her first 50, in which she had the benefit of a dive.

“Maybe I could have gone a little slower on that last 50,” Ledecky said. “I guess I still would have gotten the record — but it wouldn’t have been by as much.”
Once again Ledecky’s competitiveness overrode her convenience, and the sport is grateful to her for that. In her undying determination to go as fast as she can, Ledecky is lifting swimming to a new level.

The 1,500 runner-up, Lauren Boyle of New Zealand, touched the wall almost 15 seconds after Ledecky, in 15:40.14. It was a personal best for Boyle, whose time was the second-fastest ever recorded by a woman not named Ledecky.

“I think the way she swims is really inspiring for all the female swimmers in the world, not just in freestyle,” Boyle said. “I think it really shows what’s possible, especially in women’s swimming. It’s really great to see.”

(Published 08 August 2015, 18:46 IST)

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