Olympics 2016: When keeping sight of Katie Ledecky is considered a victory

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OMAHA, Neb. – This is what the Ledecky Effect looks like in action:

It looks like Leah Smith swimming out of her skin, smashing through her own perceived limits at the U.S. Olympic swim trials, earning a spot on the American team and recording a time that will make the rest of the world take notice.

And Leah Smith lost by nearly two full seconds.

But it’s who the Virginia senior-to-be lost to that made this swim remarkable. She lost to the most dominant athlete on the planet, Katie Ledecky, who dropped the third-fastest 400-meter freestyle time in history (3 minutes, 58.98 seconds), and whose winning streak in this event stretches back four years, to when she finished third in this very meet.

Katie Ledecky (L) reacts with Leah Smith after winning the women's 400-meter freestyle final Monday. (AP)
Katie Ledecky (L) reacts with Leah Smith after winning the women's 400-meter freestyle final Monday. (AP)

Everyone loses to Ledecky; it’s just a matter of margin of defeat. And this race was notably close.

“I’ve never been able to see her feet before,” Smith said. “That was exciting.”

That is the new measure of competing with Katie. If you can see her feet one lane over, you’re hauling.

Usually, the rest of the world is left with little more than rumor of her passing – the bubbles and waves of her wake as Ledecky pulls farther away. An actual physical sighting while swimming is cause for hope.

With her time of 4:00.65, nearly three seconds faster than her lifetime best, Smith became the fourth-fastest 400 freestyler in history. That time also further distanced herself from the non-Ledecky world in 2016, putting her well ahead of the third-fastest in that event, Boglárka Kapás of Hungary.

“I wanted to go 4:02 or 4:01 in this meet,” Smith said.

Instead, chasing Ledecky pushed her beyond her own goals.

In a telling scene at the finish, Ledecky looked at the times on the scoreboard and was visibly more excited by Smith’s performance than her own. She nearly vaulted over the lane line to congratulate her competition on the swim of her lifetime.

“I mean, that’s fast,” Ledecky said of Smith’s time. “That’s two seconds faster than anyone else in the world. We’re going to represent the U.S. well.”

Ledecky had just won the American championship and made her second Olympic team. But hey, Leah, great job!

“If you know Katie a little bit, I think that’s an indication right there,” said her coach, Bruce Gemmell.

It is, in fact, a Ledecky family trait. You can try to get her parents, Michael and Mary Gen, to gush about their daughter. But pretty soon they will steer the conversation somewhere else. Her swimming brilliance is just part of the Ledecky family landscape.

Now, that doesn’t mean they’re not amazed by Katie. Watching Mary Gen watch her daughter swim is seeing someone who is loving the moment.

She had a lot of company Monday night. There were 14,032 fans roaring in the CenturyLink Center like Nebraska was playing football, watching Ledecky rocket off to a spectacular start.

The scoreboard showed her pace against the world record of 3:58.37 she set in this event in 2014, and the scoreboard said Ledecky was crushing it. At the 50-meter mark she was .51 seconds ahead of world-record pace, and the noise started. At the 100, she was 1.56 seconds ahead, and the noise built. By the halfway point of the race she was more than two seconds ahead of pace and the building went bonkers.

Katie Ledecky celebrates after winning the women's freestyle 400m final at the U.S. swim trials. (Reuters)
Katie Ledecky celebrates after winning the women's freestyle 400m final at the U.S. swim trials. (Reuters)

“I heard the crowd tonight, and I could hear the announcer even, saying something, so I knew I was probably having a good swim,” Ledecky said. “It’s always fun when the crowd gets into it ... and with that many young swimmers in the stands you want to put up a good swim, put on a show, and I think Leah and I did a good job of that tonight.”

Ledecky slowed appreciably on the back half of the race, missing the world record by six-tenths of a second. Her early pace would have been suicidal for a mortal – the 200-meter time was seventh-fastest in American history, which is crazy – and it inevitably took its toll on even Ledecky.

“It was a little hot going out,” Gemmell said. “... I’m of the mindset there’s no such thing as too fast, but there might be too hard.

“Sometimes I forget she’s a 19-year-old girl still figuring out things.”

We all forget. Someone who may make the American Olympic team in as many as six events – every freestyle race from 100 meters through 800, plus a pair of relays – hardly seems like a swimmer still trying to figure things out. Utter dominance and unshakable consistency tend to be the hallmarks of older athletes, not teenagers.

Yet every once in a while, Ledecky will slip in a reminder of her age. Like this adrenaline-charged swim, and the fact that she could hardly sleep Sunday night in anticipation of her 2016 trial debut.

Katie Ledecky remains unbeatable in her best events. But Monday night, she was at least chase-able. Leah Smith could see her feet, which is a huge accomplishment.