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In the eight years since Katie Ledecky set her first world record in the 800-meter freestyle, she has swum the grueling race 31 times in competitive finals, on five different continents and in dozens of cities, against scores, perhaps hundreds of challengers. And never, not once, has she been beaten.
Over almost a decade of unprecedented dominance, Ledecky has defended her 2012 Olympic gold medal, and defended her 2013 world title three times. She’s broken her own record four times. She’s touched the wall in under 8 minutes and 14 seconds on 23 different occasions. No other woman in history ever has.
And in the 1500-meter free, which will make its Olympic debut in Tokyo, she’s gone under 15 minutes and 37 seconds 11 times. No other woman has ever done that, either.
The numbers tell a story of sustained, untouchable greatness. So do the screenshots, of Ledecky with competitors out of frame, or perhaps swimming in the opposite direction. None of them, however, quite captures the inevitability of Ledecky, which almost contradicts the ethos of sport. One of its fundamental principles has always been that nothing is preordained. In March Madness, a 16 can beat a 1. An amateur soccer team can beat Manchester United. Every NFL team, on any given Sunday, can win.
But Katie Ledecky’s opponents in the 800 and 1500? Do they even think they stand a chance?
Yahoo Sports asked several of them. A few laughed at the thought.
“I don't want to sound so negative, but … no,” said Haley Anderson, a distance freestyle veteran who finished third in the 800 and fourth in the 1500 at U.S. Olympic trials. “There's not a shot that I could beat her.”
“Well, I’m realistic,” said Sarah Kohler, a German world silver medalist who’ll swim both races against Ledecky in Tokyo. “If she is in 100% shape and doesn’t get disqualified: No.”
“But,” Kohler concluded with a wink, “everything can happen.”
The race for second
Ledecky, a five-time Olympic gold medalist who’ll swim for five more golds beginning July 26, has been leaving helpless opponents in her wake for over a decade. At 14, she was shattering national age-group records, winning 500-yard frees by over 30 seconds and 1000-yard frees by almost a minute. As she did, word spread. Peers marveled. Coaches gawked.
At 15, Ledecky won Olympic gold in London, and kept accelerating. She deferred her college enrollment to win four more golds in Rio. She arrived at Stanford the following year to find two other All-American distance freestylers. And those All-Americans, Megan Byrnes and Leah Stevens, quickly found that they couldn’t keep up.
“We would push off the wall,” Byrnes remembers. “Three strokes in, she'd already be a body length ahead of me.”
“Insane,” Stevens says of Ledecky’s prowess.
The three would compete in practice, but, Byrnes says, “I don't know how much I would call it ‘competing’ when she laps you.” Ledecky’s practice times would obliterate their personal-best meet times.
But when Ledecky rejoined the fray at NCAA championships? Did they think they had a chance to win?
“Oh, no,” Stevens laughs. “No.”
“No. No,” Byrnes says with a chuckle.
In fact, Byrnes celebrated when Ledecky “only lapped me once” sophomore year. “You definitely have to put her out of your mind,” she says. “Because getting lapped is not the best feeling in the world. But getting lapped by Katie Ledecky — it happens to everyone.”
“There were a lot of girls around my time fighting for, essentially, second place,” she admits.
Stevens agrees: “Any race that she was in, it was more so a race for second than for first.”
Away from the pool, Ledecky, now 24, might be the least intimidating 6-foot-1 woman on planet earth. Teammates gush about her humility and kindness. “If you met her and had never heard her name,” says Stevens, one of Ledecky’s Stanford roommates, “you would never know that she was the fastest female in swimming.”
Even at the pool, she doesn’t dispense death stares. She encourages and pushes teammates, but doesn’t engage in psychological warfare. Last month, in the call room before the inaugural 1500-meter final at U.S. Olympic trials, she turned to her challengers and told them, friendly as ever: “Let’s go make history.”
And yet, Anderson says, her mere presence is intimidating, because her swimming is intimidating. Anderson and others know: “OK, I'm gonna be really far behind from the first 50.”
Says Erica Sullivan, who finished second in that 1500 and qualified for Tokyo: “I was pretty much going into it saying, ‘Katie's taking the first spot, and it's second spot that we're fighting for.’ ”
“Yeah,” says Sillivan’s coach, Ron Aitken, “when you're going against Katie Ledecky, there's only one spot [available on the team].”
Most Ledecky opponents cope by trying to focus on themselves. “Something crazy would have to happen for [me to win], and I definitely know that,” says Ashley Twichell, another top distance freestyler and 2021 Olympian. “So I try to swim my own race.”
“You kind of have to have your own game plan,” Anderson says, “and not freak out that she's so far in front.”
And there are, occasionally, small victories. Anderson remembers one race against Ledecky that energized her parents, because, as they told her afterwards: “You were within the frame! Like, you're in the screenshot of her!”
“Aw, sweeeet!” Anderson thought.
Competition is coming … sort of
Ledecky’s inevitability peaked in 2018. She swam the 800 nine seconds faster than any other woman that year, and the 1500 a full 31 seconds faster than Italy’s Simona Quadarella, her closest challenger.
In the years since, there have been reminders of mortality. Ledecky hasn’t touched her Rio times. And at shorter distances, an Australian antagonist has emerged. Last month, Ariarne Titmus, a 20-year-old “Terminator” from Tasmania, posted a 400-meter time that only 2016 Katie Ledecky has bettered, and a 200-meter time faster than Ledecky ever swam.
Even at longer distances, Ledecky has seemingly slowed. In 2019, an illness sapped her strength at the world championships. She withdrew from the 1500, then recovered to win the 800, but only narrowly. Her 2021 world-leading time of 8:13.64 in the 800 isn’t among her top 20 career times, and it’s less than two seconds ahead of Titmus’ best.
Titmus, clearly, believes she does have a chance in Tokyo. Speaking about Ledecky after her eye-opening 400 at Aussie trials, Titmus declared: “She's not going to have it all her own way. I can't control what she does. If I do the best I can and put myself in the position to win a gold medal, it's going to be a tough race.”
Even Ledecky’s coach, Greg Meehan, admitted last month: “There’s other people in the mix and there's challenges. She’s going to be met with challenges through each and every one of her events.”
Still, though, Ledecky owns the world’s fastest times in her two signature events for a mind-boggling ninth year running. She’s never lost the 1500 at a senior meet. She hasn’t lost the 800 since 2013. She even beat Quadarella in 2019 while sick.
So, with Ledecky healthy, does Quadarella even think she can challenge for gold?
“I don’t know,” Quadarella told the Associated Press. “She’s a great athlete and I’m just honored to be able to compete with her. … We’ll see in Tokyo. But on paper, she’s faster.”
When asked about the tactics of racing Ledecky, Quadarella sounded helpless. “Because she starts really strong. But she also finishes really strong,” the 22-year-old Italian said. “So I really don’t know. We’ll see when we’re there. Every race is different.”
Says Kohler, the German who could reach the 800 and 1500 finals in Tokyo: “She is kinda unbeatable, or it seems like it.
“But on the other hand, she is just a human being like any other competitor.”
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