RIO DE JANEIRO – Wednesday night, they hung another gold medal around Katie Ledecky’s neck. Now it’s back to business.
In a preliminary heat Thursday and the final Friday, Katie Ledecky will finish grinding the world to dust. She will defend her 800-meter freestyle Olympic title, winning by half a pool length, and probably take down her own world record.
At that point, the 19-year-old American dominator will have few freestyle worlds left to conquer. She will have four gold medals in these Olympics, plus a silver, to go with her 2012 gold.
It will be time to find new competition to crush. Time to plot a new course.
It’s important to remember that the future is by no means assured. Ask 2012 Olympic darling Missy Franklin how much fortunes can change over the course of four years. And there will be new challengers appearing (keep an eye on those 16-year-old Canadians, Penny Oleksiak and Taylor Ruck).
Things change. Between ages 19 and 23, things can really change.
But if anyone has the mental stability and outlook to maintain hegemony across the next quadrennium, it is Ledecky. She is the steadiest of competitors, more reliable than an atomic clock, built of stern stuff and amazingly grounded for a global superstar. Add a Phelps-ian competitive zeal to the mix as well.
If her body is right, everything else will be fine. And if everything is fine, she could be one more dominant Olympics away from going down as the greatest female swimmer ever.
So it’s time to peek ahead, past Brazil, and figure out what 2020 might look like for the most dominant female athlete on the planet.
For starters, she will be in a new place geographically and training with a new coach. After taking an Olympic gap year after high school to stay home in Bethesda, Md., and train at Nation’s Capital Swim Club with the estimable Bruce Gemmell, Ledecky is heading west.
Ledecky will enroll at Stanford this fall and train under Greg Meehan, who like Gemmell is an assistant coach on this U.S. Olympic women’s team. How long she remains an amateur student-athlete swimming for Stanford is open to conjecture – a year or two, maybe? – but she can still be a student at the school and train there as a professional.
The Ledecky family would hardly need Katie’s endorsement windfall to get by. But she could make a whole lot of money for herself during the next four years while also earning one of the most valuable college degrees in America.
Drilling down from the bigger picture of where she will train and with whom and in what capacity, the next question is this: What will she swim?
Distance freestyle is her thing, but distance freestyle also is a grind. The training is grueling and often monotonous. There is no stroke variety. And after spending so many years staring at that black line on the bottom of the pool Ledecky might appreciate occasionally lifting her head fully out of the water.
If she wants variety, the choice is obvious: add the 400 individual medley to the repertoire. That’s 100 meters of each stroke, which demands training variety while also playing to Ledecky’s legendary appetite for high-volume yardage and hard work.
Meehan has been known to do some work with 400 IMers. He is the coach of America’s best in that event, Maya DiRado, who won a silver medal here. He also has reigning NCAA champion Ella Eastin, who will be a sophomore at Stanford this year.
I asked DiRado Wednesday night how good Ledecky would be if she trained for the 400 IM.
“I think she could beat me,” DiRado said. “I think she would be fantastic at that. She’s just an animal.”
Fact is, Ledecky swam a couple of exceptional 400 IMs this year without even making it a point of emphasis. She was the seventh-fastest American woman in that event this year, basically while just messing around.
And the U.S. team will be auditioning for 400 IMers in 2020. DiRado is retiring; fellow Olympian Elizabeth Beisel may keep swimming but needs a break from that event; contenders 2012 Olympian Caitlin Leverenz and Sarah Henry both will be 28 by then.
The most daunting part of adding that beast of an event is deciding what else to do with it. The thought of competing in the 400 IM along with the current freestyle load (200, 400, 800) seems excessive. Sharks don’t swim that far in a week without getting tired.
But there will be time to sort all that out – what to swim, when to turn pro, etc. For the next couple of days, at least, we can enjoy Ledecky’s Brazilian brilliance.
Wednesday was another shake-your-head example of it. Anchoring the American 800 freestyle relay of Allison Schmitt, Leah Smith, DiRado and herself, Ledecky entered the water nearly a second behind Australian Tamsin Cook and left it nearly two seconds ahead.
Ledecky’s 200-meter relay split was 1 minute, 53.74 seconds. It was merely the second-fastest in history. And the 200 is her third-best event.
If the Aussies didn’t have a huge lead, the last leg was over before it started.
“I knew Katie would finish this,” said DiRado who swam the third leg. “I was really happy that I could see I was at the Australian’s hip. I said, ‘Katie’s got this. We’re all good.’ I knew Katie was going to crush it.”
She crushed it. One of the great things about Ledecky’s increased speed over the past four years is that she’s been able to add relay events to her program. That’s good for her and good for America.
It’s nice to have a team player and glass-eating competitor who also is the best freestyler alive on the roster.
“That was so much fun,” Ledecky said, beaming.
The fun isn’t over yet in Rio. And in terms of the future, the fun is just beginning for Katie Ledecky.
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