Katie Ledecky: En Route to Becoming the Best Freestyle Swimmer of All Time?

When I was a teenager, I was greatly inspired by a Bengali film called Koni, representing the struggles of a talented swimmer and her coach, dirty club politics for the national level meets. The movie ended on a positive note, with Koni winning the national championship for the state. Koni was a well-liked film, and it was a period when Bengali filmmakers could choose to make a film on swimming and not worry about box-office performance etc. In the movie, Koni challenges one of the other swimmers from an elite club that, in the next meet, that swimmer will drink water rinsed off Koni’s feet. In Hinduism, that’s a pejorative term since people usually rinse the feet of deities and then drink the water as an offering from the god/goddess. But in the swimming context, Koni used the words to express that she would be a body length ahead of the swimmer she challenged, which is phenomenal for short-distance sprints. Watching some of the swimming events in the Tokyo 2020 Olympics reminded me of Koni and her vow to make her opponents drink water rinsed off her feet, and no other athlete has achieved this than the phenomenal Katie Ledecky.

I remember London 2012 Olympics when Katie first made her mark at the age of 15. Being an avid fan of swimming, I wanted to watch the swimming events live, but unfortunately, I failed to win a ticket in the draw. Unwilling to miss the action, my eyes were glued to the screen for the swimming events, and 800m freestyle was the acme of endurance and speed. The swimming arena was packed to the brim, and on the hot, sweltering day, the home crowd were cheering for Rebecca Adlington to win a double in the event, following her golden run in Beijing four years back. It was going to be Rebecca’s gold, but the 15-year-old from Maryland would soon unsettle all predictions and expectations to make her mark in the pool. By the 100m mark, Katie was several body lengths ahead of all her opponents. A lead that she’d only widen in subsequent lengths. At first, the commentators thought her inexperience at a significant stage like the Olympics made her start with so much power, and the rest would soon catch up. But that didn’t happen, and a new star was born. It was phenomenal watching Ledecky tear away from the rest of the swimmers from the beginning and never falter or give the lead away. My first swimming hero, the one and only Janet Evans, was about to be replaced by another superior swimmer.

Then came Rio, and it was Katie all-over in mid to long-distance freestyle, bagging four golds. She became much stronger, and apart from her signature 800m freestyle, she was successful in 200m and 400m and landed a medal in the 100m freestyle relay. Then this year, the stage was set for Katie to emulate previous greats like Dawn Fraser and Krisztina Egerszegi and join the pantheon of three gold medals in the same event over as many games. And she did deliver; setting aside the dismal performance in the 200m freestyle and the defeat in the 400m, Katie was in her vintage form, pedalling far ahead of the competitors with tremendous power and grace. I wouldn’t use the term “grace” lightly and certainly not because it was a women’s event. Anyone who watched Katie Ledecky would understand what I meant by grace. It seems as if she glided on the water; her legs, despite generating the immense momentum that throttles her forward, still look as if she’s merely in a practice session warming up. At 23, she has etched her name in the pantheon that featured Dawn and Krisztina as the most successful swimmer in a single event. The fourth medal in Paris? Why not? She will definitely be there and possibly in LA as well.

Tokyo Olympics also saw the introduction of 1500m freestyle for women, the longest in the indoor events. Like 800m, Katie was in her element, and she didn’t let anyone come within her body length from the beginning. If the men’s 1500m was a trailblazer, with all three winners virtually finishing within less than a second, the women’s event would only have one winner. Katie finished nearly 10m ahead of the silver medal winner, her compatriot Erica Sullivan. It was awe-inspiring watching Ledecky, how her powerful strokes steadily made the gap between herself and her challenge wider and wider. Apart from Michael Phelps, I have not seen a phenomenal swimmer like Katie Ledecky in recent years or the past. Unlike Phelps, Ledecky isn’t a jack of all trades, but she certainly is the master of mid to long-distance freestyle swimming, and her feats will be hard to emulate. Her style of swimming looks effortless, somewhat superhuman, in how she maintains the same speed for most, if not all, the laps. In the words of Rebecca Adlington, who Ledecky dethroned in the London Olympics, it gets difficult carrying the momentum after the 400-500m mark; the muscles start to cramp, and the lactic acid tries to slow your down. Yet we watch Ledecky tearing away, extending her lead at every stroke instead than slowing down.

No matter how talented or strong she is, there is no shortcut to success, especially at the international level. Her effortless paddles in the water and the elegance with which she almost cuts through the water — it all was the result of extremely hard work. My jaw dropped when I learned that she swims 10km every day. Her immense strength and superlative performances have always caught the attention of the detractors who’d accuse Ledecky of doping. Still, I don’t believe that because someone is way above average doesn’t mean they are resorting to cheating. These accusations were more to distract her than anything more, but Katie maintained her impressive run since she marked her presence in London in 2012.

In 2022 we see Katie back in her dazzling form reigning supreme in the World Championships winning gold in all four events she participated in. Her success is somewhat dampened by the absence of Ariarne Titmus in the championsips, especially when she broke Katie’s 400m WR set in 2016 just about a month ago.

Paris is only three years away. So I hope we’ll see Ledecky on the podium again, annexing Jenny Thompson as the most decorated female swimmer. This won’t be difficult to achieve with the form she is in now. But she might need to be vigilant about her competitors. The biggest threat to Ledecky’s medal hopes comes from Ariarne Titmus, a fan of Ledecky herself. Titmus defeated Ledecky in the 200m and 400m finals and won the silver behind Ledecky in the 800m. I believe the 1500m spot will remain unchallenged, but Titmus will be desperate to end the reign of Ledecky. It will be thrilling to see these two great swimmers compete in the following years as the balance remains slightly tilted in favour of Ledecky in the longer distance events while Titmus will try to dominate up to 400m. In the 4x200m freestyle relay, Ledecky timed better than Titmus; we hope to see Ledecky trying to regain some of her dominance in the mid-range lengths.

It’s been many years since I watched Koni and Janet Evans — my first swimming icon. Since then, I have seen many phenomenal swimmers but have never seen such overpowering dominance as we can see in Ledecky’s performances. And I’ll hope she continues her remarkable run and becomes the first athlete in the history of Olympic swimming to have won four gold medals in successive games. And I don’t mind if she doesn’t make her challengers drink the water rinsed off her feet.


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