Katie Ledecky’s place in modern-day swimming is indisputable. She is simply the best swimmer on the planet today. Her place in the history books is still up for debate. Ledecky will be favored to win four gold medals in Rio: the freestyle events at 200, 400 and 800 meters, and the 4x200-meter relay. The U.S. coaches could also give her a turn in the 4x100 free relay, though that would likely be in the preliminary rounds and would depend on how they want to set up their foursomes. The only thing keeping Ledecky from winning another medal is that the women’s 1,500 is only contested at the nationals and world championships, but not at the Olympics (The men swim the 1,500, but not the 800 at the Games.) To get a sense of what Ledecky’s legacy could be, consider that she has won nine world titles and set 11 world records, and at 19, she will still be the youngest member of the U.S. women’s swim team in Rio.
Essentially, the longer the individual race, the firmer Ledecky’s hold on the top spot in the world rankings. She is the world-record holder in the 400-, 800- and 1,500-meter freestyle races, calling to mind the reign that Janet Evans had over the sport in the distance races when she broke world standards in the 1980s and held onto them through the turn of the century.
At a time when swimmers across the board were finding world records hard to come by because of the change in swimsuit regulations that kicked in after the 2009 world championships, Ledecky lowered the world mark in the 1,500 free to 15:36.53 at the worlds in 2013 and has since dropped it by a full 11 seconds over the next two years. She lowered the 800 mark to 8:06.68 at an invitational meet in Austin in January and is still 9.5 seconds up on the field in 2016. Rebecca Adlington’s championships performance of 8:14.10 that won gold at the Olympics in Beijing is still the second-fastest in history.
Ledecky became the only woman to eclipse the four-minute barrier in the 400 free this year, when she won the U.S. trials in 3:58.98. Her teammate Leah Smith, who finished a stroke behind in 4:00.65, is still second-best. Italy’s Federica Pellegrini, who figures to push Ledecky in the shorter race, was the first and only other woman under the barrier, posting a 3:59.15 in 2009.
Though Ledecky holds the world’s second-fastest time in the 200 free this year at 1:54.43, Pellegrini still holds the world record she set at the worlds in 2009 (1:52.98). Sweden’s Sarah Sjostrom swam a tenth of a second faster than Ledecky in winning the Swedish National Championship earlier this year.
Ledecky had the seventh-fastest time in the 100 free at trials this year. It is the coaches’ discretion to use swimmers in any relay they’d like, so even though six swimmers ultimately would have earned Olympic berths based on their places in the open hundred at trials, coaches are not compelled to use those six once the relays begin.
With her performance, Ledecky is drawing comparisons to swim greats such as countrywomen Evans and Donna de Varona, and Australia’s Shane Gould. Will she live up to them and be the basis for comparison for others in future generations?
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Swimmers to watch
Cate Campbell, Australia
At 24, Campbell has been one of the top two or three sprint freestyle swimmers in the world for the past two Olympic cycles, having taken a pair of bronze medals at the Beijing Games at age 16. It was seven years earlier that Campbell started swimming after her parents moved to Brisbane from her native Malawi. A relay gold medalist at the London Games, she won the 100 free at her national trials this spring and also broke the Australian record for the 50 free. She should be pushed in Rio by her own sister, Bronte, two years her junior, and by Sweden’s Sjostrom.
Emily Seebohm, Australia
Seebohm has been the world’s top backstroke swimmer for the past 18 months. She won double gold at the world championships in Kazan, Russia, last year, despite lingering injuries she suffered after falling off a horse. The daughter of an Aussie Rules Football star says she would have tried to get to the Games as an equestrian if not for her swimming career. She’ll also swim for Australia in the medley relay final. Seebohm has never set a world record at an Olympic distance, but she did break two of them at two non-Olympic distances, the 50-meter backstroke and the 100-meter individual medley. Though she has swum the IM races periodically during her career, she will not attempt those in Rio.
Katinka Hosszu, Hungary
The 27-year old, known as the Iron Lady, is a star in her native country, where she not only enjoys the support of several high-profile sponsors, but also runs her own management company called Toos Sports Agency. She has dabbled in single-stroke races, winning world medals in butterfly, backstroke and freestyle events, but she is best known as the world’s premier individual medley swimmer, having taken double gold at the last two world championships. She is coached by her husband, Shane Tusup. Among those who could push her in Rio is U.S. standout Maya DiRado, a 23-year old from Stanford who is just emerging into the elite ranks, but says she plans to retire after Rio.
Missy Franklin, U.S.
Four years ago, Franklin seemed certain to be the world’s dominant female swimmer of her generation, a Katie Ledecky before Katie Ledecky. She won five medals, including four golds, at the London Olympics and was the swimmer of the meet at the world championships in Barcelona a year later, when she claimed six gold medals in freestyle, backstroke and relay races. The next year, Franklin went to Cal and competed in NCAA events, enjoying the college life and, some say, losing focus on elite, world-class swimming. She admitted to great self-doubts this summer, when she went to the Olympic trials and did not win any of her races. Yet, she qualified for the U.S. team, by finishing second in the 200-meter freestyle and 200 backstroke. The former also earned her a spot on the 4x200 relay. With her head together, Franklin is still one of the most recognizable and talented swimmers in the world.
Women’s Swimming Medal Dates
Sat. Aug. 6 — 400m IM, 4x100m freestyle relay
Sun. Aug 7 — 400m freestyle, 100m butterfly
Mon, Aug. 8 — 100m breaststroke, 100m backstroke
Tue. Aug. 9 — 200m freestyle, 200m IM
Wed. Aug. 10 — 200m butterfly, 4x200m relay
Thu. Aug. 11 — 100m freestyle, 200m breaststroke
Fri. Aug. 12 — 800m freestyle, 200m backstroke
Sat. Aug 13 — 50m freestyle, 4x100m medley relay