Until Tuesday night, Katie Ledecky was one of those brilliant athletes/performers/artists who needed just a little bit of translation. Oh sure, you knew she was great, that part was obvious. She won her first Olympic gold medal at 15, an unexpected thrill, at least for the rest of the world. Nobody really knew who she was, and then she went out and swam the second-fastest 800-meter freestyle race ever. In the four years since, she has set 12 different world records, and in the long distance events like the 800m and 1500m (which is not an Olympic event for women); Ledecky routinely wins her races by 10 seconds.
So, yes, the greatness part was easy to see. But how great? What makes her great? What pushes her to be great? No easy answers there. Excellent writers and analysts have inventively and creatively turned to charts, to analysis of her stroke rate, to investigations of Bethesda, where she grew up. But there has been something stubbornly ineffable and indefinable about Ledecky’s magnificence. When you talk to the people around her – coaches, fellow swimmers, friends – they keep coming back to her drive. She wants to win more than anyone else wants to win. They know it’s a cliché. But they simply can’t think of another way to say it.
And Ledecky herself, well, suffice it to say she just isn’t too interested in self-analysis and even less interested in self-promotion. It is utterly ridiculous, of course, to judge a celebrity’s popularity based on the number of Twitter followers he or she might have, but it seems relevant that Michael Phelps came into the Olympics with almost two million followers, Ryan Lochte had a million and Missy Franklin about 400,000. Ledecky had barely 50K.
Before the Olympics began, Ledecky’s swimming teammate Maya DiRado posted a hysterical photo of Ledecky photographing two women. Apparently they had asked her to take their picture – WITHOUT LEDECKY IN IT. They had no idea who she was.
You get the overwhelming sense that none of this bothers Ledecky or even concerns her. She swims. Her dominance does not impress her. She keeps her goals to herself, she keeps her motivations to herself, she tends to speaks in the most general and detached ways. For instance, after she won her first gold medal of these Games – and smashed the 400m freestyle world record by swimming a time of 3:56.46 – her one quote in the New York Times was: “To see 56 (seconds) up there feels real good.”
Nor was she especially more expansive in her hometown Washington Post: “We set our goals for the week,” she said. “And to finally hit one of them feels really good.”
So this is where we were coming into Tuesday night. And then something happened. Ledecky was swimming in the 200m freestyle final, which is her toughest event. Ledecky is better the longer the events. It is not hyperbole at all to say that, barring injury or a catastrophic event, Ledecky will win the 800m freestyle Friday night. She is unbeatable at that distance.
She is so good at long distance, in fact, that swimming people routinely lament there not being a 1500m freestyle event for women (there is one for men and they do not swim the 800m). There is simply no telling what wonders she could pull off in an Olympic 1500m race. It’s a shame for all of us that we don’t get to see that.
But her goal for these Olympics was to win at shorter distances as well. This is one of those parts of Ledecky’s virtuosity that requires a bit of translation – it takes different training techniques, different muscles and different attitudes to swim the sprint races like the 200m and the long races like the 800m and 1500m. This is why only one swimmer (the United States’ Debbie Meyer in 1968) has ever swept the 200m, 400m and 800m. Building the speed to win at short distances and the endurance to win at lone ones is a near-impossible combination.
But Ledecky is a once-in-a-lifetime swimmer – maybe even a once in a millennium swimmer – and so through various training techniques she made herself into the favorite for the 200m freestyle. But, as mentioned, this was her toughest race. She was only a slight favorite over Sweden’s Sarah Sjostrom, one of the great sprinters in the world.
The first 150 meters of the race went more or less like expected. Ledecky actually got out a little bit slower than she would have liked, but she had a breathtaking second and third 50 meters, so she led Sjostrom by four-tenths of a second coming off the wall for the final turn. There was every reason to believe that she would have the advantage the last 50 meters because she is, after all, a distance swimmer who never seems to tire.
But, see, swimming full blast for 200 meters takes a different sort of energy and rhythm. And on the final lap, you could see it: Katie Ledecky was dying.
It was fascinating and stunning all at once to watch Sjostrom chase Ledecky down, pull even, perhaps even pull slightly ahead. The Brazilian crowd (with plenty of Americans) was absolutely bonkers. Up to this moment, Ledecky often seemed more machine than swimmer, more Terminator than athlete – meaning that maybe her superiority eluded us because it wasn’t anything we could relate to. She never lost. She never struggled. She never seemed in any danger.
But now we could see something more. There was danger. There were 25 meters left, and the race was a virtual tie, and Ledecky was unquestionably struggling like we had never seen her struggle.
“It hurt,” she would say. “It hurt a lot. That was – I came close to throwing up.”
Then, Ledecky began to fight back. You didn’t have to understand stroke rates or muscle groups or even swimming to get lost in this. Ledecky so clearly turned something else on – this was the drive that the coaches could never quite articulate. This was the greatness that so many of us could not put into words. She began to pull away from Sjostrom, pull away and pull away.
“I think I just kind like got mad at myself,” she would say. “I was like, ‘No, I’m not going to let this hurt. I’m just going to get my hand on the wall.”
Ledecky got her hand to the wall 0.35 seconds ahead of Sjostrom. Gold medal No. 3. And then, after catching her breath, she realized what she had done. And she was ecstatic. Well, the whole arena was ecstatic. There was no need for translation this time. We had just seen Katie Ledecky reach deeper into herself than ever before. And when she reached deep she found that something more, that something only the best find. That story never gets old.