Layden: Rare range gives Ledecky chance to join swimming's most elite legends

Layden: Rare range gives Ledecky chance to join swimming's most elite legends
Posted at 3:42 PM, Jul 24, 2021

Over the next week in the Olympic pool, Katie Ledecky will race at distances from 200 meters to 1,500 meters, in events that range from a little less than two minutes in duration to just beyond 15 minutes. The schedule will require her to swim a total of 6,200 meters, including preliminary heats, and peaks on Wednesday morning in Tokyo (Tuesday night in primetime on NBC) when Ledecky will first race the final of the 200 meters (where she will be considered no better than a co-favorite with Ariarne Titmus of Australia – Ledecky’s toughest race) and 73 minutes later the final of the 1,500 meters (where she is a prohibitive favorite). By then, Ledecky will have already swum the 400 meters (Sunday night on NBC), with the 4X200 free relay (Wednesday night) and 800-meter freestyle (Friday night) still ahead.

But consider first the breadth of distances: The most handy – and misleading, but stay with me, here – reference point is running. The world record in the women’s 200-meter freestyle is 1:52.98 by Federica Pellegrini of Italy in 2009; the analogous running distance is 800 meters, where Jarmila Kratachvilova’s 38-year-old world record is 1:53.28. The world record in the women’s 1,500-meter freestyle is Ledecky’s 15:20.48 from 2018; the best running match is 5,000 meters, where the world record is Ethiopian Letesenbet Gidney’s 14:06.62 from 2020, in an event where the world record has been falling precipitously. 

While there are high school runners who might win conference or sectional championships in the 800 and 5,000, that type of running range would be unprecedented at the Olympic level, and unthinkable in a single competition. There is no woman who appears on the lists of the 100 fastest times in history in both the 800 meters and 5,000; the skill sets are dramatically different. (It is worth noting, however, that distance runner Sifan Hassan of Ethiopia is entered in the 1,500- , 5000- and 10,000-meter races in Tokyo, which would be a mind-bending – and historic – triple; she might also prove its difficulty). 

But while the track-range vs swimming-range discussion makes a sharp illustration, it’s also flawed and simplistic, because the physiological demands of the two sports – one on land, one in the water – are distinctly different. Dr. Michael Joyner, an anesthesiologist and physiologist and the Mayo Clinic, who studies human performance, explains that while in track and field, an 800-meter runner will have a much higher percentage of fast-twitch muscle fibers than a 5,000-meters runner, 200-meter and 1,500-meter swimmers will be much closer.

"If you look at how fast your limbs are turning over in swimming, it’s actually pretty slow compared to sprinting, jumping, even cycling," says Joyner. "So it’s not like distance swimmers are going to have 80 percent slow-twitch and sprinters are going to have 80 percent fast-twitch. It’s going to be much more mixed, and much closer to 50-50 across the range of events. That’s why (Ledecky) has a chance to swim so many events and have a chance to win. Also, the technique thing."

Ah, the technique thing? "People need to recognize this, when it comes to swimming," says Joyner. "It’s incredibly technically and form-driven. Now back to distance running: Running economy maybe contributes 10 or 20 percent to the outcome of a race, maybe a little higher at the very top levels. But swimming? Stroke efficiency contributes an incredible amount to the outcome. And Ledecky has a beautiful stroke. Her ability to get her hands in the water, roll over, and extend and then what swimmers call catch the water – like rowers call it the catch when their oar hits the water perfectly – is remarkable. Just remarkable.’’

Hence: The running comparison doesn’t work. Swimmers can achieve greater range through technical proficiency than runners, which helps enable success across a wider range of distancers. This is part of the reason – along with access to multiple strokes and relays – that swimmers can win more medals than runners. A digression, there.

Nevertheless, there’s but a very short list of swimmers who have been the best in the world (as measured by medals or times) across freestyle distances from 200 to 1,500 meters. From August of 1968 until April of 1971, U.S. teenager Debbie Meyer held the 200, 400, 800 and 1,500-meter world records; shortly afterward Australian Shane Gould (a woman) briefly held every world record from 100 meters to 1,500 meters, which is unprecedented for either gender. During a four-day period in 1974, Tim Shaw of the U.S. broke the world records for the 200, 400 and 1,500. It is an exclusive club. (Ledecky currently holds the world records in the 400, 800 and 1,500, and is the defending Olympic gold medalist in the 200). Loosen the parameters, and the list grows: More than a dozen swimmers have excelled at 200/400/800 or the 400/800/1,500; adding a fourth race on either end deepens the challenge.

So while it’s important to understand that four-event range is within the grasp of the very best swimmers, it is far from easy. "The metabolic demands of the 200 and the 1,500 are diametrically opposed," says Bob Bowman, best known as Michael Phelps’s long-time coach, but with several swimmers competing in Tokyo. "The 200 is largely anaerobic, and the 1,500 is largely aerobic."

Who better than Debbie Meyer to express is this in layman’s terms? "The 200 is an all-out sprint," says Meyer. "You finish that race and your chest is just heaving. You’re exhausted from giving that 100 percent effort for that distance. There’s no pacing, you just go. The 1,500, you get into a rhythm. You pace yourself. Your chest isn’t heaving unless maybe you kick those last 50 meters. But it’s a completely different feeling from the 200. I’ve never asked Katie about this, but after my best 1,500s, a few minutes later I felt like I could get back in the pool and do another one."

Meyer is Ledecky’s historical doppleganger. The differences in training philosophy, technology and, no small factor, societal perception of women in sports, are massive (and evolving). "I never did dry land training," says Meyer. "Not one day in my career." And Meyer’s training was of its time – like the great miler Jim Ryun, she trained long and hard almost every day. The decades have better shown the value of moderation, rest and variety.

Yet Meyer and Ledecky are linked across time by their events and their dominance. (They met in 2014, and text occasionally). I talked to Meyer on Friday from her home in Reno; at 68, she remains vibrant, still coaching young swimmers (although she’s trying to gradually pull back, which challenges her natural dynamism). She can hit a 3-wood 190 yards, but demurs: "The altitude helps."

A commonality stands out: Both Ledecky and Meyer – and every swimmer who has excelled over a wide range of events – began as distance swimmers and worked their way down. Meyer, at age 16 in 1968, was a 400-800 specialist who didn’t begin racing the 200 until the winter of that year; the 200-meter final in Mexico City was just the fifth 200-meter race of her career; she won in an Olympic record time. "You can’t be a 200-meter swimmer and go up to the 1,500, nobody does that," says Meyer. "You start at the longest distance, and work your way down." (At Ledecky’s first Olympics, in 2012, she swam only 800, but was more than competitive at 400 and 200; four years later she won golds in all three). But the swimmer who can successfully gravitate from the 1,500 to the 200, and win, remains rare.

Here we circle back to efficiency of stroke and effort. "Katie, like Michael (Phelps), has well-developed endurance and speed capabilities, which are aerobically based," says Bowman. Translation: She processes oxygen at high effort better than most others, which allows her to retain form and aerobic function when applying her distance technique over shorter distances against sprint-trained opponents; and likewise, to utilize speed against distance swimmers.

"The ultimate answer," says Bowman, "Is that being systemically [aerobically] efficient is the key to swimming disparate events. Katie’s training allows her to swim faster speeds without the cost of anaerobic respiration. When she does need to call upon anaerobic resources (i.e. "chest heaving"), she does so, efficiently. That makes her range possible. Very few swimmers attempt that kind of range, because it takes a long time to develop and most swimmers don’t want to do that full spectrum of training versus more specialized training.’’

One other thing: Joyner says all endurance athletes exist just marginally on safe side of collapse, in races. "You look at Ledecky," says Joyner. "And she’s clearly able to calibrate where she is on her own speedometer and give this maximal effort while also relaxing… and grinding her opponents into the ground."

Meyer has her own way of describing the same thing: "In the last few laps of the 1,500, that baby grand [piano] can drop on you at any time, so you have to have the stroke under control." And from decades ago, a wistful thought. Meyer was the 1,500-meter world record holder when the event was not contested for women, at the Olympics (it was just added this year). "Kate will be fine," says Meyer. "I’m just jealous that she gets to swim the 1,500."