Comparing Katie Ledecky and Janet Evans

After Katie Ledecky’s amazing performance this weekend at the Winter Nationals which included a blistering fast 15:15.17 American record in the 1650 yard freestyle, the question comes up again: Ledecky or Janet Evans? At this point in her career, Ledecky has been called the best female distance swimmer of all time with her recent success at such a young age, but it’s hard to forget that one of the best American swimmers of all time was also a distance freestyler.

To be fair, Ledecky is only 16 right now so a full out comparison of results wouldn’t work at accurately since Evans already completed her career . To create a fair comparison, we’ve compared 15/16/17 year old Evans with 15/16/17 year old Ledecky (knowing that Ledecky is only 16, however to balance out the international competitions that they swam, we included 17).

Ledecky’s first international performance was at the age of 15 at the 2012 Olympic Games. Ledecky placed first in the 800m freestyle, taking out world record holder and defending Olympic champion Rebecca Adlington in the process. Evans broke out onto the international scene as well at the age of 15 at the 1987 Pan Pacific Championships in Brisbane, Australia. Evans broke the world record in both the 800m freestyle (8:22.44) and the 1500m freestyle (16:00.73) at the Pan Pac trials. Evans came home from the Pan Pacs with a gold in the 400m freestyle, a silver in the 400m IM, and a silver in the 800m freestyle. With that stunning performance, the winner of 15-year-old performances goes to Evans. 1-0 Evans.

At 16, Ledecky again maintained her streak of never losing an international final by adding four world championship golds to her resume at the 2013 World Champs. Ledecky won the 400, 800, and 1500m freestyles and participated as part of the winning women’s 4x200m freestyle relay. Ledecky set two world records at the World Champs, one in the 800m freestyle (8:13.86) and one in the 1500m freestyle (15:36.53). There were no international competitions that Evans competed in when she was 16, but she did break three world records. Evans swam at the US Open in December of 1987, breaking the 400m freestyle world record (4:05.45) for the first time. At Spring Nationals in March of 1988, Evans came home with two world records: 8:17.12 in the 800m freestyle, and 15:52.10 in the 1500m freestyle. That freestyle record would stay until 2007, when it was broken by Kate Zielger. 16-year-old Evans beats out Ledecky in the world record department, however because of Ledecky’s incredible four World Championship golds, she takes the point for 16. 1-1 Evans-Ledecky.

Since Evans turned 17 on August 28th, and the Seoul Olympics weren’t until mid-September, I’m going to have to include them and the 17-year-old age category to balance out the amount of international competitions the two of them swam for fair comparison. At the Seoul Olympics, Evans came home with three individual golds which match Ledecky’s three individual golds from Barcelona. Evans won the 400m freestyle in a world record time of 4:03.85, won the 800m freestyle, and won the 400m IM. Later that year, Evans managed to win an amazing four gold medals at the 1989 Pan Pacs (yes, she was still 17). Evans won the 400m freestyle, 400m IM, and 800m freestyle, breaking the world record and setting the mark of 8:16.22 that would stand until 2008.

Ledecky is still 16, and won’t be 17 until March this year so it’s tough to say who’s going to win the category. What we do know is that Ledecky will be swimming the 400, 800m, and 1500m freestyle at the 2014 Pan Pacs assuming she qualifies at trials which should be a breeze with the way she’s currently swimming. There’s also a big possibility that she’ll be swimming the 200m freestyle and 4x200m freestyle relay assuming that she qualifies as well. Based off her 2013 World Championship performance, there’s a good chance that she’ll be coming home with four or five golds. There’s also the possibility that Ledecky can come home with a couple world records as well. Since we can’t predict the future and definitely cannot put a limit on anything that Ledecky can do, the 17-year-old age category will be decided following the 2014 Pan Pacs in Brisbane.

With current totals, 15/16/17 year-old Evans has 10 international medals, which include eight golds. Ledecky has five with the potential of four or five more this summer, which would equal out both their totals. Ledecky currently has broken two world records, but could potentially break four or five this summer (again, anything is possible with this girl). The younger version of Evans broke seven world records, giving Ledecky a solid chance to match that as well. Both of these results will span three international competitions. The parallels of the two swimmers are so similar, that it is hard to tell whose results were more impressive.

Timing might be the key to giving one of the two swimmers an edge. Evans, who stands at a short five-foot-six, swam in a very unique style referred to as a “windmill.” Evans made up with her size by having a fast stroke rate and doing way more pulls than most of her competitors. Ledecky stands at five-foot-10, her stature being a huge advantage over Evans. Due to her height, she swims a very different race than Evans.

Click here for a video of Evans swimming

Evans managed to work with her size and when she was 17 her best times were 4:03.85 in the 400m freestyle, 8:16.22 in the 800m freestyle, and 15:52.10 in the 1500m freestyle. All three of those swims were world records. Putting her swims into perspective, Evans would have came fourth at the 2013 World Champs in the 1500m freestyle, bronze in the 400m freestyle, and silver in the 800m freestyle (only being beaten by Ledecky). The fact that her times are still relevant after over 25 years really shows how amazing Evans was. Evans swam those times in a nylon/elastane suit (that was the suit used before the invention of the S200, Endurance, Aquablade, or Fastskin swim suits) so who knows how fast the could’ve been in a Fastkin III or one of the polyurethane suits in 2008 and 2009.

Ledecky’s times are incredible right now, an 8:13.86 in the 1500m freestyle, a 8:13.86 in the 800m freestyle, and a 3:59.82 in the 400m freestyle. Evans times are not that far off (other than the 1500m freestyle). I’d consider Evans 400m and 800m freestyles to be better than Ledecky’s, but Ledecky’s 1500m freestyle to beat out Evans’. When comparing two star swimmers such as these, it’s extremely difficult to pick one. I’d say currently it’s a fair comparison to say that they’re fairly equal in their results. Ledecky is following in the footsteps of Evans, and most certainly has a long career full of success in front of her.

Click here to read about Katie Ledecky’s latest American record in the 1650 yard freestyle.



  1. WHOKNOWS says:

    Interesting to note Ledecky’s 1500time is the fast time for a 15-16 year old thus far this year regardless of gender!

    • Klorn8d says:

      Myself and a few other guys around the country are gonna try and change that next weekend

      • bobo gigi says:

        Do you swim at Juniors?
        If yes, give your name. the swimswam fans will push you. :)

        • bobo gigi says:

          So, you are a 15 or 16-year-old boy who wants to swim faster than the 15.15 of Miss Ledecky. You talk about guys around the country and about next weekend so you probably talk about the US junior nationals.
          If I read the psych sheet, I have a few guys in that category.
          Heyward Brown?
          Francis Haas?
          Aidan Burns?
          Taylor Abbott?
          Logan Houck?
          Samuel Magnan?

  2. WHOKNOWS says:

    1650 yard

  3. cynthia curran says:

    Actually, Katie is closer to Debbie Meyers. Both can swim a good 200 meter freestyle better than Evans. Evans also was more of an Imer

  4. Swimfan says:

    Did Evans ever do any SCY? Ledecky accomplished A LOT in SCY this weekend.

    • Mitch Bowmile says:

      She had six individual NCAA titles including two in the 500y free, two in the 1650 free, and two in the 400y IM. She also had 45 national titles which included victories in the 500y free, 1000y free, 1650y free, and 400y IM.

  5. CoachGB says:

    They are both two of the greatest giving a full rundown is great but it is difficult one against the other. Also Debbie Myer goes in the same category as she WR’d 200 thru 1500 nice spread of success. If all goes well Ledecky will break 15 minutes just because it is there. The story of swimming hjstory just go with it.

  6. JC says:

    I’d give Ledecky the edge in the 400m and 1500m, and Evans
    in the 800.

  7. Bill says:

    Was Ledecky fully rested for this meet or is she saving that for Duel in the Pool?

  8. aswimfan says:

    Evans was at disadvantage. 1,500 was not a world championships event, she might have swum faster 1,500 if it had been a worlds event.

    Also, world championships was held every 4 years as opposed to the current 2 years now.

    When Ledecky ends her career, I predict she will surpass Evans, but right now, Evans is still the greatest female distance of all time.

  9. The Beach says:

    What about Cynthia Woodhead? Great from 100 to 1500. Dominant from 200 to 800. Short career because of the era but still has/had some age group records. My rankings (freestyle only) 1. Wood head 2. Ledecky. 3. Evans 4. Caulkins

  10. Flutterby says:

    I think we should add Australian Shane Gould to the discussion. She is the only person, male or female, to hold every world freestyle record from 100 m to 1500 m and the 200m individual medley world record simultaneously, which she did from 12 December 1971 to 1 September 1972. She is also the first female swimmer ever to win three Olympic gold medals in world record time. She’s also the first swimmer, male or female, to win Olympic medals in five individual events in a single Olympics. She retired from swimming at the ripe old age of 17.

    More recently, she has been breaking a lot of masters swimming records.

  11. liquidassets says:

    Although it was a couple years later, at 19 Evans did win a silver in the 200 free at the ’91 World Championships, so we’ll have to see if Ledecky can match or better that. Also, her NCAA titles could have been a possible quadruple triple, but she dropped out of Stanford after only two years.

    Evans first Olympics at 16 was her best, and her times peaked there at age 16 and 17 in ’88 and ’89, hopefully Ledecky’s taller frame and lower tempo will prevent her from getting the overuse injuries that can plague shorter distance swimmers with higher stroke rate.

    Also, wasn’t Evans only 5’3″ and 5’4″ when she set her records in ’88 and ’89? I thought she only grew to 5’6″ after that and had trouble adjusting her unorthodox strokes from thereon in, dropped the I.M., etc.

  12. bobo gigi says:

    Janet Evans’ 400 free olympic gold medal in 1988.

  13. bobo gigi says:

    Katie Ledecky wins the 400 free world gold medal in 2013.

  14. bobo gigi says:

    Katie Ledecky
    Katie Hoff
    Michael Phelps
    And many others
    What happens in Maryland?
    It’s amazing to see so many champions who have grown and trained there.

  15. wow says:

    Evans’ breath is AWFUL. Look at the atrocious head position. Great time back in the day, but she probably could have been so much faster.

  16. mcgillrocks says:

    One thing with the comparison: I don’t put much weight in the number of world records set in an event and I think total world record counts are a little useless.

    Obviously they are biased for people who continue to improve. Someone who hits their peak very young would be disadvantaged.

    If hypothetically Evans dropped the 400 WR once from 4:05 to 4:02 but only broke it once, would the fact her best time was her first time have to work against her? Supposing that was (again, hypothetically) the case, would it be more impressive if Ledecky broke the WR in the 400 six times, but only by a tenth each?

    Or to look at an actual example. Vladimir Salnikov cut the WR in the 1500 three times for a total of 8 seconds. Grant Hackett cut the WR only once, by 7 seconds. By virtue of beating his best time more, does that make Salnikov better?

    In other words I feel like a better measure if the amount of time cut off of the record or the margin of victory rather than the number of times it’s set, which I feel is irrelevant.

    • Ben says:

      exactly to all of that. Plus on top of this we can make the argument that not all world records are created equal. Some of them are quite simply more impressive than the others. For instance the 200 coed medley relay record has been broken multiple times this year but I’m not impressed with the time yet and I doubt anyone else is

    • aswimfan says:

      I totally agree.

  17. Swammer says:

    And Bobo, in addition to MD being a hotbed of swimming, how about all the Distance girls named Katie/Kate…. Kate Ziegler, Katie Hoff, Katie Ledecky

  18. swimmer24 says:

    One thing that I think Ledecky will beat Evans in is length of career. I feel that Evans technique definitely prevented her from continued success over many years of time. Eventually that stroke technique will wear down your shoulders. Ledecky’s gorgeous technique will allow her long career and if she wants, she can move down into soley the 200 and 400 or maybe even the 100.

  19. Josh says:

    This isn’t a fair comparison. Janet Evans is leagues ahead of Katie Ledecky. She won the 400 and 800 at Nationals 12 times EACH. She has 45 National titles. Only Caulkins and Phelps have more. She has four individual Olympic golds and would likely have had more if it didn’t take until 1996 for the 4×200 to become a women’s Olympic event. She is the first woman to win back to back World and Olympic titles in any one event by winning the 800 at the 1988 and 1992 Games, 1991 and 1994 Worlds. She’s held age group, American, NCAA, US Open, World records, won everything from Pan Ams to the Olympics and Sullivan Awards, and the shortest time frame any of her final world records in the distance freestyles have stood is 18 YEARS. She did this in three different events. Katie might be able to see the bubbles from Janet’s feet by 2020, but will any of her records still be standing in 2031?

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About Mitch Bowmile


Mitch Bowmile is an ex-Canadian age group swimmer who ended his career early due to an injury after being recognized as one of the top 50 breaststrokers his age in Canada. His passion for swimming has been taken from the pool and put into coaching and writing... Read More »