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.