Katie Ledecky has already achieved enough in her illustrious swimming career to achieve all-time legend status. Even if she never won another race in her career, she would still be spoken of for generations among the greatest to ever dive off a block..
There are few standards by which Ledecky’s age of 24 is considered “old,” but by the historical standards of World Record-setting women’s distance swimming, it is just that. If Ledecky goes a best time again in her specialty event, the 800 free, it would, in fact, be historically old for her to do so (being that those best times would also be World Records).
Ledecky first came on the scene at the 2012 London Olympics with an upset victory in the 800 free over the defending Olympic champion Rebecca Adlington. At 15 years old, she was one of the youngest swimmers in London and would set her first world record in the 800 a year later at the 2013 World Championships with a time of 8:13.86. Over the next three years, she would break the record four more times, bringing the current record down to 8:04.79.
Ledecky’s 8:04 came at the 2016 Rio Olympics and was notable because she set that record at the age of 19. Why is this notable? Because it has been nearly 68 years, yes 68 years since a non-teenager has set the world record in the 800 freestyle.
Time to check to see who knows their swimming history. We have to go all the way back to 1953 and Valéria Gyenge of Hungary to find the last time a non-teenager set the record. Gyenge swam 10:42.4 on June 28, 1953 at the age of 20 years and 86 days to break the 12-year old record of 10:52.5 from Ragnhild Hveger of Denmark. Coincidentally, Hveger was 20 years and 246 days when she set the record.
For those who had Valéria Gyenge on your bingo cards, please stand up.
Since setting the current record at the 2016 Rio Olympics, Ledecky has swum the 800 free 19 times. Her fastest time during that span was 8:07.27 in May 2018 at the TYR Pro Swim Series in Indianapolis. Her slowest time was 8:20.24 at the 2017 World Championships in Budapest where she took gold.
Looking at Ledecky’s recent results, she swam 8:13.64 in March at the TYR Pro Swim Series in San Antonio right before she turned 24 on March 17. In May at the Longhorn Aquatics Elite Invite, she put up an 8:14.48 shortly after swimming a 1:55.47 in the 200 free.
We all know that Katie Ledecky is currently the greatest female distance swimmer and has transformed the limits of the events she swims. We also know that female swimmers, particularly distance swimmers, tend to peak at younger ages. At the same time, the sport is significantly more professional than it has ever been and we’ve seen both men and women swim fast through their 20s and into their 30s.
To set a new WR in the 800, Ledecky will need to drop 9 seconds from her time in March. If we look back at her lead-up to the Rio Games, we see that she swam a 8:13.20 in April 2016. She swam two 8:10’s at the Olympic Trials in July. In the prelims at Rio she swam a pedestrian 8:12.86 before dropping the 8:04.79 in Finals. If we compare her 800 times in the Spring of 2016 and 2021, the times are nearly identical.
Additionally, Ledecky has recently shown that she has speed in her. She put up a 1:54.40 in the 200 free in April. This swim is the second fastest 200 that Ledecky has ever swum, just behind the 1:53.73 she swam in Rio to win gold. If we throw in the 1:54.59 she swam in March 2020, two of her five fastest 200s have come in the past 14 months.
At the Longhorn Invite, Ledecky finished first in the 100 free in 53.83, edging out Simone Manuel by .01 seconds. This was Ledecky’s second fastest flat-start 100 free ever, just behind her 2016 PSS Austin swim of 53.75. Between the 100 and 200 times this spring, Ledecky’s speed is right where she needs to be.
We also know that Katie Ledecky is extremely goal focused. Prior to Rio, her goals were to win the 200 free (check), swim under 3:56 in the 400 free (check), and to swim under 8:05 in the 800 free (check). While we do not know her goals for Tokyo, with her training acumen, and focus on goal-driven results, if she has a chance to make history, it will be hard to bet against her.
If Ledecky goes on to set a new world record in the 800 free, it will be a truly historical feat. All the historical data shows that the 800 free is an event dominated by teenagers. It is not unreasonable to suggest that Ledecky has swum her best time in the event.
‘Historical feats’ and ‘rewriting the rules,’ though, is what Ledecky has done throughout her career. For her to do so again shouldn’t surprise anybody at this point, but it would highlight another chapter in her legacy in the sport.