Editorial content is the opinion of its author and does not necessarily reflect the views of SwimSwam.
In many pro sports the ‘contract year’ is a well known phenomenon. Athletes in the last year of their current deal have extra motivation to perform so that their next contract will be a big one. Contract years often lead to career best seasons. This isn’t the sort of thing that usually comes up in swimming. High level athletes have their target meets (Olympics, World’s, NCAA’s etc.) and they tailor their training so they peak at those meets. One meet not on most swimmer’s list of target meets: the Indianapolis stop of the Pro Swim Series.
Katie Ledecky absolutely tore up that meet this weekend. She set the world record in the 1500 and the US Open record in the 400 free. Her times in the 400, 800, and 1500, were faster than at the 2017 world championships and her 200 was within a quarter second of her finals time from worlds.
Ledecky’s finals times at recent major meets and this weekend:
|2015 Worlds||2016 Olympics||2017 Worlds||This Weekend|
It’s hard to ignore the timing of this performance. This was Ledecky’s first meet as a pro. She doesn’t yet have the huge list of sponsors a swimmer of her stature should able to attract. It’s a reasonable assumption that she is negotiating with several companies at the moment-she wore suits from several different companies at this meet (TYR, Speedo) and blacked out the logo on her cap. A big meet here can only help her in those negotiations. Maybe the timing is a coincidence, but if so, it’s a pretty convenient, profitable coincidence.
My interpretation of this weekend’s results is that this meet was her ‘contract year.’ This was a statement meet to potential sponsors (whether that was in fact her intention, the effect is the same). While it may not seem like a swimmer of her stature needs to make any kind of statement, since the 2016 Olympics she has seemed increasingly mortal. In the lead up to and at the 2016 Olympics swimming observers could call her ‘the best swimmer in the world’ without batting an eye, but in the 2 years since, she has been better described as ‘one of the best swimmers in the world’.
In Olympic sports there’s a huge difference between those two things. Michael Phelps and Usain Bolt made millions while most of their closest competitors made orders of magnitude less.
A big part of Phelps’ and Bolt’s popularity was that their dominance was so easily understandable to even the most casual fan. Bolt was so good he could showboat his way to victory in the most prestigious foot race in the world. Phelps won so many medals. No one needs that explained to them; the amazing is obvious. This allowed them to transcend their sports and become mainstream celebrities.
Ledecky has the potential for that same type of crossover appeal. A single image of Ledecky beating her competition by half a pool is enough to explain her greatness to someone who knows almost nothing about the sport.
Industry insider David Arluck brought up this point in his interview with SwimSwam about swimmer’s earning potential. “Ledecky, at 20 years old, is already a sports icon…Phelps was dominant, but Ledecky simply crushes her competition.”
However, until this weekend, she hadn’t put up a transcendent, dominant performance a la Phelps or Bolt in several years. Without those types of performances, her marketability is significantly lessened (it’s still huge, but when the bar is Phelps, standards are pretty absurd).
At last year’s world championships, Ledecky lost an international final for the first time when she was beaten by Federica Pellegrini in the 200. Her 1500 was 6 seconds slower than at worlds 2 years earlier. Her times in all three of her Olympic individual events (the 200, 400, and 800) were slower than in Rio. Her signature ludicrous margins of victory were narrowed. After winning the Olympic 800 by over 11 seconds, Ledecky beat 15 year old Li Bingjie of China by only 3 seconds at 2017 worlds. Her winning margin in the 400 went from 4.8 seconds in 2016 to 3.2 in 2017.
By the end of the 2017 world championships Sarah Sjostrom had made a pretty solid claim to the title of best women’s swimmer in the world. Sjostrom’s individual medal count at worlds (3 golds and a silver) matched Ledecky’s. Sjostrom holds 4 long course world records (to Ledecky’s 3), 2 of which she set last year, and Sjostrom has arguably the strongest world record, men or women, in any event with her 24.43 50 fly.
At Ledecky’s biggest meet so far this year, NCAAs, she again under performed. Her times in all three individual events were slower than her mid season and conference times, and she was beaten by teammate Ella Eastin in the 400 IM. It wasn’t a catastrophic performance-she split a jaw dropping 1:39.8 on the 800 free relay-, but it also wasn’t vintage Ledecky. For the second straight year, someone else was named NCAA swimmer of the year. After Rio, Ledecky entering the NCAA seemed like Lebron James deciding to try his hand in the Euro League, but after two seasons Ledecky left having never been named the best swimmer in college.
It’s easy to find historical comparisons with negative implications for Ledecky’s future. One of Ledecky’s closest historical analogs, Janet Evans, set her last long course world record at 18. Evans won tons of races after 18 (including the Olympics), but the headline grabbing world records sponsors love never returned. Missy Franklin, after an all time 2012 Olympics at age 17, has struggled to regain her form after a 2014 back injury. Since turning pro, Franklin has failed to produce results that come close to her days as an amateur. The vast majority of women’s world records in distance events have been set by teenagers. Ledecky is 21. The list of world beating teenagers who found little success after 20 is endless (Dagny Knutson, Diana MacManus, Jilen Siroky to name a few examples)
There are plenty of reasonable explanations for a short term dip in Ledecky’s performance. New coach, starting college, new training environment, post Olympic hangover. All perfectly normal, but the accuracy of a ‘Ledecky is already on the downswing of her career’ narrative wasn’t particularly important. What mattered was that suddenly it was possible to make that argument at all. There was creeping doubt. Doubt that didn’t exist two years ago. Had she started to decline, even if only a little? Is she the next Phelps or the next former teenage phenom? Any savvy potential sponsor is asking themselves these types of questions before committing big money to her. And there is big money on the line. Arluck estimated Ledecky’s earning potential at $5-$10 million dollars annually.
This weekend should go a long way to assuaging potential sponsor’s fears. Any doubts about her ability to return to (or surpass) 2016 form have been erased, because she’s back there now. This was classic Ledecky. It’s a return to normal and in her world, normal is being absolutely ridiculous.
Now we enter the territory of wild speculation. The timing of this meet as her first as a professional is extremely convenient. Did she rest? Maybe. It certainly looks like she did. (Worth noting, swimmers are always incentivized to say they are less rested than they actually are) She was better at this in season meet than last year’s world championships. If she did rest, it looks like a power move to potential sponsors. “You think there’s even a chance I’m washed up? Could a washed up swimmer do this?” Even if she was unrested and this incredible performance is a complete coincidence, the message is the same: “Show me the money”