By Mike Gustafson//Correspondent
With each legend-in-the-making stroke, 16-year-old Katie Ledecky solidified her status as the world’s premiere female distance swimmer. Yesterday, as Legendary Ledecky charged home to the wall in the 400m freestyle, she swirled around to look at the scoreboard, saw her time, and then exalted an array of celebratory fist-pumps and smiles. She deserved to do so. With one more notch on Ledecky’s “legendary swim” resume, she became the first woman in the non-“suit era” to break the 4:00 barrier. She earned a world championship title in what is, arguably, her third best event.
And while many teenagers celebrate passed drivers’ tests, Ledecky became the world’s most exciting swimmer.
Ever thought a distance swimmer would become the most exciting swimmer in the world? Distance swimming, at least in America, has long been perceived as a “boring” event. Even NBC cut to commercials throughout Ledecky’s London 800m freestyle. (Perhaps they figured no 15-year-old could provide a performance like that.) “Distance events take too long,” the common belief goes. “It’s just not as exciting as the 50m free.” At least that’s how the marketing goes. For people unacquainted with the sport, it’s difficult to understand the nuances involved with distance swimming.
And yet, no other individual yesterday generated more interest and headlines than the teenage Ledecky.
Quickly after her world title, many proclaimed her as something or other. Various phrases I heard included she was “not a fluke” or a “pioneer” or that she had “now arrived” as a major player in competitive swimming. But it goes further: Ledecky isn’t just a good swimmer. She has the potential to be a transcendental swimmer.
No other American swimmer in recent memory has focused our eyes on distance swimming. Yes, there have been formidable distance swimmers from around the world in the modern era. But not since Janet Evans have we seen someone wearing the red, white, and blue with so much potential to be so dominating in the distance events. And Janet didn’t excel in what has now become the media-rich world of Swimming 2.0 – an era where a distance swimmer could become the most popular swimmer in the world.
Now, fans will think twice before they glance at a meet program, see the 800m or 1500m freestyle, and pre-plan to walk to the kitchen to get a snack. Or use the restrooms. For so many years, these distance events were veritable real-live commercial breaks or intermissions within the context of competition. Now, swim fans are glued to their seats, not just for seconds, but for minutes.
And so are the cameras.
Ledecky has the potential to become the Michael Jordan of distance swimming. Not because of her performance—after winning an Olympic gold, she really doesn’t have much to prove. But her remarkable performances are shifting focus, ever so slightly, away from sprint events and towards distance events. Younger swim fans are paying attention to these “less glamorous” events and perhaps saying to themselves, “I want to be like that.”
This, in itself, is an accomplishment and an under-appreciated aspect of Ledecky’s performances these past twelve months. While many distance lovers will balk at the perceived notion their events are perhaps “less loved” by the mainstream populace, the fact remains that distance swimming has been overlooked in the United States for years. Maybe not by swim fans, coaches, and die-hard followers. But certainly by mainstream sports fans.
Is this perceived shift real? Is Ledecky changing perspective about distance swimming?
We won’t know for a while. The proof will come in 2016. Either NBC will cut away to commercial during these distance events or they won’t. But you couldn’t imagine Australia cutting away to commercial during, say, Grant Hackett’s epic swims.
These are lofty projections, and perhaps unfair to bestow on the shoulders of a teenager. But even if Ledecky doesn’t swim one more stroke, she’s already re-captured attention and focused it on American distance swimming. Breaking 4:00 has never happened before in a textile suit. A 16-year-old has not only done that, but conquered America’s first World Championship gold medal in this event since 1991. Now she takes on the rest of the week’s schedule, and her remaining events—longer events, events that take minutes upon minutes—will demand our full attention.
We’ll be there, glued to our seats.