By Mike Gustafson//Contributor | Friday, June 23, 2017
When reflecting on the past few decades of my experience with competitive swimming, the sport itself seems to blur. I seem to only remember individual races: Michael Phelps versus Erik Vendt in the 400 IM at the 2002 Summer Nationals; they both broke the world record. Jason Lezak overtaking France in the final five yards of the men’s 400 freestyle relay; the rest is history. And, at the 2012 London Olympics, Katie Ledecky winning her first gold medal in the 800-meter freestyle.
At the time of Ledecky’s performance, I had never seen such a gutsy swim. A teenager took on the world, in front of the favorite’s home crowd, on the biggest stage in sports, in one of the most grueling races. We were witnessing history. And we weren’t yet done watching incredible performances from Katie Ledecky.
This summer, Ledecky returns to the long course waters. Since that 800-meter freestyle, Ledecky has set a new bar for distance swimming. She has smashed world records with times once considered impossible. She has rejuvenated a nation-wide interest in distance swimming. She has inspired, she has conquered, she has rewritten the record books.
So when an opportunity comes to watch Katie Ledecky swim, it’s a Can’t Miss Race.
The only problem? Picking which Ledecky race deserves the Can’t Miss label. All of them? I have to pick just one? Let’s review:
There’s the 100m freestyle, pretty much the only event Ledecky isn’t favorited to win. (Though she certainly could.) Picking this event is appealing because it’s the only event, really, where Ledecky will experience some competition.
Then, the 200m distance. Down the road, I believe this will be Ledecky’s best event in 2020. But right now, it’s still a sprint for the distance-based Ledecky.
The 400m distance. Now we’re talking. Ledecky seems perfectly suited for this event. It’s not quite a sprint, but it’s not the 1500-meter either. The 400-meter free displays an athlete’s full range. But this isn’t the event I’m most excited about.
The 800m? On paper, this could be the event in which Ledecky impresses the most. Given this distance event’s long history, whenever Ledecky swims, it’s impossible to not compare her to legends of yesteryear (Janet Evans comes to mind). Ledecky is head and shoulders above them all. She could challenge the world record, the one she’s broken again and again. But this isn’t the Can’t Miss Race.
The 1500m distance. Recently added to the Olympic event schedule — long overdue — the Olympic addition of the 1500m finally represents an equal footing of events no matter who you are. And I can guess that if anyone wants to make a statement of approval, it’s Katie Ledecky. No one has ever dominated an event like Ledecky has dominated the 1500m freestyle. And soon, come 2020, she will be able to dominate in front of a billion eyes.
That domination begins this summer, with this 1500m freestyle. Suddenly, the event takes on a new tone. It’s an Olympic event. At last.
Contrary to popular belief, I think swim fans love distance swimming. I believe swim fans enjoy watching the chess match of a longer-format race. This summer, for fifteen minutes, Ledecky will wow the crowd, the TV audience, and anyone else who is following along. She will make Can’t Miss TV out of the 1500m freestyle. And she will inspire a new generation of distance swimmers who see the 1500m freestyle as an official Olympic event.
I can’t wait.
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