By Mike Gustafson//Contributor | Friday, July 21, 2017
Nine years ago, when Michael Phelps charged home in the finals of the 400 IM at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, most of us knew we were witnessing greatness. It didn’t take a brain surgeon to realize that performance would go down as one of history’s all-time great swims. Phelps was beginning his quest for 8 Olympic golds; the 400 IM was the all-important first swim, the swim that established momentum and gave insight into how stellar that week would go. He did not disappoint, blasting a world-record time that was unfathomable at the time, and may not be challenged for a long, long while. As Phelps swam under the final flags, I remember thinking, “That’s the swim of a lifetime.”
The swim of a lifetime is a pursuit of perfection. It is a perfect dive. A perfect pacing strategy. A perfect finish. I believe this quest for perfection is often what keeps the great ones chasing their own concept of greatness. With so many tiny, little details that can escape even the greatest swimmers, a perfect race is the Holy Grail for swimmers. Phelps’ 400 IM in Beijing, I believe, was as close to a perfect race as he ever swam.
This Sunday, Katie Ledecky will dive into the water for the first swim of the 2017 World Championships with that same opportunity that Phelps had in 2008. She has an opportunity to not only dominate yet another international championship, but to drop even more time off her incredible lifetime bests and establish unconquerable world records that may last years, decades, a generation, or longer.
She’s already defied explanation and rewritten the definition of “perfection.” The question isn’t if. She has. The question now is, fast-forwarding twenty years into the future, which race will be judged by history as being her most jaw-dropping? Which legendary Ledecky performance will go down in history as being her perfect race? The 800? The 1500?
Or will it be the 400?
When considering the most difficult of events to dominate, the 400-meter distance is likely the hardest. Part sprint, part distance, it requires a multitude of physical and mental abilities. The 400-meter distance has long been the indicator, in my opinion, of the world’s best all-around swimmers. With Phelps, a number of races and performances could arguably be his perfect race. And yet, I keep coming back to his 400 IM in Beijing as the race he’ll be remembered for. It was the race when he was in his best shape, the first race on the Olympic event schedule, and an event in which he is uniquely gifted. And that 400 IM will be, I believe, the one world record that will last the longest.
Which is why I believe this Sunday’s 400-meter freestyle is the Can’t Miss Race of the World Championships. Katie Ledecky could very well do the same thing Phelps did in 2008: She could blast a world-record time that may not be broken for years, decades, or longer. She will have fresh legs, a fresh mind, and she is uniquely situated to dominate this event in the same way Phelps dominated the 400 IM.
At this point, after accomplishing virtually everything there is to accomplish in the sport, it is not about chasing competitors, but chasing one’s self and one’s own definition of perfection. The age-old pursuit of a personal best time, in Ledecky’s case, also could be perfection.
How low can Ledecky go? Have we already seen how fast Ledecky can swim, or could we witness a 3:55 400 freestyle or — gulp — even lower?
Only time will tell.
Don’t miss it.For more expert analysis and insight from the 17th FINA World Championships in Budapest, Hungary, catch Deck Pass Live, right here on usaswimming.org. The show begins approximately one hour after finals. Also, follow our coverage from Hungary on Facebook and Twitter. #DeckPassLive.