Katie Ledecky: The most fearsome swimmer since Phelps...
She always says the right things, always hits the right notes, always pays her respects. She's not bubbling with youthful joys for the moment, like her closest peer, Missy Franklin. And she's not winking and nudging and making up words like her fellow Athlete of the Year, Ryan Lochte. No, she's just getting up and getting the job done. Same as she does every morning, every race, every time the cameras are on, or off. See, Katie Ledecky is a killer. She's not going to lose a distance race that matters for about ten years.
There she was again last weekend in Los Angeles, the 16-year-old belle of the Golden Goggles ball. Ledecky collected the two awards that matter at USA Swimming's Oscars of the pool: the Race of the Year and the Athlete of the Year. Neither were in any doubt. In fact, she probably had the top three races of the year; her 400, 800, and 1500 were all superior to any other race swum by any other woman in 2013. Actually, let's go a stroke further, all three were better races than any other swim by any man, as well.
Missy Franklin might be the new fresh face of American swimming, but Katie Ledecky is its cold-blooded, I-dare-you-to-dream-of-gold heart. She may say the right things, and come across preternaturally poised in any setting, but beware what lurks beneath the surface. It's in her eyes. Or, more accurately, what's not in her eyes. Fear, for one thing. Any interest in looking back, for another. They're the eyes of an assassin.
She's aware of how good she is. You don't see the clueless humility there that you see in so many other teen phenoms. But she doesn't come across cocky about it because she's not all that impressed with herself. Not yet, anyway. She's well aware that there's a whole lot more in store. 3:59 in the 400 / 8:13 in the 800 / 15:36 in the 1500 - hot damn, those times are hard to fathom, but hearing her talk about them last weekend in L.A., those swims came across as no more than three checks on a list of goals accomplished. Ok coach, good season, on to the next one.
The night before the Golden Goggles gala, USA Swimming hosts an event called Swimming Thru the Decades. In its third year, it's presented as an intimate fireside chat with five of the all-time greats, one each from the last few decades. Rowdy moderates before a small crowd; champions share the stage and share experiences that few on earth can relate. This year it was Tracy Caulkins, Matt Biondi, Janet Evans, Lenny Krayzelburg, and Ledecky. Four old retired parents with a bucket full of gold between them, and 16-year-old Katie, seated on the far right. She didn't need to be told she belonged.
At one point in the conversation, Ledecky was asked about her range of events, how she was able to dip down in the sprints (watch out for her 100 free in the years ahead) and still manage her distance focus. Her reply: "It's not that hard. I mean, they're all just races. They're all sprints." Come again? You look at the 1500 as a "sprint"? There wasn't any irony in her voice; she hadn't been programmed to say it in coach-speak, in that first-person plural "we" speak of Phelps. She was just stating, in her matter of fact way, that the mile really is a sprint, and that's the way she'll continue to swim it.
Physiologically, she's right. Fifteen minutes of all-out exertion is indeed a sprint for the human body. It's a lot closer to the 100 free than it is a marathon. It's a few minutes of your life. A quarter of an hour, not a few hours of pain and agony. It's about 2% of an Ironman. How can that be called a "distance" event?
Mentally, of course, she sounds insane. The mile is the distance event in our sport. So much so, that in all their brain-dead wisdom, it's deemed too far for inclusion as a women's event in the Olympics. The ladies can take the 800 in the pool, but hold up on that crazy mile... Right, IOC?
Imagine how baffled Katie Ledecky must be by this fact. The men get to race for Olympic gold in the 1500, but not women? It's so ludicrous that it's not worth lamenting. In any case, Ledecky will probably not let that keep her from collecting five gold medals in Rio. We know two gold are all but a given. All due respect for the game racing of Denmark's Lotte Friis, but there is no chance anyone is beating Ledecky in the 400 or 800 anytime soon. I'm betting that she also wins the 200 in Rio. It's there for the taking. No one, including Franklin, is showing the talent right now to swim away with that race in the coming years. Ledecky is also going to be among the top four American women in the 100 free over the next few years. This means that if the American women manage to race to the top of the podium in the free relays (and there's no reason they shouldn't), then Ledecky will leave Rio with five gold.
Missy Franklin will probably win five too, taking both backstrokes and swimming key legs on the three relays. The 200 free will be their showdown, the race where the two best female swimmers on earth decide who's the Alpha Cat of aquatics.
That will be the story of Rio, far outpacing the Michael 2.0 comeback frenzy. Speaking of which, you've seen those assassin's eyes before, remember? Every time Phelps stood behind the blocks with that hangman's gaze... There wasn't fear, there wasn't doubt, and there was no thought of yesterday. There was only the killer, about to pull the trigger.
That's how Katie Ledecky looks these days.