CHENNAI: When The New York Times profiled Katie Ledecky ahead of the 2016 Olympics, their lede went viral on social media. It was bordering on hyperbole, yet completely true. “The question,” they wrote, “is not whether Katie Ledecky will win. But by how much.” The 20-year-old did that intro enough justice by winning gold in four of the five categories she competed (two world records). In both of those world record efforts (400m free and 800m free), the second-placed athlete was so far behind they weren’t even in the frame when Ledecky finished.
Her margin of victories are legendary — in the 800m free in Rio, Jazz Carlin finished 11.50 seconds behind. In the 400m free, Carlin finished her race almost five seconds slower. It’s not just Carlin. Some of the greatest women swimmers of the 21st century have been embarrassed by Ledecky’s command of the pool. So it’s not really a surprise to hear Ledecky being asked this question in an international conference call on Friday night. “Do you feel sorry for your rivals? Because there is an embarrassing distance between you and them.”
Ledecky, who was 15 when she won gold at the 800m in London in 2012, is initially stumped. She starts laughing before gathering her thoughts. “I don’t know how to answer that,” she says to select journalists. “I don’t really pay attention to the distance. I’m always trying to put together my fastest race. You can only control what you can control...”
She did that in London even as the world media had their attention on Michael Phelps. Qualifying for that Olympics made her realise that perhaps she was destined for things normal human beings wouldn’t dare to dream. “It was kind of a gradual process (when did you know you were a phenomenon). After I had qualified for the finals of the 800m free, that’s kind of when I knew I had a chance to win gold. After that gold, my next goal was breaking a world record.” She’s also quick to praise her coaches and teammates for the roles they have played in shaping her career.
Ledecky, in the running to win Laureus World Sportswoman of the Year award in a couple of weeks’ time, doesn’t get too bogged down by pressure. Or expectations. “I think some people have expectations for me. But I think, you know, the biggest thing for me is not focusing on those external expectations. As long as I focus on my personal goals... that’s the only thing that matters to me.”
She leaves with an interesting thought. “It gets harder and harder for me as I get faster. I am basically competing against the world record holder every time that I race now that I have the world record in the 400m, 800m and the mile.”Here’s a scary fact: she keeps beating herself.