An Assassin Called Ledecky

All sporting performances require the proper perspective in order to gauge their true merit. It doesn’t matter if it’s Serena Williams completing a “Serena Slam” or Jon Lester getting a base hit; any feat can be declared impressive by someone, somewhere. The stakes and conditions surrounding them are what dictates how worthy of our esteem each actually is. Yes, there are objectively outstanding performances that can make any and all other proximitous accomplishments seem diminutive in comparison (think of the greatest sports moments you’ve ever witnessed). But then there are others. Or should I say, “other?” Because what Katie Ledecky is doing right now has no comparison. Breaking a world record without even trying, then breaking it again the next day, finds no relatives.

If you don’t know who Katie Ledecky is and are afraid to ask, I’ll try to explain. The all-encompassing answer is that she’s one of the most dominant athletes on the planet. Ronda Rousey may have earned the topic’s corresponding Sports Illustrated cover, Lionel Messi may be a global deity because of his ability to embarrass opposing footballers and score goals at will, and the aforementioned Serena Williams may be on a collision course for tennis immortality, but none of them control their respective games quite like Ledecky does with freestyle swimming. She owns the pool like sand owns the desert. Wikipedia defines her as “an American competition swimmer.” She’s that too, I suppose.

Despite Ledecky’s ever-expanding resume — which I’ll get to — neither Russia nor the world were ready for her to break her own world record in Monday’s 1500m freestyle qualifying round during this week’s FINA World Championships in Kazan. I mean, it was a “qualifying” round.

Well, she did it anyways. Under instruction from her coach to take the first 900 meters easy, the 18-year-old qualified for the semifinals in 15:27:21, nearly a second better than her previous world record set in last summer’s Pan Pacific Championships. On Tuesday, in the finals, she broke her own world record again by over two seconds en route to first place, this time finishing in 15:24:48. Just a half-an-hour after that 1500m free, Ledecky qualified for another final in the 200m free, an event she then won on Wednesday. Oh yeah, before any of this stuff happened, she won gold in the 400m free. (Update: Two days after this was published, Ledecky won the 800m title with a time of 8:07:39, another world record.)

Ledecky (middle) holding her 400m World Championship gold medal.

Right now, Ledecky holds three world records in the 400m free, 800m free, and 1500m free, and there’s no telling how many times over she’ll shatter each of those before, during, and after next year’s Summer Olympics in Rio. There’s plenty more to come, that’s for sure. Ledecky hasn’t even started college yet. She’ll be attending Stanford this fall.

There’s a reverence involved when witnessing and discussing Ledecky’s exploits. Just take a look at this video of Monday’s record-breaking qualifier. Notice the tone and language with which the EuroSport commentators describe the action. Fifteen seconds into the race, lead voice James Parrack states, “Ledecky is half-a-body length clear of the field at 25 meters of this race, and that gives you an indication of what’s about to happen.” From there, it’s a steady incline from “She’s still on world record pace,” to “8:15, this is ridiculous,” to “I’m just so pleased to be here to see that.” This isn’t just general respect for exceptional athleticism; these announcers, like most of us, seem especially perplexed, as if they’re morally prohibited to speak about anything during the 15 minute race other than Ledecky’s annihilation of it. For the majority of the swim, the camera is fixed solely on Ledecky, for no reason other than nobody else is anywhere near her. Of course, when Katie Ledecky is swimming, she has the undivided attention of most already.

Still, these awed commentators don’t exactly equate to enthralled viewers. In fact, most of the Kazan Arena crowd had already dissipated by the time the 1500 began late Monday night. Such is the essence of long-distance racing events. To stay captivated for laps-on-laps-on-laps isn’t necessarily the difficult part. That merely takes a slight degree of investment. The problem comes with locating singular moments in which you can snapshot and stock in your memory bank of games-turned-life-experiences, thus making you, sports fan, feel fulfilled, whatever that means. Ledecky’s long-distance races build, to be sure, but the first hill of the roller coaster is rarely hit, mainly because she’s just too fucking good for any of her peers. Yet, this is also what makes her trials so special and intriguing. The tension — the competition — in this case, is much more internal, something that’s occurring inside Ledecky’s mind and body. Perhaps more than any elite athlete ever, she is competing against herself.

Ledecky’s capabilities are invariably less discernable than her most similarly-aligned counter-athletes. Superstars like Cristiano Ronaldo and LeBron James make their names through rather explosive means (screaming free kicks, turbulent slam dunks, etc.). Ronda Rousey’s greatness is utterly visceral (she literally beats the spit out of her opponents), and Serena’s dominance comes at the end of grueling encounters in which we travel with her through a walkabout of emotion and good/bad breaks. Ledecky is simple, economical, and deliberate, which, in this category of outliers, makes her unique. She doesn’t grandstand or panic. Even if she did, we probably wouldn’t know it. But get real. She doesn’t.

Although she’s been labeled “a quiet assassin” by her coach Bruce Gemmell because of her introverted disposition, let’s be clear: Ledecky’s surface “quiet” is the most blatant of ironies. Below her cool lies a blistery kiln of competitiveness and ferocity. It’s something that pulsates through her veins and muscles as she strokes and strokes and strokes towards an as-of-yet nonexistent finish line. People say she’s a delightful person with a notably loving set of parents. She has a warm smile that’s hard to unnotice, along with the adoration and respect of her decorated teammates. But her talent disarms those things, too. When you soar at your task the way she does, every loose dangle of the narrative rightfully ceases to hold much meaning juxtaposed to the actual act. That’s athletic achievement in its most elementary and attested form. That’s Katie Ledecky and swimming.