By Mike Gustafson//Contributor | Wednesday, August 8, 2018
A picture may be worth a thousand words, but when it comes to watching Katie Ledecky slice through the water at a speed faster than any other woman in the history of Earth, a thousand words maybe aren’t enough.
Over the past few years, Ledecky has redefined what many of us thought possible in women’s freestyle. She has broken barriers and obliterated world records, time and time again. She has earned Olympic golds and become one of the most dominant swimmers of our era. She has proven that distance freestyle is actually fun to watch.
This week, Ledecky once again will dive into those distance waters she has already defined. She will compete at the Pan Pacific Championships in Tokyo, aiming to amaze once more.
The question is now: Can she do it again?
In the most anticipated race of the meet, the women’s 400 freestyle, Ledecky looks to claim the top podium of the Pan Pacs, the world’s fastest time of the year, and possibly, a world record. To do that, she’ll have to beat her own personal best. (You know you’re good when a personal best also would mean one of the greatest swims of all-time.)
While it’s challenging for me to truly understand the longer and arguably more formidable 800 freestyle and put Ledecky’s dominance into perspective, since she wins by so large a margin, the 400 freestyle represents, at least for me, a more approachable distance and event. It’s a bit easier to grasp. And so, when Ledecky wins the 400m and also dominates, especially over other elite swimmers like Leah Smith, it solidifies the impressive performance all the more.
This week’s 400 freestyle will certainly have a few very capable challengers, including Smith as well as Australia’s up-and-coming teenage superstar in the works, Ariarne Titmus. Expect Titmus to challenge Ledecky as best she can, with Smith right in the mix as well. Expect both swimmers to charge out to a lead and hope to hold out, and perhaps give Ledecky her first real race in this event that she’s had in a while.
Personally, I wouldn’t be surprised if this event went either way: It could result in a phenomenal, jaw-dropping world record. It could also end up in a much closer race than a few of us imagine.
But I do expect Ledecky to come out on top, and I expect Ledecky to push the boundaries of that world record in the process. Because we’ve seen it so many times before. Because I’d hate to think we wouldn’t see more personal bests — and world records — from Ledecky in the future. And because Ledecky is one of those swimmers who knows how to pace out her best performances. She brings the best for the biggest stages, and has ever since she first burst out onto the international swimming scene as a 15-year-old.
So, this week’s 400m freestyle is the Can’t Miss Race of the Pan Pacific Championships. Australia will root on their own up-and-coming teenager, Titmus, while the United States will root on Smith and our own legend, Ledecky. Ultimately, Ledecky is just one of those phenoms you only witness once or twice in a lifetime. She is in a stratosphere all to herself.
And so, the question for me becomes not if Ledecky will win, but by how much? Could it be a new world record? Could someone come along and keep up or — gasp — challenge her? Every Ledecky race is a photo finish, involving world records and championship titles, but whether or not other competitors are also in this particular Pan Pacs photograph remains to be seen…
Don’t miss it.