Breaking glass ceilings - in the pool!
Despite an exponential increase in participation in the last few decades, female athletes receive only 4% of all sports news coverage. When they do receive coverage, it sometimes focuses on aspects other than their athletic prowess, such as their femininity, attractiveness, or their gender-conventional roles of wife or girlfriend. While I have noticed this trend and been dismayed by it in the past, I was motivated to actually try to do something about it after I had to write a research paper on the gender disparity in sports media coverage. One example of this was when one media outlet’s story after Katie Ledecky’s dominant 400 free victory at the 2016 Rio Olympics was to do with how her nail polish was chip-free. I love nail polish myself. I do my nails regularly, often changing colours every week. But, right after a stupendous performance, the likes of which hadn’t been seen since the 1968 Olympics, I don’t think that my main concern would have been her nails. The tweet was taken down later, after it sparked outrage, but the fact remained that women in sports are simply not taken as seriously as their male counterparts.
This article is a tribute to all the sportswomen I have had the privilege of knowing, and all the sportswomen I am inspired by everyday. And mostly, this article is a tribute to the woman who has completely changed my outlook not only on distance freestyle in particular, but on the sport of swimming in general.
At age 15, swimming against the then world record holder and defending Olympic champion Rebecca Adlington, Katie Ledecky took the swimming world by storm with her victory in the 800 freestyle at the 2012 London Olympics. Her time of 8:14.63 was only 0.53 seconds off the then world record. In the next 8 years, Ledecky has completely changed the face of distance racing, and ushered in a new era in the sport of swimming. She has broken 14 world records in the 400, 800 and 1500 freestyles, and won 15 World Championship Titles, the most in history for a female swimmer. What sets her apart from her rivals is her ability to treat every distance race as a sprint, and just as importantly, her consistency, tenacity and grit.
I have been her biggest fan since 2012. I have watched all her races, followed her times, and cheered for her from across the world, whether it meant waking up in the middle of night or trying to find a live-stream that worked in my region. What I admire most about her is that she leaves it all in the pool; she goes out hard, takes the lead, and keeps the lead. And to a swimmer who was never quite able to stick to such an aggressive race strategy, the fact that Ledecky has not only the physical strength but also the psyche to do it in every race is absolutely astonishing. In my opinion, even if she never swims a best time again, she will still be the greatest swimmer of all time. Here are a couple of statistics to back my claim:
Between 2013 and 2016, Ledecky lowered the 800 freestyle World Record from 8:14.10 to 8:04.79, a remarkable almost 10 second drop. The last 10 second drop (from 8:24 to 8:14) took about 30 years, for context. Ledecky also holds the top 23 (!!!) fastest times in history in the 800 freestyle, and the top 11 times in history in the 1500 freestyle. In her just-shy-of-a-decade long career, she has never lost an international 800 free or 1500 free final.
In a sport known for its fiercely competitive down-to-the-wire finishes, Ledecky is known for her large margins of victory and her hip-driven powerful loping technique. In a sport that is so specialised that swimmers focus on a few chosen events, Ledecky swims everything from the 100 (a sprint) to the 1500 (the longest pool distance). The 100 and the 1500 have directly counteracting training styles — but she swims both ends of the distance spectrum, and she does so phenomenally. In addition to dominating the freestyle events, for a time in 2017, she even held the American Record in the 400y IM!
But more importantly, she has the heart of a champion. Her willpower can move mountains, and the swimming world has seen evidence of that more than once. At the 2019 Worlds, Ledecky battled an illness for most of the championships, and was even in hospital for a portion of the week. While it was clear that she was not at 100%, she battled her way to the championship title in the 800 free, blasting off from the last wall to take the lead. Watching the last quarter of that race gave me goosebumps. It was her eighth consecutive international title in the event.
Her coach until 2016, Bruce Gemmell, has said that the US Olympic Committee did a workup on Ledecky on her athletic prowess and described it as “remarkably unremarkable”. When I watch Ledecky swim, I take heart in the knowledge that hard work works. That work ethic and showing up every day can beat out talent. Already one of the most dominant sportspeople the world will ever see, Ledecky is aiming to compete at a third Olympic games in Tokyo. And when she does, I will be cheering her on from behind my laptop screen.