IRVINE, Calif. — The superficial story line emerging from the U.S. Swimming Championships has been the rivalry between teenage frenemies Missy Franklin, 19, and Katie Ledecky, 17, but the top two women swimmers in the world really compete against each other only in a single event.
A little deeper dive reveals Ledecky actually is racing past greats like Shane Gould of Australia and Shirley Babashoff of the United States, swimmers able to cover an all-encompassing range of freestyle events at an extraordinarily high level.
“The standard is Shane Gould,” said Ledecky’s coach, Bruce Gemmell. “And that standard is pretty high.”
Gould, only 16 when she retired a year after the 1972 Olympics, once held world records in the 100, 200, 400, 800 and 1,500-meter freestyles and the 200 individual medley. In those Munich Summer Games, she won gold medals in the 200 and 400 free and 200 IM, a silver in the 800 free and bronze in the 100.
In two Olympics, Babashoff won silver medals in the 100, 200, 400 and 800 freestyles and swam a leg on the two winning 400-meter free relays.
Ledecky, a rising high school senior in Bethesda, Md., who has committed to Stanford, is reigning Olympic champion in the 800 freestyle, reigning world champion in the 400, 800 and 1,500 and world record-holder in the longest two.
Thursday, she extended her championship range a bit further when she beat Franklin in the 200 freestyle with personal best times in the heats and final. The latter, 1 minute, 55.16 seconds, ranks second in the world this season.
A year ago at nationals, they were 1-2 in the opposite order.
“I was trying to think earlier how many times I actually have had to race (Missy), and it's probably just a handful,” Ledecky said. “It's always an honor to be in a heat with her and always a lot of fun and great racing.”
Such appreciation is mutual. Franklin said earlier this week of Ledecky, “Her accomplishments over the past two years have been unreal.” Ledecky, named swimmer of the meet at the 2013 world championships for her three individual and one relay gold medals, said at the time Franklin deserved the award for her world meet women’s record of three individual and three relay golds.
Ledecky could be treading on more of Franklin’s water soon.
She swam the 100 freestyle heats Wednesday in 54.96, a .26 improvement on her personal best that was 13th fastest in the qualifying. Ledecky chose not to swim the B final of that event, saving energy she barely needed for the 800 final, so easy was her victory. Franklin won the 100 title in 53.43.
“It was pretty clear when I first started working with her she had more speed than a lot of distance swimmers,” Gemmell said. “And she expressed a lot of interest in swimming on relays (where 200 is the top distance). Those two factors make a good combination to get more speed.”
Gemmell trains Ledecky most for the 400 free, the event she swims Saturday. He finds it more valuable to have her workouts contain eight 100 repeats than a single 800.
“I just like the feeling of a hard practice, and Bruce gives them to us,” Ledecky said. “I see myself more as a freestyler than a distance swimmer.’’
Ledecky has the seemingly perfect demeanor for a distance swimmer, whose events are an exercise akin to singing, “Ninety-nine bottles of beer on the wall.” She is dead serious in workouts and takes a stone face to the starting blocks.
“Quiet like an assassin,” Gemmell said.
Ledecky, then 15, was the most surprising women’s winner at the London Olympics. Equally stunning were the June swims that broke her own world records in the 800 and 1,500 with no competition at a low-key Texas invitational meet, immediately after finishing 18 days of intense training in Colorado Springs, Colo., her introduction to altitude training.
A college coach who watched one of Ledecky’s workouts told Gemmell, “She loves to chase the boys, doesn’t she.” Said Gemmell: “She loves to race.”
And do it fast enough to dominate the present and chase the past.