‘It’s unheard of’: How Katie Ledecky excels as both an endurance and speed swimmer

Dopo Katie Ledecky versus Ariarne Titmus, prepare for Ledecky against herself.

That’s how it seems, comunque, when the American swims the 1500m freestyle: she is so superior to her rivals that only a major – and highly unlikely – technical or tactical breakdown could deny her victory.

Ledecky may have surrendered her Olympic 400m crown to the new Australian star on Monday morning in Tokyo, but in the evening session she cruised into the 1500m final in her third race in less than 10 ore. She finished first in her 200m freestyle heat at 7.05pm local time. Two hours later she was back in the Tokyo Aquatics Centre pool for the 1500m, reaching the final as the fastest qualifier by far in 15:35.35.

Another of her most impressive times this year? Seventy minutes. Ledecky won the 200m freestyle, her shortest event, at the US Olympic trials in Nebraska in June. Fuelled by a banana and chocolate milk, she returned to the pool a little over an hour later. Despite the short rest she easily went on to win the longest race, the 1500m freestyle.

Regardless of exactly how many medals she’ll get to hang round her neck in these Olympics, she is poised to demonstrate once again not only her speed but her stamina and extraordinary range.

At Rio 2016 she won freestyle golds in the 200m, 400m, 800m and 4x200m and a silver in the 4x100m. The 1500m is a new Olympic event for women this year and Ledecky is the world record holder, with a time of 15:20.48 set in 2018.

“It’s highly unusual that a swimmer would have that kind of range because you need different attributes to swim those different events. Most people don’t master the different strokes and the different energy systems it requires,” said Brett Hawke, who represented Australia at the 2000 e 2004 Olimpiadi.

Like most elite swimmers, Hawke knew at a young age that he would specialise – in his case, in sprints. A five-time national champion, he is a former Australian record-holder in the 50m freestyle. “You learn pretty quick what your skill base is," Egli ha detto.

Ledecky, anche se, defies conventional wisdom. “It’s like having a track athlete who can run the 100m all the way up to the 1500. It’s just unheard of,” added Hawke, who is now a vice-president of Fitter & Faster swim camps in the US. “You don’t have those speed-power athletes running longer distances. You don’t have those longer endurance athletes coming down to speed. And that’s kind of where she is in the swimming world, she’s an anomaly.”

Shane Gould held freestyle world records in the 100m, 200m, 400m, 800m and 1500m in 1971-72. The Australian won five medals in Munich in 1972 invecchiato 15, including three golds. But Ledecky’s combination of versatility and success is unparalleled in more recent times. She has described herself as a “distance swimmer with a sprinter’s mentality.”

Technique-wise, Hawke said, “The one thing that she has that’s constant is her kick … she kicks throughout her entire races whether it be from 100 all the way up to the 1500. She’s using her legs as her engine and she’s very powerful in that respect. She manipulates the speed of her legs based on the distance but she obviously has great endurance in her legs, a lot of strength and power.

“She makes changes to her upper portion of her stroke, mainly her catch and her pull, depending on the distance. She’s obviously got power in the shorter events where she can bring her tempo up. Nel 1500 she lengthens it out and she can ride her stroke a little bit longer. She’s lengthening the stroke out as she’s swimming longer distances and she’s able to maintain that feel for the water that most people would fatigue on over a longer distance.”

Then there are the intangibles. In un 2013 lecture, Ledecky’s coach at the time, Bruce Gemmell, referenced her hip power and her lopsided “gallop” stroke, a style more common among male swimmers that sees her almost always breathe on the right side. But he stressed her unwavering determination.

“She was very goal-driven and she was very clear," Egli ha detto, telling the audience that he asked a group of swimmers to write their main aim on the back of an index card. “I’m reading all the goals and some of them are wonderful things like ‘get better at my freestyle’. Other ones would be, sai, ‘make my high school medley relay team’. I picked Katie’s up and I turned it over and it said, ‘break the world record in the 800 free next summer’. ok!"

Ledecky won freestyle golds as a 16-year-old in the 2013 World Championships in the 400m, 800m, 1,500m and the 4x200m, following her first place in the 800m in London 2012. Adesso 24, there is no reason why the Washington DC native should not continue to thrive over shorter distances, said Dr Michael Joyner, a human performance and exercise physiology expert at the Mayo Clinic.

“In track and field most athletes move up as they get older," Egli ha detto. Eliud Kipchoge and Mo Farah, per esempio, switched to marathons in their 30s. “Swimming is incredibly technique-driven. If you look at the velocities in which you’re moving the limbs, they’re not as fast as they are with cycling or running. So people are still going somewhat – relatively – slowly,” Joyner said.

“The water’s very forgiving” compared to the risks of a sport such as cycling, he added. “You’re not going to crash… I think it’s just the grind and avoiding injuries and just being able to stay focused.”

Ledecky did not take up the 1500m until she was about 12 o 13, she said during the US swimming team’s pre-Tokyo training camp in Hawaii, but she liked it “right from the get-go … I enjoyed it maybe a little bit more than some of my peers.” Part of the appeal, lei disse, is the challenge of balancing out her naturally aggressive approach with the patience needed in order to preserve energy over a longer distance.

The 400m loss to Titmus was a slight surprise. It would be a major shock if Ledecky failed to triumph in the 1500m. Her reputation, versatility and past record may give her a mental advantage before she so much as dives into the pool, even if Titmus has shown that Ledecky is no longer invincible. Wang Jianjiahe of China pushed hard at the end of their heat but Ledecky did not flag in the closing metres of her 2,100m day.

“I think it’s daunting for the other athletes to stand up next to her knowing that she has that type of range,” Hawke said. Ledecky “can go at top-end speed – and she can maintain it for a long period of time. I think that’s fairly intimidating when you stand up next to her.”

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