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The D Word Greets Ledecky's 8:14 Victory

Aug 3, 2012

Olympic Games, London 2012, Day 7 Finals

Women's 800 Freestyle final

After the furore over Chinese 16-year-old Ye Shiwen's double medley gold at the speed of Lochte and Phelps on the way home on freestyle, 15-year-old American Katy Ledecky found herself fielding questions about doping after dominating the 800m freestyle final in 8:14.63, an American record that blew awe Janet Evans and the defending champion Rebecca Adlington.

The defeated champion settled for bronze in 8:20.32 and huge support from her home crowd, screams of "Becky! Becky! Becky!" sounding out in support of a tearful quadruple Olympic medal winner from a country that has little to shout about at a home Games as far as podium places goes. The silver went to Mireia Belmonte, of Spain, in a lifetime best of 8:18.76, while Lauren Boyle (NZL) got home just ahead of Lotte Friis (DEN) 8:22.72 to 8:23.86.

That an American won the race makes it all the more likely that the 800m will disappear from view for women over the next four years. The thought is simple: women should so the 1500m, the Olympic programme finally the same for men and women in the pool for the first time since the fairer sex were invited into the water in 1912.

Ledecky is the youngest American Olympian in London. In fact, the rising high school sophomore was the youngest of the 529 athletes the United States sent to the Games. Her success in the 800m freestyle makes her the second-youngest swimming medalist in Team USA history, 77 days older than Beth Botsford, who won gold in Atlanta in 1996 in the 100m backstroke. 

The comparisons to 1980s American swimming sweetheart Janet Evans, the triple gold medal winner of 1988 whose 1989 world record over 800m was broken by Adlington in 2008, were as instantaneous as questions about doping.

Ledecky has moved up big time since a year ago, no question. She has just eight world ranked entries, just one from last year:

  • 8:14.63 Olympic gold August 2012
  • 8:19.78 US trials win July 2012
  • 8:23.84 Olympic heats August 2012
  • 8:25.85 Grand prix, May 2012
  • 8:27.91 US trials heats July 2012
  • 8:30.14 Grand Prix, Feb 2012
  • 8:33.48 US meet March 2012
  • 8:36.05 US junior nationals August 2011.

A newcomer on the international scene after securing her Olympic berth at her first US trials, she has yet to race at USA senior nationals.

Ledecky won by cracking world record pace at every turn until the last, on 1:59.95 at the 200m mark, 4:04.34 at the 400m mark (1.38sec inside Adlington's pace).

Th splits compared:

  • 59.37;   2:01.32; 3:03.58; 4:05.72; 5:07.62; 6:10.30; 7:13.24; 8:14.10 Adlington 2008
  • 58.81;   1:59.95; 3:02.10; 4:04.34; 5:07.11; 6:10.02; 7:12.81; 8:14.63 Ledecky 2012
  • 1:00.20; 2:02.53; 3:05.12; 4:07.92; 5:10.27; 6:12.82; 7:15.44; 8:16.22 Evans 1989
  • 59.69;   2:02.61; 3:06.01; 4:09.32; 5:12.59; 6:15.23; 7:18.08; 8:17.51 Adlington 2011

Just a month ago, Ledecky swam a lifetime best of 4:05.00 in the final of the 400m at US trials.

Even at 15, these are giant leaps for distance swimming Olympic gold. It all looked plausible but against the backdrop of Ye and the furore over some astonishing splits and a go-slow of the kind we saw from China in the 1990s, media questions were inevitable, particularly as news came in that Ledecky's Wiki page had been vandalised (it was rebuilt).

Ledecky was asked if she thought her performance might raise the same questions that Ye had faced. Any accusations made by those who raided the Wiki page "would be totally false," Ledecky said. "I have just put in a lot of hard work in the last year, that's all it is. It is that simple and just setting short- and long-term goals. I have just been going to some big meets and having some big races, so that has helped me drop time progressively."

Coached by Yuri Suguiyama, Ledecky, from Bethesda, Maryland, said that her mentor first discussed attempting the Olympic trials when she won the 400m free, 800m free and the 1,500m at the junior nationals in August last year. "He asked me about the trials and we made it our goal, but I didn't tell anyone," she said.

Ledecky, Ye, Franklin and 15-year-old Lithuanian Ruta Meilutyte, winner of the 100m breaststroke, are at the helm of a new wave of teen success in a sport that thought it had moved on from that in the midst of a wave of comebacks this year. Most of the comebacks limped away en route to the Games but the teens keep marching.

"It is neat," said Ledecky, a second year high school student come the autumn. "I don't know what that is attributed to, maybe the new generation is coming up."

Watching Franklin shatter the world 200m backstroke record and Phelps take the 100m 'fly for a third time had helped, said Ledecky: "I got really pumped up when I saw Missy and Michael had had great swims. I was ready to scream when I saw Missy's race and then for Michael, but I kept it to myself and used it as positive energy."

On the question of age, Adlington said: "People say 'Yeah, you are young, but I am not 16 or 17. I can't recover as quick. That's what's happening. The younger guys don't need recovery. They just go and go and go. We have got to the point where everyone is doing 10 sessions and it helps being young and being able to recover so quick. I can't do that any more. I'm getting old."

"She is 15! We all know what we all felt like at 15. We were all like 'Wah-hay'" Adlington said with a wave of her arms. "I want to go to bed at 9:30. I am tired."

It was not just the years, but expectation that weighed on Adlington in her signature event. The gold was gone but the chanting from the crowd would live with the former champion, she said.

"That's what I will take with me, that cheer," said Adlington. "Everyone expected me to get a gold medal. I am so proud. I have been in four Olympic finals and got four medals so that's nothing to be ashamed of. I was disappointed with the time. I was fast all year. I know it. I don't know why I wasn't today. Maybe it was the expectation, the environment, maybe it got to me a little bit."

She had stood up well under pressure on many occasions. Why was today different? "It's something I don't know," said Adlington. "I gave it my absolute all, and I hope that everyone sees that at home. I gave 110 percent. I am proud to be on that podium. At one point in the race I didn't think I would be. I tried to get a medal and luckily I did."

Reminded she is still the most successful British swimmer of all time, Adlington said wistfully: "I think I will remember that tomorrow but at the moment the disappointment is there a little bit. I hope that I haven't let people down. I hope that people still recognise what a fantastic achievement it is. I hope people will understand that."

The cheering suggested they had - that they had understood the importance of these words from her coach Bill Furniss: "She will always do the best that she can ... I trust her and she knows that I have her best interest at heart. Any difficult times that we have … she knows that I will do my best to get her through it. I am not a coach who, if something goes wrong, will start blaming. I know she will always do her best and she knows that goes for me too - and not just for the easy times. I will be there when things get tough - 100%."

Adlington is off on a charity ride in Africa in the autumn. When she gets home she will sit down with Furniss and make a decision about her future. "I am going to enjoy the cycling...I need to take a break, mentally and physically," she said. "I need to sit down with Bill after I come back from the bike ride and then we'll talk about things and whether I miss it. You've got to have the passion to do it, you've got to have the love for the sport. I've had that over the past four years, I don't know whether it's still going to be there once I've finished my break."

Belmonte, coached by Fred Vergnoux at Sabadell near Barcelona, knows what she will be doing in her break: celebrating her silver, to add to her 200m butterfly silver, by doing a parachute jump - with her mum.

"I never thought I could get one medal here, not even talking about two," she said. "Just to reach the final having beaten the Spanish record was a blessing."

She will now leap from a plane with her mum. "My mother said she will do the parachute with me," she confirmed, saying she would take a break from the pool before the build-up to a home world championships in Barcelona next summer. "Now I want to enjoy a little bit of a normal life, with normal people. When I get back to training I will think about the (2013) world championships in Barcelona," said Belmonte.

London 2012:

  • 1. Katie Ledecky (USA) 8:14.63
  • 2. Mireia Belmonte (ESP) 8:18.76
  • 2. Rebecca Adlington (GBR) 8:20.32

Beijing 2008:

  • 1. Rebecca Adlington (GBR) 8:14.10 wr
  • 2. Alessia Filippi (ITA) 8:20.23
  • 3. Lotte Friis (DEN) 8:23.03 
  • Adlington WR splits: 59.37; 2:01.32; 3:03.58; 4:05.72; 5:07.62; 6:10.30; 7:13.24; 8:14.10
  • Evans WR splits: 1:00.20; 2:02.53; 3:05.12; 4:07.92; 5:10.27; 6:12.82; 7:15.44; 8:16.22
  • Fastest field: Beijing - 8:14.10 - 8:32.35; London 8:14.63 - 8:29.28

Comparison fields:

  • London 2012: 8:14.63 - 8:29.28
  • Beijing 2008: 8:14.10 - 8:32.35
  • Athens 2004: 8:24.54 - 8:37.02