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The golden girls

August 10, 2013
Katie Ledecky

Katie Ledecky

Before the start of FINA World Championships in Barcelona, Spain, last week, U.S. Olympic distance freestyleKatie Ledecky celebrates her win and American record in the 400m free.  champion Katie Ledecky said she felt more powerful and explosive than ever.

Becoming faster had been her focus for months — ever since she won gold in the 800 freestyle last year in London. She knew it would not only benefit her in her shorter events, but also pay off with a final burst at the end of her longer races.

At the same time, Missy Franklin, America’s Golden Girl from last summer’s London Olympics, was feeling, well, very Missy. After a dominant performance last month at the Phillips 66 USA Swimming National Championships, she went to Barcelona, Spain, swimming the fastest she had all year to produce some great times and results at Worlds.

With the conclusion of the meet Sunday in Barcelona, neither really could have asked for better individual performances (well, Franklin didn’t medal in the 100 free, but she dominated her other events) as they won 9 of the United States’ 14 gold medals (they also shared the 800 freestyle relay along with their U.S. teammates).

For those statisticians among us, that’s 64 percent of all U.S. gold medals. Together, they paced the world’s dominant swimming program to another great showing on the world’s swimming stage. Including Haley Anderson’s gold in the 5K Open Water event, U.S. women won 10 of the 14 gold medals in Barcelona.

And while the results were nothing short of fantastic (six individual titles and three-for-three gold medals in relays, as well as two world records and two American records between them), what’s most impressive – and optimistic for the future of USA Swimming – is that they are both still teenagers.

Franklin, just 18 and starting her freshman year this fall at the University of California-Berkeley, is the elder of the two as Ledecky starts her junior year of high school this month.

With six gold medals including individual wins in the 100 and 200 backstroke and 200 freestyle events this past week, Franklin strengthened her moniker as the female Phelps. She started the comparisons two years ago at the World Championships, where she won five medals, three gold.

Even though she didn’t set any world records at Worlds (she did set an American record as a member of the 400 freestyle relay), she was dominant. Never was this more true than as the anchor leg in the 800 freestyle relay, where she obliterated Australia’s lead after the third leg and won by almost two seconds over the rest of the field. She is clutch and always seems to save her best performances for when they count – and are needed – the most.

Whether or not she wants that kind of pressure and accompanying expectations – and if anyone can handle them, it’s Franklin with her effervescent attitude and personality – results like last week in Spain are going to bring them.

And the sky’s the limit for Franklin if she doesn’t lose her love for training and the sport over the next few years. She’s already a favorite in just about every event she competes in – and it’s kind of scary – good scary – to think of what she can still accomplish.

Like her male comparative, Franklin is so good it’s not out of the question that she could find it difficult to maintain the drive to push herself, but knowing this young lady, she will always have strong internal competition that makes her want to continue to strive for faster times – as well as to remain a formidable team player for USA Swimming.

“Missy’s a one-in-a-million athlete, one I recognized early, who had a tenacity and fire for racing and competing,” her Colorado Stars Coach Todd Schmitz said. “I’ve always seen my role as more of guide and nurturer because she already had the talent. It was my job to not screw things up and give her what she needed to develop that talent. I think we’ve done pretty well together.”

For every sprint Franklin made her own in Barcelona, Ledecky staked her claim as the best distance swimmer in the world.

In just her second international competition (the first being last summer’s Olympics), the Maryland teenager went four-for-four in her events – and set an American and two world marks in the process. She also qualified in the 200 freestyle at the Phillips 66 National Championships and most likely would have medaled at Worlds but chose to focus on her other events instead.

In London last year, she competed in just one event – the 800 freestyle – and blew away the competition to win gold. At Worlds, she not only won gold in the 800 but also prevailed in the 400 and 1500 freestyle events, blasting the previous world records at the longer distances. She also swam the opening leg on the U.S.’s gold-medal-winning 800 freestyle relay – her first opportunity to swim a relay for the United States – something she was very excited about doing.

You might think calling her distance events “races” is a stretch – but, while chasing her own internal clock, Ledecky has made these events into exciting races. In her signature 800 free, she trailed Danish swimmer Lotte Friis much of the race but came on strong over the final 200 meters to win gold and establish a new world mark.

She toyed with the record last summer in London but came five-tenths short. This time around, she left nothing to chance.

It’s a trait her mother, Mary Gen, said surfaced in her determined daughter at a young age and has continued to blossom. Ledecky credits her success largely to her coaches over the years and her strong family support and love – humbly downplaying her own natural ability and desire to want to be the best.

“I continue to train like I didn’t go to the Olympics and win gold, that I still have a lot to accomplish and that keeps me motivated and excited,” Ledecky said after the Olympics last year. “In fact, I’m training harder than ever now, and I want to push myself and see how far I can go. I definitely think I can still go faster, and that includes the 200 and 400 freestyles.”

Much like her swimming idol Janet Evans, who dominated the distance freestyles in her mid-teen years through two Olympics (1988 and 1992 Games), Ledecky is accomplishing all of this in the early years of her career.

If she maintains her current progress and also doesn’t get bored over the next two Olympic cycles, she could go down as the most dominant distance swimmer to ever dive into a pool.

Regardless of what happens over the remainder of what should be lengthy careers, both Franklin and Ledecky have started strong swimming legacies that will be exciting to watch for what could be the next decade. Enjoy it with the rest of the world!

Mike Watkins | USA Swimming

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