The State of the Art of Distance

by Casey Barrett

16-year-old Katie Ledecky and 21-year-old Sun Yang… A clinic of freestyle perfection 

The two best swimmers in Barcelona only swim one stroke, and they don’t have much speed. On day one of these World Championships, Katie Ledecky and Sun Yang delivered a pair of 400 freestyles that showed just how far ahead they are from the rest of the world. They won gold going away, but that’s the easy part of the story. Take a look at those underwater cameras and watch their strokes beneath the surface – that’s the story.

With all respect to Missy Franklin and Ryan Lochte and Ye Shiwen and any others you might think deserve that title, there are two swimmers right now that are separating themselves in historic ways from the rest of the planet: Ledecky and Sun.

Neither of them set world records today, and neither swam their best event, but that hardly matters. Actually, Ledecky did set an all-time best, if you remove those ridiculous results from the 2009 suit-silly world champs. The women’s 400 record still stands from that meet, when Italy’s Federica Pellegrini charged to an unnatural 3:59.15, the only other time a woman has broken four-minutes. Without “the suit”, Pellegrini was probably 4:01 at best. Meaning Ledecky is now a few body lengths better than the next best woman in history in that event, which happens to be her third best event.

As for Sun Yang, 3:41.5 is impressive and all, but Ian Thorpe was a healthy second and a half faster than that thirteen years ago. It looked to me like Sun was just swimming to win. Or maybe his stroke is just so silky smooth, it looks like he’s mocking everyone else. He’s Alex Popov swimming longer freestyle. Remember watching Popov back in the early 90s, the way his tempo and perfect unrushed rhythm looked like he was toying with the sprinters thrashing by his side. A bit like watching Federer in his prime, or Miguel Cabrera hitting right now… Why do the great ones make it look so damn easy? Sun Yang makes it look like that. Ever seen this video of Sun’s stroke on a multi-camera loop? It’s like a metronome.

Ledecky looks the same way. The girl goes out hard, sure, but it’s not like she’s spinning her wheels. Like the great ones before her, she simply gets out there and sets the pace without fear, and says come and get me. No one will, not for a long time. The over / under right now on Ledecky’s 800 freestyle later this week is 8:10. A world record is all but assured. I’m betting on 8:09. Out in 4:02, back in 4:07. Sounds reasonable, right? Reasonably insane, but reasonable.

As for Sun’s mile? He’s already the best ever. No time would surprise me, even as it’s clear that Sun spent a good portion of his post-Olympic year on a well deserved, if not entirely appreciated victory lap. He’ll win going away, even if he’s in less than peak form.

And about that ‘not much speed’ line in the first sentence? Well, they do have a bit. These two have plenty of speed. Future world titles in the 200 free are feasible. Ledecky could soon be a player on the U.S. women’s 4×100 free relay. They’re both fast and young and getting faster by the day.

Let’s hope that doesn’t distract them from their true calling. Because right now they truly are the state of the art of distance swimming.