Swim Stars Katie Ledecky and Simone Manuel
In 2020, the best place in America to see elite women’s swimmers was a backyard pool in California. With official pools closed for the pandemic, Olympic hopefuls were scrambling to find somewhere to continue their training since at the time, the Olympics were still scheduled to go on.
For six days a week for nearly three months, gold medalists Katie Ledecky and Simone Manuel swam at the two-lane 25-yard backyard Atherton pool of Tod Spieker, a former UCLA All-American swimmer. They would show up each day in their suits and swim laps and relays, following a plan set out by their coach Greg Meehan and cheering each other on.
Their audience was the three Spieker grandchildren who would race alongside the pool on bikes, trying to keep up. “It was more than just swimming,” Ledecky said. “It was an opportunity to get outside, to get exercise. Greg, Simone and the members of the family there were the only people I saw for three months.”
The drive to overcome every obstacle and excel helped both Katie and Simone to qualify once more for the Tokyo Olympics.
A breakout star in Rio, Simone made history as the first Black swimmer to win an Olympic gold medal when she tied for first in the 100 freestyle. She also won silver in the 50 freestyle and a gold and silver in relays. She’s won nine world championship gold medals since that time, including five golds in 2017.
Simone came to 2021 Olympic trials with overtraining syndrome, diagnosed in March and requiring her to stop training for a month. She did not qualify for Tokyo in the 100 freestyle to defend her gold medal. But in an emotional race, she fought back in the 50 freestyle, winning the race by one-hundredth of a second and making her second Olympic team.
Katie will compete in the 200-, 400-, and 800-meter freestyle individual events, which she won in Rio. And for the first time, Katie Ledecky finally gets to swim her best event at the Olympics: the 1500-meter freestyle, known as “the mile.”
Until now, the International Olympic Committee had decreed that the event was too strenuous for women, although men have competed at this distance since 1908. That means Ledecky, who has clocked the ten best-ever times in the event, including the world record, will finally get her first chance to swim in the event in the Olympics.
When she won the 1500 at the US Olympic trials, Janet Evans, who held the 1,500-meter record from 1988 to 2007 but never had the opportunity to compete at the Olympics, draped the medal around Katie’s neck.
The lack of the 1500 freestyle as an Olympic event affected generations of female swimmers, not just Janet Evans. Americans Debbie Meyer, Kim Linehan and Kate Ziegler once dominated the distance as well as Australians Ilsa Konrads, Shane Gould and Jenny Turall.
Adding the 1500 to her events means Ledecky will race at least 6,000 meters, about 3.7 miles in seven days, an incredibly strenuous task even for a distance swimmer. The finals for the 200 and the 1500 are on the same day, a daunting double-header that only the women’s teams have to face because the men’s finals are scheduled for different days.
“I’m grateful we have the mile now and I’ve spoken about the equity we have there and that’s the big step,” Ledecky said. “I don’t know how much control I have over the schedule, but the men have it a little easier. I don’t know if they will ever change but I’m game for whatever.”
During the Olympic trials, Michael Phelps called Katie “the greatest female swimmer of our time.” If she manages to succeed in all her individual races and one relay, Katie has the chance to become the greatest female Olympian of all time, breaking the world record for Olympic gold medals won by a woman, passing Soviet gymnast Larisa Latynina, won her ninth gold in 1964.
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