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Sport Katie Ledecky's 1,500 free victory is a win for all distance swimmers of the past and present

05:45  26 november  2021
05:45  26 november  2021 Source:   ftw.usatoday.com

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If there was one race Katie Ledecky was destined to win at the Tokyo Olympics, it was the 1,500-meter freestyle. And she crushed it.

Katie Ledecky et al. standing in front of a crowd © Provided by For The Win

The 24-year-old distance swimmer dominated the final Wednesday morning in Tokyo and won the first-ever women’s 1,500 free Olympic gold medal by a comfortable 4.07 seconds ahead of silver medalist and fellow American Erica Sullivan, while Germany’s Sarah Kohler won bronze. Ledecky’s gold medal-winning time was 15:37.34.

Ledecky’s win is not just her eighth Olympic medal and sixth gold, nor is it just another tally on Team USA’s medal count. Her victory is one for all the distance swimmers of the past and present — from Debbie Meyer to Janet Evans to Ledecky herself — who previously were denied the opportunity to swim the same events as the men.

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The longest event in the pool is also Ledecky’s best, but garbage, sexist thinking kept the mile out of the women’s Olympic lineup until now — despite the event being offered at a slew of other international meets.

“I just think of all the great female swimmers the U.S. has had that haven’t had that opportunity to swim that event,” Ledecky said after the race while being interviewed with Sullivan. “I think of Debbie Meyer, Janet Evans, Chris von Saltza, Kate Ziegler, Katie Hoff. So many people that I looked up to — I still look up to. They’re great friends of mine, and I’m so glad we could do it in the best possible way.”

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The most dominant female swimmer in history, Ledecky owns the top-13 fastest times in the world in the mile and six of the top-7 times in 2021. She also set the Olympic record for it in prelims Monday at 15:35.35. She’d been waiting for this opportunity her whole career and got it, unlike so many of her peers and swimmers who have long been retired.

Women were first able to swim at the Olympics in 1912, but it was only in two events: the 100-meter freestyle and the 4×100-meter freestyle relay. And it wasn’t until the 1968 Mexico City Olympics that the women’s 200-meter and 800-meter freestyle events were added, with the latter being the longest distance in the women’s lineup.

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But the 1,500 free was absent.


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As Swimming World magazine previously noted, women were thought to be too “delicate” for longer distances. Three-time Olympic gold medalist Debbie Meyer put it more bluntly when I spoke with her in 2016 for Vice Sports and said women were considered “second-class” athletes who weren’t tough or strong enough to compete in distance races.

Meyer — who won Olympic gold in the 200, 400, and 800 during the 1968 Mexico City Games at 16 years old — elaborated Tuesday in an interview with For The Win and said that “old-school thinking” was “a bunch of BS.” Along with the fact that swimmers practice for far more than 1,500 meters daily, that reasoning was even more asinine when you consider Meyer first broke the 1,500 world record in 1967 — and three more times through 1969.

Decades later, women were still waiting for the inclusion of the 1,500 at the Olympics, as the IOC’s reluctance to add the event robbed countless athletes of the chance to swim it at the Games. And equity aside, not having the women’s 1,500 at the Olympics limited athletes who excel at it because their options were the 800 free in the pool or the open-water 10K — a “rough” jump, as now-three-time Olympic marathon swimmer Haley Anderson put it in 2016.

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Now, the 1,500 finally made the Olympic program, and Ledecky was able to race in her best event on the sport’s largest stage.

“I’m jealous of Katie and Erica getting to swim it — and everybody else that made the finals because that was my favorite race,” Meyer said. “And it’s a totally different race to train for than the 400 or the 200 or even the 800. So I wish I had been able to swim it, but I’m really happy that they finally put it into the competition, into the Olympics. It’s taken them a long time, that’s for sure.”

Regardless of how Ledecky swam (or will swim) in her other events in Tokyo, there was little doubt the first-ever gold medal in the women’s 1,500 would go to her. And the heats and final should be celebrated for simply existing — no thanks to the IOC and FINA dragging their feet for literally decades.

“I love it,” Evans, a five-time Olympic medalist, said at U.S. trials in June, via The Washington Post. “It’s a little bittersweet for me because it was my best race. But I just love it. It’s so great that women finally have this opportunity.”

Gender equity in swimming has come a long way in the last 100+ years, but the fight for it is also far from over.

Along with the 1,500, Ledecky swam the 200-meter freestyle final and finished fifth. That’s a ridiculously difficult double to do — and do twice with prelims and finals — and Ledecky pulled it off in about 90 minutes. But, as we’ve previously noted, the men’s lineup forces no such double because their 1,500 free is paired on the same day as the 50-meter free. The logic checks out because it’s unimaginable that an elite-level swimmer could be so exceptionally versatile to swim both the shortest and longest races in the pool.

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While Ledecky’s ability to compete in the 200 and 1,500 is also quite rare, the women’s events and schedule should be identical to the men’s, so they’re offered every advantage in an already grueling sport.

Part of the (at least) 6,000 meters she’ll race this week, Ledecky deserves all the praise she’s getting for accomplishing such a feat. But it’s ridiculous that she even had to, and the IOC and FINA unquestionably need to address this for future Games — in addition to the international governing body’s blatant discrimination against swimmers of color, particularly Black women.

Still, Ledecky’s dominant victory swim was truly a spectacle to watch, as she cruised body lengths ahead of her competitors. At the end of the event, all 33 athletes who swam in the women’s 1,500 free at the Tokyo Olympics — and those who came before them — finally won.

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