How Katie Ledecky is dominating distance swimming

Swimmer Katie Ledecky has been blowing by the competition and setting records at the world championships in Russia. She’s currently on pace to sweep the 200, 400, 800 and 1,500 meter freestyles at a single world championship. To find out more about Ledecky’s incredible feats, Hari Sreenivasan speaks to sports commentator and former Olympic gold medalist Summer Sanders.

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  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Champion swimmer Katie Ledecky is stunning the world this week with feats that have rarely been seen. The 18-year-old cruised along during her final heat at the world championships in Russia today, putting her in the top spot for tomorrow's final in the 800-meter freestyle.

    Throughout the week, she has been blowing past the competition, setting records and generating talk of historic milestones.

    Hari Sreenivasan has the story.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    Just to try to put this in perspective, if Katie Ledecky wins tomorrow, she will have completed an unprecedented sweep of the 200, the 400, the 800 and 1,500 meter freestyles at a single world championship.

    She also set world records this week. And assuming all goes well, she will have raced 6,200 meters in seven days when you include heats and relays. Since winning the gold medal at the 2012 Olympics, she has set 13 of the fastest racing times in history.

    Summer Sanders is a former Olympic gold medal swimmer herself, as well as a sports commentator and reporter who's been watching all of this. She joins me now from Salt Lake City.

    You know, there's a lot of people who don't follow swimming who are starting to wake up to this story. Why is this so spectacular?

  • SUMMER SANDERS, Olympic Gold Medal Winner, Swimming (1992):

    Well, I think it goes back in history.

    I think most people remember Janet Evans, the queen of distance swimming. She held most of these world records up until Katie broke them. And so we haven't seen this dominance from the American swimmers in the sport of distance swimming. Honestly, most kids, if they have the distance gene, prefer to push themselves to the 400 and 200, because it's so difficult to train for the 800 and 1,500.

    But the fact that Katie is doing it and she's dominating time and time and time again — and she just sort of has this inner personality. I describe it as like she's a sprinter personality on the inside, but a distance on the outside. I love her fist pump when she wins and her enthusiasm that she is showing. She's making distance swimming cool.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    She are incredibly different events. Training for a 200 meter, a sprint-type event, vs. essentially a mile in the pool, and she actually did both races in one day earlier this week.

  • SUMMER SANDERS:

    Yes, she had the semifinals of the 200 freestyle right after she, like, shattered her own record in the 1,500 freestyle.

    And I would love for people to understand how that is a huge difference in swimming. We haven't seen it for a long time where we had prelims, then a semis, and then the next day a finals. Now, she doesn't have to do that for 800 and 1,500, but that's really, really difficult to do that over a stretch of about seven days of a world championships or an Olympic Games.

    It takes its toll. So, that makes all of these records and wins so much more astonishing.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    One of the things people are wondering is, how does she do it? Is she a natural? Does she just work harder? These are amazing times that she's setting and then breaking.

  • SUMMER SANDERS:

    I interviewed Katie at the 2012 Olympic trials, young Katie. Right? She is 14 now. Sorry. She's 18 now, so she was 15 back then.

    And her big milestone next was, is she going to get her driver's license? She wasn't too excited about her driver's license, but she was real excited to be going to London to compete in the Olympic Games. And then of course she has, like, blown everyone away at London, wins the gold medal.

    And now, all of a sudden, we really get to know this Katie Ledecky. She has an incredible natural talent. But I will say this like standing on the top of a building to all the young swimmers out there. Your natural talent takes you only to a certain point. And then you have got to decide that you want to put the work in and really, really go for it.

    I mean, she's like American ninja warrior inside of a distance swimmer. She works her tail off every single day to be at her absolute best on game day. And she has the mentality. I know you can see it. She looks so innocent and sweet. But, inside, she's just a tiger. She wants to win. She wants to dominate, not only for herself, but for her team, her family and for the sport of swimming and for distance swimming.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    There are stories about how she continued even when she was in high school to race with her high school team, play, and go and swim with her club team. This is an Olympic medalist who still enjoys swimming at her core.

    But there was also something interesting. As you start seeing these world records, sometimes, she is really just racing herself. Nobody is even close to her. How do you push yourself when you're in the pool and you're working against the world record that's held by you?

  • SUMMER SANDERS:

    Yes, I know. I never had that problem, Hari.

    I wish I did at times. But that would mean I would have to swim a really, really long race, and my longest was the 400 I.M. It is. It's an inner drive. We swimmers, people look at it, and they're like, how do you do it? You stare at a black line for hours and hours and hours?

    But we're really not. It's like the original Zen workout, swimming. You have got to get inside your head, and you have got to decide that you want to push yourself super hard today. And why? Because you want to beat that person or that time, or you want that feeling of touching the wall and dominating, knowing that you gave it your absolute best, nothing was left outside the pool, it was all left inside the pool.

    And I think that that's something that needs to be recognized and celebrated in Katie. It's what makes her so unique, not just this feat that she's probably going to pull off on Saturday, but that inner drive, that she came back from an Olympic Games and a gold medal to dominate again four years later.

    That is so incredibly difficult and it's what makes the Olympic Games so amazing and beautiful still to this day.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    All right, Summer Sanders, thanks so much.

  • SUMMER SANDERS:

    Thank you.

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