Shane Gould sees a bit of herself in Katie Ledecky

Shane Gould
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Katie Ledecky‘s breakout as something more than a distance swimmer came at the 2014 U.S. Championships.

At age 17, she crushed reigning World champion Missy Franklin by 1.24 seconds in the 200m freestyle and then broke the 400m world record for the first time.

Ledecky previously snatched world records in the 800m and 1500m freestyles in 2013.

The question had to be asked. Just how versatile could she be?

“She’s not there yet, but certainly the standard is Shane Gould,” her D.C.-area coach, Bruce Gemmell, said on the pool deck after the 200m free in August 2014 in Irvine, Calif. “I believe she held the world record from the 100m to the 1500m [freestyles], so the standard’s pretty high.”

Gemmell was right.

The Australian Gould simultaneously held world records in the 100m, 200m, 400m, 800m and 1500m freestyles leading up to the Munich 1972 Olympics.

Gould laughed in a recent Skype interview when told of Gemmell’s comments.

“I guess it’s just a fact, really, isn’t it?” she joked. “Because I did have the sprint to the distance. It’s much more specialized these days. … It’s always sort of quite rare or impossible that it would happen again, that someone could do the 200m to the 1500m, or perhaps even include the 100m like [Ledecky] has now. I think it’s just a fact. Now that I’m the one person in history who’s done what she’s been working up to.”

Ledecky’s personal bests in the 100m and 200m frees are significantly slower than the current world records, but she is the closest thing to Gould that swimming has perhaps ever seen.

In Munich, Gould, then 15, became the first woman to win four individual freestyle medals at one Olympics. No man or woman has matched the feat since at a fully attended Games.

Ledecky keeps her goals for the Rio Olympics a secret, but she is a contender to make the U.S. Olympic team in the same four individual freestyle events.

She ranks No. 1 in the U.S. in 2016 in the 100m, 200m, 400m and 800m frees, clocking personal bests in the 100m and 200m frees at a meet in Austin, Texas, in January.

If Ledecky makes the U.S. Olympic team in those four events at the Olympic trials, Gould’s feat will become a measuring stick at the Rio Games in August.

Though Ledecky’s personal best in the 100m free, her weakest of the quartet, would have placed sixth in the 2015 World Championships 100m free.

Gould has never met Ledecky, but the Australian’s husband, swim coach Milt Nelms, was at that Austin meet in January.

Gould runs a holiday accommodation business on the island of Tasmania and spends much time in Melbourne, as she studies at Victoria University. She’s working on a PhD project on the culture of swimming in Australia, where it’s not just a national sport but also a part of everyday life.

Gould watched video of Ledecky racing for research before the Skype interview.

“Katie being way ahead of everyone else, 10 seconds or 10 or 15 meters ahead, she’s not really in a race [against other people],” Gould said. “You have to be task-driven. You have to be really relentless, have this volition, ethos to want to just push yourself and enjoy that physicality. The pain. Just the exhilaration from using all your capacities because you haven’t got somebody to race [against].”

Gould, now 59, has largely been separated from elite swimming since retiring in 1973 to seek other challenges. She attended one Olympics since 1972, as one of the final torch bearers at the Sydney 2000 Games.

“I’m still kind of vicariously aware of what’s going on in the U.S. [swimming] because my husband, he works with some of the elite swimmers,” she said. “I just have a curiosity about times and characters. … I was aware that [Ledecky] is swimming pretty fast and that she’s got a really big range of abilities.”

Gould went on to discuss the similarities and differences between herself and Ledecky, given the generation gap.

“Six months out [from the 1972 Olympics], I was really conscious of making sure I did good training, kept good records of my moods and sleep and balance in my life,” Gould said. “At the same time, there were a lot of media. I had to attend to the media. I didn’t have Australian Swimming or a manager to filter that. It was my parents who did that.”

Interviews. Team meetings. Training camps. Photo shoots.

“That can really suck the life out of you,” Gould said. “Because it can draw you into that ego motivation and that extrinsic focus. [Ledecky] is older than I was [in 1972], so she can probably say no to people, whereas as a 15-year-old, I didn’t quite know, hadn’t had the experience to stand up to adults and say no, I don’t want to do that.”

Gould entered six events at the Munich Olympics — the 100m, 200m, 400m and 800m freestyles, the 200m individual medley and the 4x100m free relay. The women’s 4x200m free relay wasn’t part of the Olympics until 1996.

She would race 12 times in seven days. Her expectation was to win all five individual events.

“I actually wanted to add another one, the 100m butterfly, but I think it clashed,” Gould said. “Six [individual] events was just a bit too much.”

If Ledecky makes the Rio Olympic team in the 100m, 200m, 400m and 800m frees, she is lined up for 10 individual races in seven days, plus a possible three more relay swims.

“You’ve got to know how to manage your energy over that time,” Gould said. “But at the same time you don’t want to hold back in one event in order to give more energy to another event. So that’s where you’ve got to trust your training and your fitness, and then just give your all.”

In her first four individual events in 1972, Gould took gold in the 200m and 400m frees and the 200m individual medley, all in world records, plus bronze in the 100m free.

“The 100m freestyle was one that I wanted to win,” said Gould, the 100m free world-record holder going into and coming out of the Olympics. “That’s kind of like a blue-ribbon event. I got third in that, and I knew as soon as I dived in and swam 10 meters, it’s not a day for a 100-meter freestyle. I got to the end, and I thought, third place, OK, let’s do this again. Do better the next time. But that’s it. You haven’t got another chance.”

The 800m free capper would be the biggest challenge. American Jo Harshbager had chopped four seconds off Gould’s world record at the U.S. Olympic trials less than a month earlier.

Plus, Gould said she developed a chest illness going into the race from the exhaustive week of swimming.

“I was disappointed that my body let me down,” she said. “It was like, c’mon Shane, we’re a team here.”

In her final race in Munich, Gould finished second, nearly three seconds behind another American, Keena Rothhammer, who broke the world record.

“I thought I was going to die in the heats of the 800m, but I made it,” said Gould, who needed to win her heat on the morning of Sept. 2 to guarantee a place in the following night’s final. “I can still remember it, getting the heebie-jeebies. … I think I slept about 18 hours between that morning race and that final race. … If I had another 12 hours of rest, I think I could have pulled out something else and beat the American girl.”

Gould went to New York after the Olympics to launch a book, then to Hawaii on holiday. Then she returned to Australia for school exams.

“Real life hit me again,” Gould said. “An event like that changes you. You just have a different perspective on the world. Your world expands, so that’s what happened to me. There were opportunities offered to me.”

One of those opportunities was an offer from one of her father’s acquaintances, an American businessman, to host Gould for an extended stay in the U.S.

“There wreren’t financial opportunities, remember,” Gould stressed, as amateur sport in the 1970s was more constricting than today. “But this man gave me an opportunity that was as a result of my father’s business relationships and my success.”

Gould accepted it and moved temporarily to California, where she attended St. Francis High School in Mountain View for one semester. (Six miles from where Ledecky plans to study and swim in college after the Olympics at Stanford)

She continued to swim but was training at 70 percent of her pre-Olympics workload.

“So I got unfit and put on weight because I discovered hot chocolate fudge sundaes and sugar doughnuts,” Gould said. “I’m spending money, got my driver’s license and was loaned a car. I had independence and made some bad choices.”

But she was taken by the different education system in the U.S.

“I started learning about really interesting things, ethics and history and so I just sort of started to look at other things,” Gould said. “My world expanded. I started to look for other challenges, and then by the end of the year I just started to not swim anymore.”

When Gould moved back to rural Australia, away from the attention. She said she never considered a swimming comeback. She married by 18, took up surfing and horse riding and raised sheep and gardens.

“I got involved with the local community, learned how to play basketball,” Gould said. “I did karate. I helped to run a youth group. And then I had four kids.”

And taught swimming in the ocean.

“They were a bit short of swimming teachers at the local school,” she said. 

Those swimmers were nowhere near the level of Ledecky. As Gould has watched video of Ledecky’s astounding margins of victory, she’s reminded of her own golden swims.

And this summer, many more Olympic fans could be, too.

“You’re not even racing the clock, you’re just going sort of as fast as hell as you can without anyone to push you,” Gould said with a laugh. “So I know that experience, and it’s really cool to do that because it’s you and yourself and the water.”

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Helen Maroulis stars in wrestling documentary, with help from Chris Pratt

Helen Maroulis, Chris Pratt

One of the remarkable recent Olympic comeback stories is the subject of a film that will be shown nationwide in theaters for one day only on Thursday.

“Helen | Believe” is a documentary about Helen Maroulis, the first U.S. Olympic women’s wrestling champion. It is produced by Religion of Sports, the venture founded by Gotham Chopra, Michael Strahan and Tom Brady. Showing details are here.

After taking gold at the 2016 Rio Games, Maroulis briefly retired in 2019 during a two-year stretch in which she dealt with concussions and post-traumatic stress disorder. The film focuses on that period and her successful bid to return and qualify for the Tokyo Games, where she took bronze.

In a poignant moment in the film, Maroulis described her “rock bottom” — being hospitalized for suicidal ideations.

In an interview, Maroulis said she was first approached about the project in 2018, the same year she had her first life-changing concussion that January. A wrestling partner’s mother was connected to director Dylan Mulick.

Maroulis agreed to the film in part to help spread mental health awareness in sports. Later, she cried while watching the 2020 HBO film, “The Weight of Gold,” on the mental health challenges that other Olympians faced, because it resonated with her so much.

“When you’re going through something, it sometimes gives you an anchor of hope to know that someone’s been through it before, and they’ve overcome it,” she said.

Maroulis’ comeback story hit a crossroads at the Olympic trials in April 2021, where the winner of a best-of-three finals series in each weight class made Team USA.

Maroulis won the opening match against Jenna Burkert, but then lost the second match. Statistically, a wrestler who loses the second match in a best-of-three series usually loses the third. But Maroulis pinned Burkert just 22 seconds into the rubber match to clinch the Olympic spot.

Shen then revealed that she tore an MCL two weeks earlier.

“They told me I would have to be in a brace for six weeks,” she said then. “I said, ‘I don’t have that. I have two and a half.’”

Maroulis said she later asked the director what would have happened if she didn’t make the team for Tokyo. She was told the film still have been done.

“He had mentioned this isn’t about a sports story or sports comeback story,” Maroulis said. “This is about a human story. And we’re using wrestling as the vehicle to tell this story of overcoming and healing and rediscovering oneself.”

Maroulis said she was told that, during filming, the project was pitched to the production company of actor Chris Pratt, who wrestled in high school in Washington. Pratt signed on as a producer.

“Wrestling has made an impact on his life, and so he wants to support these kinds of stories,” said Maroulis, who appeared at last month’s Santa Barbara Film Festival with Pratt.

Pratt said he knew about Maroulis before learning about the film, which he said “needed a little help to get it over the finish line,” according to a public relations company promoting the film.

The film also highlights the rest of the six-woman U.S. Olympic wrestling team in Tokyo. Four of the six won a medal, including Tamyra Mensah-Stock‘s gold.

“I was excited to be part of, not just (Maroulis’) incredible story, but also helping to further advance wrestling and, in particular, female wrestling,” Pratt said, according to responses provided by the PR company from submitted questions. “To me, the most compelling part of Helen’s story is the example of what life looks like after a person wins a gold medal. The inevitable comedown, the trauma around her injuries, the PTSD, the drive to continue that is what makes her who she is.”

Maroulis, who now trains in Arizona, hopes to qualify for this year’s world championships and next year’s Olympics.

“I try to treat every Games as my last,” she said. “Now I’m leaning toward being done [after 2024], but never say never.”

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IOC recommends how Russia, Belarus athletes can return as neutrals

Thomas Bach

The IOC updated its recommendations to international sports federations regarding Russian and Belarusian athletes, advising that they can return to competitions outside of the Olympics as neutral athletes in individual events and only if they do not actively support the war in Ukraine. Now, it’s up to those federations to decide if and how they will reinstate the athletes as 2024 Olympic qualifying heats up.

The IOC has not made a decision on the participation of Russian or Belarusian athletes for the Paris Games and will do so “at the appropriate time,” IOC President Thomas Bach said Tuesday.

Most international sports federations for Olympic sports banned Russian and Belarusian athletes last year following IOC recommendations to do so after the invasion of Ukraine.

Bach was asked Tuesday what has changed in the last 13 months that led to the IOC updating its recommendations.

He reiterated previous comments that, after the invasion and before the initial February 2022 recommendations, some governments refused to issue visas for Russians and Belarusians to compete, and other governments threatened withdrawing funding from athletes who competed against Russians and Belarusians. He also said the safety of Russians and Belarusians at competitions was at risk at the time.

Bach said that Russians and Belarusians have been competing in sports including tennis, the NHL and soccer (while not representing their countries) and that “it’s already working.”

“The question, which has been discussed in many of these consultations, is why should what is possible in all these sports not be possible in swimming, table tennis, wrestling or any other sport?” Bach said.

Bach then read a section of remarks that a United Nations cultural rights appointee made last week.

“We have to start from agreeing that these states [Russia and Belarus] are going to be excluded,” Bach read, in part. “The issue is what happens with individuals. … The blanket prohibition of Russian and Belarusian athletes and artists cannot continue. It is a flagrant violation of human rights. The idea is not that we are going to recognize human rights to people who are like us and with whom we agree on their actions and on their behavior. The idea is that anyone has the right not to be discriminated on the basis of their passport.”

The IOC’s Tuesday recommendations included not allowing “teams of athletes” from Russia and Belarus to return.

If Russia continues to be excluded from team sports and team events, it could further impact 2024 Olympic qualification.

The international basketball federation (FIBA) recently set an April 28 deadline to decide whether to allow Russia to compete in an Olympic men’s qualifying tournament. For women’s basketball, the draw for a European Olympic qualifying tournament has already been made without Russia.

In gymnastics, the ban has already extended long enough that, under current rules, Russian gymnasts cannot qualify for men’s and women’s team events at the Paris Games, but can still qualify for individual events if the ban is lifted.

Gymnasts from Russia swept the men’s and women’s team titles in Tokyo, where Russians in all sports competed for the Russian Olympic Committee rather than for Russia due to punishment for the nation’s doping violations. There were no Russian flags or anthems, conditions that the IOC also recommends for any return from the current ban for the war in Ukraine.

Seb Coe, the president of World Athletics, said last week that Russian and Belarusian athletes remain banned from track and field for the “foreseeable future.”

World Aquatics, the international governing body for swimming, diving and water polo, said after the IOC’s updated recommendations that it will continue to “consider developments impacting the situation” of Russian and Belarusian athletes and that “further updates will be provided when appropriate.”

The IOC’s sanctions against Russia and Belarus and their governments remain in place, including disallowing international competitions to be held in those countries.

On Monday, Ukraine’s sports minister said in a statement that Ukraine “strongly urges” that Russian and Belarusian athletes remain banned.

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