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.”