One of the feats Katie Ledecky is chasing this summer is sweeping the 200m, 400m and 800m freestyles at one Olympics — a triple done by one other swimmer in history.
That swimmer is Debbie Meyer, who at Mexico City 1968 became the first man or woman to win three individual gold medals in the pool at one Olympics.
Meyer said she met Ledecky for the first time at the United States Aquatic Sports Convention in Jacksonville, Fla., in September 2014.
Meyer didn’t know if Ledecky would recognize her, or even her name, since Ledecky was born 29 years after the Mexico City Olympics. So, Meyer had a USA Swimming official make the introductions.
“Katie, I’d like you to meet Debbie Meyer, and her mom goes, oh my god, oh my god, Debbie Meyer,” Meyer recalled in a recent phone interview. “And then Katie’s eyes lit up. Obviously, she knew who I was, which kind of freaked me out, because that was so long ago.”
Meyer said she’s been in awe of Ledecky since the fellow Maryland native took surprise gold in her lone event at the London Olympics — the 800m freestyle. Then, Ledecky was 15 years old and the youngest member of the entire U.S. Olympic team across all sports.
Meyer, who turned 16 years old two months before the Mexico City Games, was a precocious talent as well.
“Four years prior to the Olympic Games, I had no clue what they [the Olympics] were,” she said. “My mom and dad gave me a stopwatch Christmas 1964. In quotations underneath, it said ‘Mexico City 1968.’ I had to ask them what it meant.”
Meyer broke the first of her 15 world records at age 14. By 1968, she reset the 200m, 400m and 800m free world records at the U.S. Olympic Trials.
Her timing was excellent. Mexico City marked the debut of the women’s 200m and 800m frees.
But she sprained an ankle the day she left for the Olympics and was on crutches for her first five days in Mexico City. Fortunately, the swimming events back then took place mostly during the second week of the Games.
So Meyer hobbled into the Opening Ceremony in 80-degree temperatures, sweating in a polyester dress and stockings, standing in the middle of a stadium with no water or bathrooms available to her.
Meyer then suffered a stomach illness while in Mexico City.
Still, she won the 200m, 400m and 800m frees all in Olympic record times. Her margins of victory ranged from comfortable to incredible — a half-second, 3.7 seconds and 11.7 seconds.
“I didn’t equal my world records because, obviously, we were at altitude [more than 7,000 feet above sea level], and it makes a big difference when you swim,” Meyer said. “But I probably would have broken the records, or very close to it, had I been swimming at sea level.”
Meyer went to the next Olympics in Munich in 1972 as an Associated Press writer.
She had retired less than a year before the Games, coming into practice one Monday after a weekend meet and saying, “I really don’t want to do this anymore. I’m not happy.”
“I kind of just waved my hand and left,” Meyer said. “By the time I had got home, [my coach] had already called my mom and said Debbie quit swimming. … And I really don’t regret it at all.”
Meyer coached swimmers until retiring from that pursuit last August. She lives in California and still skis on weekends, slaloms and giant slaloms.
And she admires Ledecky, who swept the 200m, 400m and 800m frees at the 2015 World Championships. Meyer didn’t think it would take 48 years for another woman to match her Olympic feat.
She thought Australian Shane Gould would do it in 1972, but Gould took silver in the 800m free. She thought Janet Evans had a shot in 1988, but Evans didn’t swim the 200m freestyle at trials.
Meyer cited a relative lull in distance swimming before Ledecky came out of nowhere in 2012.
“And the perception that distance swimmers couldn’t do a 200 as well, that they stuck to just distance or just sprinted,” Meyer said. “And we had so many phenomenal sprinters for a long time that they beat out the distance swimmers [in the 200].”
There’s another Meyer feat that Ledecky chases — her U.S. female record for individual world records in Olympic-size pools. Meyer broke 15 in her career. Ledecky is at 11.
“I think she’ll surpass me,” Meyer said, “and I think that’s fabulous.”
More differences separating Ledecky from Meyer:
*Ledecky has the benefit of college swimming to look forward to after the Rio Olympics. She is committed to Stanford, keeping her amateur eligibility like Missy Franklin four years ago.
Meyer had no such luxury in 1968, four years before Title IX came into play. She mostly trained with early teens, even leading up to her retirement at age 19.
“It was very hard to keep that drive going when you’re almost 20, and you’re swimming with young kids,” Meyer said.
*Ledecky could also make the U.S. Olympic Team in the 100m freestyle, as she has the nation’s fastest time in the event so far this year.
Meyer swam the 100m free at the 1968 Olympic Trials because she thought she had a shot to qualify for the 4x100m freestyle relay, but she didn’t make the final.
*Ledecky is known for winning titles at the longer distances, then adding the 200m free and then the 100m free to her repertoire in recent years.
In reverse, Meyer started swimming as a sprinter.
“Everything was 50s for me,” she said. “I really didn’t do any 100s of anything.”
She eventually moved to the 200 individual medley and the 200 freestyle. Then, one day in practice in 1965, she swam 1,650 yards.
“From that point on, I was a distance swimmer because I could do 64 flip turns instead of open turns,” she said. “Then I started training for the mile. And I started doing the mile and worked down [in distance from there].”
In her school’s fitness testing, Meyer said she was last in the 50-yard dash but first in the 800.