Katie Ledecky‘s most talked-about pursuit at the U.S. Olympic Trials could actually be a chase of American legend Shirley Babashoff.
Ledecky holds the fastest times in the U.S. this year in the 100m, 200m, 400m and 800m freestyles.
One American previously made an Olympic team in four freestyles — Shirley Babashoff in 1976. Ledecky has a chance to match that feat at trials in Omaha from June 27-July 2.
“I feel that she’s going to make it in all four events, if not win the Olympic Trials in all four events,” Babashoff said in a phone interview earlier this year.
There are more parallels between Babashoff and Ledecky as the 40-year anniversary of the former’s five-medal performance at the Montreal Games nears.
Like Ledecky, Babashoff made her first Olympic team at age 15. Ledecky is now 19, the same age as Babashoff was in 1976.
Babashoff, a U.S. Postal Service letter carrier in her native Southern California since 1988, pointed out that age statistic.
Babashoff and Triple Crown-winning jockey Victor Espinoza presented Ledecky with USA Swimming’s Female Athlete of the Year at the Golden Goggle Awards in Los Angeles on Nov. 22.
Babashoff praised Ledecky as “an animal” in the water.
“How she can go out on an 800 [freestyle] and just go out and keep the same pace through the whole 800, there’s no piano falling,” Babashoff said. “She’s like a robot. She’s like a machine. I just think that’s totally incredible how she can do that, because I could never do that.”
In 1976, Babashoff entered the six-day U.S. Olympic Trials in Long Beach, Calif., and swept the 100m, 200m, 400m and 800m freestyles and the 400m individual medley in one of the most impressive single-meet performances of all time.
Babashoff broke American records in the four freestyles in Long Beach, including a world record in the 800m free.
“We were confident in everything, except for the 100 [freestyle] because it’s all out [sprinting],” said Babashoff, who by 1976 was swimming on the men’s team at Golden West Community College. “I was so trained that it wasn’t tiring. When you swim that much, and then you go to a meet and you swim a 400 IM twice in one day, it’s not that big of a deal.”
Then came the Montreal Olympics.
“The hardest part for me wasn’t really all the races,” Babashoff said. “It was mostly the East Germans.”
Babashoff was on average faster at the Montreal Olympics than at trials yet took three silver medals and a fifth place in four individual races, all won by dubious East Germans.
Babashoff accused them of taking performance-enhancing drugs. The media was not sympathetic, labeling her “Surly Shirley.” Now, it’s common knowledge East German athletes were part of a state-sponsored doping program in that era.
“It would have been a completely different Olympics for me if they weren’t there, or if they weren’t cheating and taking steroids,” said Babashoff, who co-wrote a book, “Making Waves,” coming out in July with more detail on the matter.
Babashoff started swimming later than Ledecky, at age 8, preferring breaststroke and working up from the shorter distances.
Ledecky, who began at age 6, has worked her way down in distance.
She raced solely the 800m free at the 2012 Olympics, then added the 400m free at the 2013 Worlds and 200m free at the 2015 Worlds. She chopped eight tenths of a second off her 100m free personal best at a meet in Austin in January.
Ledecky could choose not to swim the 100m free at the Olympic Trials. Or she could swim it with a goal of making the 4x100m free relay team only and not the individual event in Rio. Michael Phelps has done this in the past.
Ledecky proved at the 2015 World Championships that she can handle a Phelps-like workload at a major meet.
She won gold medals in all five of her events, including breaking her 1500m freestyle world record and then advancing from the 200m semifinals a half-hour later.
Ledecky can’t swim the 1500m free at the Olympics — it’s only available on the men’s program — but she could swim up to seven events in Rio if she finishes first or second in the 100m free at trials.
Babashoff doesn’t believe that Ledecky could exhaust herself. Just look at 1976.
Babashoff’s best swim in Montreal was arguably her final one, anchoring the U.S. to gold over the East Germans in the 4x100m free relay, after taking silver in the 800m free earlier that night. That relay is the subject of a USA Swimming film, “The Last Gold,” coming out in July.
“It’s not as hard as people think,” Babashoff said. “When you’re swimming that kind of mileage every day it’s not hard to just swim an 800 and then go and swim a 100 on a relay. It’s kind of like a warm-up, even. You don’t really get that tired. You’re in such superb physical condition that anything’s possible. You’re tired after the race, but you recover. In five minutes, you’re ready to go again.”