Katie Ledecky won her fourth 1,500m world title in Budapest. In her way. Like a powerboat in the first 500 meters, she set the kind of pace that no one else has managed to sustain over long distances. When she finished the job, 15 seconds faster than her closest pursuer, she found herself alone and isolated like a ship in the middle of the ocean. Not even the dead calm stopped her on the way to a gold that she celebrated with more anger than joy. The stopwatch indicated 15 minutes, and 30.15 seconds. Ten seconds more than the best time of her life, that 15m 20.48s of a distant afternoon in May 2018 in Indianapolis.
“We’ll see!” she answered, barely moving her lips, hieratic and unable to hide her bad mood, when the aquatic center entertainer asked her if she hoped to break her own world record in the 800 final next Friday. She had just gotten out of the pool and water was dripping down her forehead. She didn’t need a psychology degree from Stanford to understand that the best marks run out of time in her body and in her mind. At the age of 25, the best long-distance runner of all time has embarked on the declining curve that swimming reserves for those who venture to its limits.
Ledecky achieved the sixth best mark in his history in Budapest, which is the sixth best record of all time. One more thumbtack in a trajectory dedicated to feats that until now have been inaccessible to any swimmer. Neither Janet Evans, nor Pellegrini, nor Jenniffer Turrall, nor Shane Gould, nor Debbie Meyer, conditioned by more restrictive times, come close. In Washington, California or Florida, with Meehan or Nasty, there has been no pool, no coach, no method or atmosphere that has altered Ledecky’s course. She only interrupted her sequence of exploits in the 1500 events in 2019, when she withdrew from Worlds citing an unspecified “illness”. In Budapest she picked up her thread swimming her own race, away from the school that chased her hopelessly as she pushed water with her prodigious upper body, dragging her legs, barely two kicks per stroke cycle . The young Katie Grimes, a countrywoman from Las Vegas, finished second in 15m 44.89s, half a pool behind.
The Duna Arena pool was already hot when Ledecky crossed its waters in the second race on Monday afternoon. The Romanian David Popovici had brought it to a boil. He is only 17 years old but he clearly demonstrated that in his lungs, in his heart, in his octopus arms, is one of the most inaccessible world records that exist. The 200 free mark set by the German Paul Biedermann in 2009, using a rubber suit that helped him float towards an astonishing time: 1m 42.00 seconds.
Popovici in “hell”
Spurred on by the brave Tom Dean, Popovici swam above the water, symmetrically rotating around his spine, up like a log, hardly producing bubbles, faster than Biedermann in the first three lengths. In the last one he was off the hook by centimeters. He touched the plate in 1m 43.21 seconds.
“I am absolutely tired,” he declared, “tired as hell.”
The cameras had recorded him morose in the call room, sitting in the back in the shade with his glasses on while Aubock and Smith goofed off. He weighed his status as a national idol. Popovici, who is 1.90m tall and skinny, is the most popular Romanian athlete currently in his country. “I do this for the people who support me in Romania”, he said, serene and happy to occupy the place he occupied, on the threshold of the impossible. Biedermann’s record is in his hands.
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