This article is part of our Tokyo Olympics series.
The women’s 1,500-meter swim made its Olympic debut Wednesday in Tokyo, which meant NBC’s camera operators experienced a struggle previously known to only a few others: They had to film gold medalist Katie Ledecky’s race and make it look close. “She’s got a trail group of three swimmers below her,” announcer Dan Hicks said about halfway through the race, but about 10 seconds later, the broadcast cut to a tighter camera angle that showed Ledecky as if she were swimming in an empty pool.
When you combine her history in the 1,500-meter and 800-meter freestyle, which she will race later this week, Ledecky’s dominance in long-distance swimming is unprecedented — to say nothing of the range that allows her to excel in the 400- and 200-meter, the relay of which she anchored to a silver medal on Thursday, and even the 100-meter events.1 But until this week, she hadn’t had a chance to showcase what might be her best event on an Olympic stage, because the mile race wasn’t part of the program for women. In part because Ledecky has been so captivating in that event, the Olympic committee added it for the Tokyo Games.
It’s difficult to compare Ledecky’s success in this event to any other in swimming, let alone any other sport. At the 2017 world championships, she won the 1,500-meter race by 19.07 seconds over second-place Mireia Belmonte of Spain — her most lopsided win on a world stage. That margin was wider than the gap between Belmonte and the fifth-place finisher. Ledecky bested Belmonte by 1.27 seconds per 100 meters, except she did it over and over again, 15 straight times. For comparison, the margins of victory in the women’s 100-meter freestyle race in the last four world championships were 0.39, 0.04, 0.18 and 0.55 seconds.
In 2018, when Ledecky broke her own world record at 15:20.48, the fastest time recorded by any other female swimmer in the world in the 1,500-meter was 15:51.61 by Italy’s Simona Quadarella. On the men’s side, with no swimmer of Ledecky’s caliber, such deficits are unheard of. The two fastest men’s 1,500-meter times in the world in 2018 were separated by 0.73 seconds.
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Ledecky’s margin of victory at the Olympics, where her gold medal time of 15:37.34 was best by 4.07 seconds, wasn’t quite as large as her previous record-setting races. But though her two closest competitors in the final each finished with a time in the top 25 all-time, Ledecky’s time was still faster than any other woman who’s competed internationally in the event. She now has each of the 13 fastest 1,500-meter times in history. That Ledecky swam in the final on the same night as her appearance in the 200-meter freestyle made the feat even more impressive.
|1||Katie Ledecky||United States||2018||15:20.48|
|2||Katie Ledecky||United States||2015||15:25.48|
|3||Katie Ledecky||United States||2015||15:27.71|
|4||Katie Ledecky||United States||2014||15:28.36|
|5||Katie Ledecky||United States||2020||15:29.51|
|6||Katie Ledecky||United States||2017||15:31.82|
|7||Katie Ledecky||United States||2014||15:34.23|
|7||Katie Ledecky||United States||2014||15:34.23|
|9||Katie Ledecky||United States||2021||15:35.35|
|10||Katie Ledecky||United States||2017||15:35.65|
|11||Katie Ledecky||United States||2019||15:35.98|
|12||Katie Ledecky||United States||2013||15:36.53|
|13||Katie Ledecky||United States||2021||15:37.34|
|15||Katie Ledecky||United States||2018||15:38.97|
|16||Lauren Boyle||New Zealand||2015||15:40.14|
|17||Katie Ledecky||United States||2021||15:40.50|
|18||Katie Ledecky||United States||2021||15:40.55|
|20||Erica Sullivan||United States||2021||15:41.41|
|22||Katie Ledecky||United States||2015||15:42.23|
|23||Kate Ziegler||United States||2007||15:42.54|
|25||Katie Ledecky||United States||2021||15:42.92|
After her race, Ledecky said she was thinking of the American female swimmers who came before her, who blew away the competition but weren’t allowed to swim the 1,500-meter race in the Olympics. The world record holder before Ledecky, fellow American Kate Ziegler, set it at 15:42.54 in June 2007. “I would love for it to be an Olympic event,” Ziegler said at the time, “but I don’t have control over that.”
Decorated distance swimmer Janet Evans held the record before Ziegler, setting it in 1988 at 15:52.10. Evans draped the medal around Ledecky’s neck after the 1,500-meter race at the U.S. Swim Trials last month. “It’s a little bittersweet for me because it was my best race,” Evans said that night. “But I just love it.” Before Evans came Debbie Meyer, the only other woman to win the 200-meter, 400-meter and 800-meter freestyle races in one Olympics. She never had the opportunity to add the mile to that list.
As it often does, record-breaking star power has inspired an improvement in the competition. In the middle distances, Australia’s Ariarne Titmus has won gold in the 200-meter and 400-meter freestyle races in Tokyo, citing Ledecky as the swimmer who set the standard. “Without her, I would in no way possible be swimming the way that I am now,” Titmus told the Olympic Network last year. “She set this benchmark so high that people have been trying to chase.”
And in the 1,500-meter, Ledecky had a teammate on the podium next to her after Erica Sullivan won the silver medal in 15:41.41. The two swam in adjacent lanes and celebrated afterward; Sullivan later told NBC, “Honestly, there was a point when I saw Katie ahead of me, and she was the only one, and it really gave me the energy, having someone you look up to for years and seeing them a few meters —” and then she stopped herself. “Or, several meters in front of you. And using it to get home.”