Sports

Olympic Legend Debbie Meyer on Katie Ledecky's Quest to Join Her Exclusive Freestyle Club

Katie Ledecky is on the verge of making history by winning Rio Olympics gold in the 200-, 400-, and 800-meter freestyle races. The only woman to ever have done it previously is rooting for her.
August 12, 2016, 2:52pm
Rob Schumacher-USA TODAY Sports

As Katie Ledecky swims her way into the Olympic history books at the Rio Games, the 19-year-old American is on the verge of joining a very exclusive club: women who have swept the 200-, 400- and 800-meter freestyle events. Olympian Debbie Meyer is the only other swimmer to accomplish the feat, and, similar to Ledecky, she did it as a teenager in the 1968 Games in Mexico City.

On Sunday, Ledecky earned her first Rio Games gold medal and smashed her own world record in the 400-meter freestyle, beating Great Britain's Jazz Carlin, the silver medalist, by 4.77 seconds. Two days later, in the 200 free—considered her weakest individual event—Ledecky out-touched Sweden's Sarah Sjostrom by less than half a second in a thrilling race to keep her trifecta hopes alive.

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With just the 800 free left, Ledecky is the top-seeded swimmer headed into Friday night's final, having already broken the event's Olympic record during Thursday's heats.

Read More: Catching Up with Milorad Cavic, Who Beat Michael Phelps But Lost Gold by the Force of a Finger

Throughout the week, Meyer—who said she has met Ledecky a handful of times at various USA Swimming events—has been watching the Rio Games closely and cheering for the youngster to match her Olympic record. A Truckee, California, resident who turns 64 on Sunday, she sent Ledecky a selfie video wishing her luck.

VICE Sports spoke with Meyer on Thursday afternoon to get her perspective on Ledecky's gold-medal run.

VICE Sports: In early 1968, your coach, Sherm Chavoor, had you swim the 200 when you were mostly swimming the 400 and 1,500. Were you worried about swimming such a short race when you were used to competing in much longer ones?

Debbie Meyer: No, only because if he said, "Jump," I'd say, "How high?"

How would you characterize your 16-year-old self at the Olympics in '68?

One with a lot of drive, a lot of determination, dedication to doing the best that I could do at any time that I dove in the water, whether it be in the meet going for my best time—not necessarily the win but always for my best time—and then in practice, as well. I treated every practice like a meet. I raced everything that we did, and I always wanted to beat the guys. I didn't want them beating me. I didn't want anyone beating me.

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Were you nervous knowing you had a diverse lineup of events at the Olympics?

I focused on it as any other 800, as any other 200, any other 400. I did not put the importance of the Olympics on that at all. I was getting in and doing what I knew how to do—race those races—and that's how you have to look at it.

[Katie is] doing the exact same thing. I can see it in her demeanor; I can see it in her facial expressions.

What was the biggest challenge about training for three races with drastically different lengths and strategies?

Probably that I had to really, really sprint the 200. To me, it was a sprint. My strategy on swimming was going out fast and holding the pace. Katie goes out hard, but she's able to bring it home in very consistent splits, and I did the same thing, but I really did go out fast. She tends to hold back a little bit that first lap. I jumped out to the lead that first lap just about every single time. But that's the way we trained. Swimming the 200, I had to jump out even faster. I had to show dominance and sprint from the get-go.

When you watch Katie Ledecky swim, do you see similarities from when you were competing in the way you both attack each event?

I do. I see that quite a bit. She won the 400 by about five seconds and I won by [3.7] seconds. She won the 200 by three-tenths; I won by five-tenths. And she'll blow them away in the 800.

There was an 11.7-second difference that you won by and Katie's seed time going into the 800 heats was at the top by about 11 seconds.

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Are you kidding me? Oh my god. It's really eerie. I feel like I'm in the twilight zone. It's going to happen—it's fate.

And with her leading by about seven seconds after the 800 prelims Thursday, it's very unlikely that anyone else will win it.

I don't think they will. The only thing that would stop her is if she false-started or if she got sick, and even if she got sick, I don't think they could beat her. I really don't. I got sick, and I swam it.

Before Katie's 200-free final Tuesday, did you think she was going to win what is considered her weakest link? What was going through your mind as she out-touched Sarah Sjostrom by less than half a second?

The fighter in her is that she's not going to give up. She's got a goal, and she's going to do everything in her power to achieve that goal. She fights, she races and that's the key thing—she didn't give up. She raced like crazy, and she knew that Sjostrom was going to be coming on strong in the end. And only breathing to the right side, she couldn't see her. She swam that last lap on her own. It was Katie against Katie and the stopwatch in that race.

But are you surprised that Ledecky is pretty much guaranteed to sweep the mid-distance and distance events?

It surprises me a little bit. Swimmers today are so particular about what events they swim, and very rarely do you see a swimmer go from the 1,500 down to the 200, and to see that surprises me. But when I look at who's doing it, it doesn't surprise me.

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Why not?

Just because I see her desire in that and her ability to be able to change speed when she swims, change tempo. You can see it in her stroke, and it's very minute, but somebody that knows swimming can see it. Your average person that watches the TV doesn't see a change.

How do you think Katie has influenced swimming, whether it's from the perspective of an average fan of the Olympics or among the sport's athletes?

What I'm hoping is it's going to have more people wanting to swim distance. We've had such a lull in the depth of our distance swimmers and good distance swimmers, until this year with Katie. Yes, it takes hard work but anything takes hard work if you want to be good at it, and this is part of the message getting out there. If you want to be good you have to work hard.

I saw something on Facebook the other day about hard work getting results in reference to [Michael] Phelps and Lilly [King], and that I hope is the message that's getting across. Katie and Michael and the whole Olympic team [do] that.

Will you do anything for Katie to welcome her into your elite club of sweeping mid-distance and distance events at the Olympics?

I'd love to be there and be the one to put the medal around her neck. When she gets home, I will probably do something.

What? I'm not sure.

If you could say something to Katie before she swims the 800-free final Friday night, what would you say?

I would say to her exactly what my dad used to say to me before every single race: "Go get 'em."

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