After another thriller in the Rio de Janeiro Olympics, Michael Phelps and Ryan Lochte, friends, teammates, ferocious competitors, picked up their gold medals, their world records, their innumerable other accomplishments, and started packing to go home.
Their swim meet – and their time – is almost over.
But then there is Katie Ledecky, 19, who is turning Rio into a weeklong girls’ pool party. In a sense, she is this Olympics’ version of LeBron James, a female superstar dominating the competition and providing an immense emotional boost to a surprisingly successful U.S. swim team.
This week, the 5-foot-11, 155-pound Maryland native already has won gold medals in the 200- and 400-meter freestyle races, anchored the gold-medal 800 freestyle relay and won a silver medal in the 4x100 meter freestyle relay. There is one lap remaining – the 800 final Friday – an event Ledecky has owned since 2013, breaking her own world record three times.
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If she wins, she will become the only Olympic swimmer to sweep those three individual freestyle events since Carmichael’s Debbie Meyer in Mexico City in 1968. Count Meyer, 63, among those making plans to watch the medal ceremony.
“Of course Katie is going to do it,” Meyer said Thursday. “She’s going to join me as the only female athlete to win the 200, 400 and 800, and I couldn’t be happier for her. It’s been 48 years!”
Meyer, who still teaches three days at week at her swim school in Carmichael, has been watching the Games at a local hospital where her mother is recovering from hip surgery. She stares at the TV, with the sound down, and has had to restrain herself while watching Phelps, Lochte, Lilly King and Ledecky lead a U.S. team that has exceeded expectations.
If she were at home, she said, she would be jumping up and down and yelling at the TV.
Instead, Meyer has been exchanging texts with Ledecky and her mother, Mary Gen – she met them at a meet in the spring – occasionally discussing technique and strategy, but more often offering encouragement.
“The similarities between us are unbelievable,” Meyer said. “We both swam in Central or South American countries. We are both from Maryland originally. She broke her right arm in fourth grade. I broke my right arm in fourth grade. And she loves to race against the guys, just like I did. I wanted to beat Mike Burton on every lap.”
But Meyer, who was part of the late Sherm Chavoor’s Arden Hills swimming program when she emerged as an Olympic star at 16, also cites several differences, mostly in terms of physique, technique and opportunity. Title IX didn’t exist then, so there weren’t NCAA swim scholarships when Meyer graduated from Rio Americano. She enrolled at American River College and later transferred to UCLA, at her own expense.
“UCLA did have a men’s swim team,” Meyer said, “and I got to be a coaching assistant. We had a female diver, too, and she got a special dispensation from the NCAA to compete. I became her chaperone.”
Ledecky, who will enroll at Stanford this fall, is similar to Meyer in this sense, too: She is adamant about maintaining her amateur status, partly to avoid the distractions and demands that accompany endorsement and commercial deals. Of course, it helps that Stanford offers scholarships and her father is an attorney.
One significant change – again, we’re talking 48 years – is the inclusion of women’s relay events in the Olympics. Only the 100, 200, 400 and 800 were offered in 1968. .
Asked how she would fare against today’s swimmers, most taller and heavier, Meyer laughed, but sounded intrigued. Though she is just under 5-foot-7 and competed at 115 pounds, she said her lithe, athletic frame reduced the amount of weight she had to pull through the water (the drag) and her hands and arms – she has a wingspan of almost six feet – were massive assets.
“I was never comfortable swimming the 100, though Sherm made me do it,” said Meyer, whose Arden Hills teammates included Mark Spitz, Jeff Float and Burton. “It would have been interesting to have the relays for women (in the Olympics). I had a six-beat and a four-beat kick, and that was because we did a lot of kicking. But the training today is just so much better. Our swimmers are only going to get better.”
The undisputed leader is Ledecky, the future of American swimming, the dominant figure in the women’s events at the Games in Rio.
“It is just wonderful to see what Katie is doing,” Meyer said. “Because I was in the hospital with my mom, I looked at the results on my phone ahead of time. I had to know. I didn’t want to be yelling in the hospital. But I called Mary Gen every night after the events were on TV, and she was wide awake. I asked her, ‘What are you doing up?’ She said, ‘I’m talking to you. You’re talking to Katie. We’re all talking to each other.’ We just laughed.”
With another chuckle, Meyer added, “And of course Katie is going to win the 800. Then there will be two of us.”