In these uncertain times, there are several universal truths that we can rely upon for comfort. Put two children on a seesaw, and one will start to slide off with a smirk while the other hovers helplessly at the top. The lady at the diner counter will refill your coffee six times whether you want her to or not. Michael Jordan will dress poorly. And 20-year-old American treasure Katie Ledecky will straight up smoke fools in the water. (And then ask Bryce Harper to lend a couple of helping hands.)
Going into Wednesday’s 200-meter freestyle event at the World Championships in Budapest, Ledecky had appeared in 13 individual international swimming finals and won them all. That includes Tuesday, when 19 freaking seconds separated her from the next-fastest elite swimmer in the world. It’s becoming routine by now for Ledecky to touch the finish pad while the rest of the field flails somewhere outside the margins of the TV camera frame. Remember at the Olympics, when Ledecky’s margin of victory was lengthy enough to get through the opening riff and first line of Santana’s classic hit “Smooth”? (Or Vanessa Carlton’s “A Thousand Miles,” if you are Ann Powers?) On Tuesday, Ledecky loitered in the water for even longer than that.
But past performance is not an indicator of future results, as finance people like to say when they’re covering their ass, and Wednesday featured the aquatic equivalent of mighty Casey striking out: Katie Ledecky lost a race. Things fall apart, the center cannot hold, mere anarchy is loosed upon the world. Katie Ledecky lost a race! And not only did she finish second to Italy’s Federica Pellegrini in the 200-meter freestyle — she also tied with someone else.
Mad props to Pellegrini, the current world record holder in the 200m free and someone who has made the podium in the event at seven World Championships in a row. (She also won Olympic gold in 2008, the first female Italian swimmer to have done so.) Before the race began, swimming writer Maclin Simpson identified the 200m free as “the biggest question mark for Ledecky.” Pellegrini swam with an exclamation point. The final 50 meters were a marvel, but her last few strokes in particular propelled her past Ledecky and Australia’s Emma McKeon, who had been neck-and-neck all race, in a powerful way. It’s not often that someone makes Ledecky appear borderline fatigued, but the American’s final time in today’s race was actually slower than it had been in her semifinal heat, a first for her.
With the second-place finish, Ledecky’s bid to tie a record with six gold medals at one World Championships was kaput. It would have matched the record set in 2013 by Missy Franklin, back when she was considered America’s great white shark. Franklin went on to have a devastating Olympics last summer in Rio, failing to even qualify for the finals in two events; it was a reminder of the fleeting and fragile nature of talent and success.
But for Ledecky, the better comparison is probably someone like Michael Phelps. According to NBC Sports’ Nick Zaccardi, when Phelps lost his first World Championships race in 2003, he was so irritated that he hung a picture of the victor on his bedroom wall, a motivational tactic that seems to have been pretty damn successful. Might I suggest this action shot from Pellegrini’s Instagram? Ledecky can gaze upon it with this face every day.