THERE ARE slam dunks, there are grand slams (and Grand Slams), and now there is the Ledecky Slam. Bethesda native Katie Ledecky, age 18, made history last week when she swept the 200-, 400-, 800- and 1,500-meter freestyles at the World Championships in Kazan, Russia, and stamped her name on a feat never before achieved in a major competition.
Ms. Ledecky just graduated from high school. She is scheduled to have her wisdom teeth removed this week. She still does not have her driver’s license. Yet in Kazan she smashed three world records — all of which already belonged to her. Over the past two years, she has broken 10. Of the nine world championship finals Ms. Ledecky has swum, she has won, well, nine.
Ms. Ledecky is already the greatest female distance swimmer of this generation, and perhaps of all time. Her speed is unparalleled. Even more compelling is her range. It’s no small wonder the Ledecky Slam is such a rarity: Generally, there are distance swimmers, and there are sprinters. Somehow, Ms. Ledecky is both. Many were shocked she even attempted the 200-meter freestyle last week, competing in the sprint preliminaries just minutes after her 1,500-meter final. Not only did Ms. Ledecky qualify that day. She also went on to get the gold the next.
There’s another reason to root for Ms. Ledecky, and it’s not her local lineage. By all accounts, the world champion is also a down-to-earth, thoughtful, otherwise normal teenager who happens to be extraordinary. It shows in the pool when, after obliterating her rivals, she smiles up at her family or reaches over to her teammates. It shows after she’s out of the water when she gives gracious, grounded and genuine interviews, or when she skips a day of rest to support her peers.
All of Ms. Ledecky’s fans are eager to see the star clinch another slam. The only problem? There will be no 1,500-meter freestyle race in Rio de Janeiro next summer. To Olympic organizers, the metric mile may once have seemed too much for the female body to handle — just like the marathon did until 1984. They still have not come around, never mind that Ms. Ledecky swims the event faster than the male national record in 54 countries. Because adding a new race can mean adding new athletes to a capped competition, and because there is more demand for short sprints or mixed relays, things do not look likely to change any time soon.
It’s another flaw in a system filled with them, from authoritarian host countries to a corrupt organizing committee to doped up competitors. But while we might not always be cheering for the Olympics, in 2016 and beyond we will be cheering for Ms. Ledecky. Bringing the women’s 1,500-meter freestyle to the pool would give us one more reason to shout.