By Mike Gustafson//Correspondent
Katie Ledecky swam out to an early lead, flying without fear. She did not fear that she could fail, hurt, or be passed by a more experienced, veteran Olympic field. She did not fear that she was racing in front of the entire world watching, millions upon millions of eyes. She did not fear that she was racing the defending Olympic champion in the event, Britain’s Rebecca Adlington, who was also the world-record holder swimming in front of her hometown crowd, a crowd all rooting against her. She did not fear anything, so it seemed.
As the 800m freestyle final of the 2012 Olympics progressed, a nation – and entire world – was captivated, watching the inexperienced, young Ledecky charge on without a singular iota of fear. As the race continued on, and Ledecky wasn’t slowing down, it became clear that this was a moment we all knew would become Olympic lore.
You know the rest of the story. That fearless 15-year-old shocked the world, won Olympic gold by over four seconds over the defending Olympic champion, nearly broke the world record, and became the greatest singular story of our U.S. swim team.
Next Monday, Ledecky is nominated for what is my favorite award at the Golden Goggles: Breakout Performer of the Year Award. The Breakout Performer Award is typically given to a swimmer who has done exactly that: broken through, and accomplished something that no one expected or foresaw. Ledecky could instead win the award for “Female Performance of the Year,” which would be equally as deserved, but for some reason – mostly because she was so unknown coming into 2012 – the Breakout Performer seems more appropriate.
While the other nominees in this category are very worthy of such an award, names like Cammile Adams, Breeja Larson, Haley Anderson, and Scott Weltz (who deserves special mention, because he qualified for the Olympic team after his own college swim team was cut by UC Davis), no one had as much an impact on the world as Ledecky. And no one had a bigger “shock factor” at the 2012 Olympics.
Ledecky instantly became a swimming superstar. She instantly captivated the hearts of millions around the country. In the seconds after her victory, I tweeted: “'Katie Ledecky cannot: drive, vote, drink, smoke, gamble, buy a handgun, or attend "Magic Mike"... but she can become an Olympic legend." That tweet was ultimately re-tweeted 3,500 times. That’s how popular Ledecky became in one moment, how much of an overnight sensation she was. Five minutes before her race, no one outside the swimming circles knew who she was. Five seconds after her victory, she was trending on Twitter.
With one swim, Katie Ledecky became a household name. She became an Olympic legend. In a distance race where NBC assumes so many people are disinterested in a long and “seemingly boring” race (they switched to commercial mid-race during what was, actually, the most thrilling and epic moments of the Olympics), Ledecky captivated her audience with her audacity to win.
There she was, surging ahead of the field, not slowing down, lap after lap, ahead of the home crowd favorite Adlington. There was nothing you could do, as a spectator, except stand and cheer and hope and pray she holds on. It was the kind of race that gives you goosebumps, that makes you stand up and jump up and down, that makes you believe that anything is possible, that makes you believe that if you just believe in yourself, like Ledecky did by taking the race out so fast and so furious, the whole world is within grasp.
If Ledecky does not win the award for Breakout Performer of the Year next Monday, I won’t be shocked. I’ll be outraged. I’ll overthrow USA Swimming. I’ll lead a rebellion to demand a recount like in the 2000 election. We’ll take it to the Supreme Court. That’s how strongly I feel about Ledecky winning this award. You have to ask yourself: If Ledecky doesn’t win, what does one have to do? Does she have to win 23 Olympic medals? Does she have to swim every event in the Olympics? Does she have to swim an entire 800 freestyle relay by herself, break the world record, and then argue her case to win Breakout Performer of the Year Award?
No. Ledecky is a shoe-in. I’d bet my life savings on her winning. The other nominations are fantastic and much deserving in their own right… but Ledecky will win. Because a 15-year-old with a plan and a mission decided to take the world into the palm of her hand and swim the race of her lifetime, she changed the landscape of distance swimming in America. Ask anyone before the race for a prediction, and no one outside of the USA Olympic team could have guessed the result. Though everyone in the Team USA camp, in the weeks leading to London, saw Ledecky’s courage in practices and saw foreshadowing of what was going to happen, the rest of us had to pry our mouths off the floor.
And the most shocking thing? Katie Ledecky was only 15-years-old. When Michael Phelps was 15, he didn’t win an Olympic medal. Ledecky could, perhaps, be a force at many, many, many Olympics to come. We could see her at the 2024 Olympics. We could see her at the 2032 Olympics. Who knows. She might win every single 800 freestyle this century. You just never know.
What we do know is that for one race, one moment, Katie Ledecky captivated the world. She showed the world what swimming without fear truly is. When I think back to my favorite, most memorable moments of these 2012 Olympic Games, sure, I’ll remember the Phelps Victory Stand Smile, and the Lochte Vs. Phelps 400 IM, and the Missy Franklin Double, and the epic relays, the Anthony Ervin Comeback (though I know he hates that word), the Grevers / Adrian victories, the Soni Sub 2:20, and so many other great moments, stories, and races.
But what I’ll remember most is a singular, young, seemingly fearless swimmer, charging out in front of the world’s best, proving that dreams truly do come true.
Mike Gustafson is a freelance writer for USASwimming.org and “Splash Magazine.” Follow him on Twitter at @MikeLGustafson.