Though eight swimmers dove into the pool at the start of the women’s 400-meter freestyle final on Sunday night, seven of them might as well have stayed home, for all the chance they ever had of winning. Katie Ledecky, the 19-year-old American who has justly become the face (and arms and legs and shoulders) of the Rio Games, smashed her own world record in the event, finishing in 3:56:46—almost five seconds ahead of the field. “Katie Ledecky looks like she is poised to not only win Olympic gold, but lower her own world record,” said NBC’s Dan Hicks at the outset of the race. A few seconds later, realizing he may have understated the spread between Ledecky and every other swimmer in the pool, he added: “It’s all about Ledecky, how fast she will go, because it’s a foregone conclusion she’s gonna win this race.” When she touched the wall, her entire body was ahead of the on-screen world-record line. Ledecky didn’t beat the world record. She kicked the world record.
Ledecky didn’t win the race so much as vanquish it. And it was never, ever a race. At the 100-meter mark, she was a full body length and 1.53 seconds ahead of her closest competitor. As the race proceeded, the gap between Ledecky and her sort-of-peers grew wider, as the American teenager made some of the best swimmers in the world look like a bunch of suburbanites at an aqua aerobics class. NBC color man Rowdy Gaines got so excited during the final 50 meters that I thought he might fall into the pool: “Ahh, she may be like a rock climber, but speeded up times 10. She looks like a bird taking off the water now! Still ahead of that world record by a full second! She’s going to break it!”
How big was the gap between Ledecky and Great Britain’s Jazz Carlin? Hicks had enough time to utter 24 syllables—“And everybody in this arena doing the same as Katie Ledecky smashes her own …”—between when Ledecky touched the wall and Carlin touched for silver. That pretty much captures it: Ledecky broke the world record in the 400-meter freestyle by 24 syllables.
Ledecky’s dominance is wondrous and thoroughly intimidating. As Hicks noted, she has set three world records in the 400-meter freestyle and 12 world records total in the past four years. She came into the race having set a new Olympic record of 3:58.71 in Sunday afternoon’s qualifying heats, finishing a mere 0.34 seconds off world-record pace. After winning the Olympic final, Ledecky didn’t even look tired. Instead, she offered a wide smile in an interview with NBC’s Michele Tafoya as she acknowledged that she fully expected to beat the record. “I was really confident,” she said. “The 3:58 this morning felt really easy, and I knew if I could just push the back half really hard, I could … I could make it happen tonight.”
Make it happen. That’s another understatement.