Katie Ledecky entered the Tokyo Olympics as both an established commodity and something of a mystery. Poised to take her place as arguably the greatest female swimmer in Olympic history, Ledecky did not perform obviously otherworldly skills like Simone Biles, nor did she appear to have an outlier physique like Usain Bolt. Ledecky, instead, merely has been swimming long distances faster than any other woman in the world for the past decade.
So what does make her so dominant? In the longstanding spirit of journalism, we set out to show readers rather than tell them. Using deep reporting, underwater cameras and a wealth of detailed data, we broke down Ledecky’s approach to swimming into components, and then demonstrated how each contributed to her superior performances.
A series of videos – the longest of which is 38 seconds – allows readers to see the nuances of Ledecky’s start, stroke and turns while hearing from her and her coach. What’s a “high elbow catch”? Readers could see it, hear about it, and learn why it’s so important. What’s a six-beat kick, as opposed to a four-beat kick? The best way to understand the difference is to study a motion graphic that juxtaposes the two. A 1,500-meter race can seem monotonous to the untrained eye, so what does consistency look like? A graphic breakdown of 50-meter splits make it crystal clear.
Ledecky made history in Tokyo, winning the fifth and sixth gold medals of her Olympics career, the most in history for a female swimmer. To readers of The Washington Post, it was no secret how she did it.