NZ swimming star Lauren Boyle 'honoured' to follow in Katie Ledecky's wake
Put yourself in Lauren Boyle's one-piece. You are a Kiwi swimming success story and the most decorated world championship competitor your country has known. Yet you're all but beaten before you step on to the blocks because you have the misfortune to race the same events as a phenomenon who is rewriting the definition of dominance in your sport.
You don't want to be defeatist, but the realist in you sends a clear message: you're racing for silver. It would be easy to be overwhelmed by the sheer helplessness and futility of it all. You're the poor saps chasing Hamish Bond and Eric Murray home in the rowing pairs at every major regatta, the streak of lightning who's always pipped at the tape by Usain Bolt, or the tennis sensation destined to be slammed by Novak Djokovic.
Except Boyle, 28, is far from disheartened or discouraged. She is positively inspired to be competing in the wake of the one and only Katie Ledecky, who just might be the single-most-dominant sportsperson on the planet. It has taken Boyle some time to accept that mindset.
The Gold Coast-based Aucklander makes that more than clear as she knuckles down for a heavy training block in preparation for the Rio Olympics. She is one of eight swimmers named in the initial New Zealand team for the Games, but the only one considered a cast-iron medal prospect.
Yet, barring the unthinkable, Boyle will be chasing either silver or bronze in Rio, in a race of her own behind the remarkable Ledecky. Yes, it's sport and, yes, upsets happen. But not seemingly in the case of the 19-year-old American who has won gold in every major international race (Olympics, worlds and Pan-Pacifics) she has competed in since making her debut as a 15-year-old at the 2012 London Olympics. To give an example of her ascendancy, her world record in the 800m is seven and a half seconds better than anyone else in the world has swum.
Ledecky has, in the past, understandably been a bit of a touchy subject for Boyle. But not now.
"She's the best swimmer I've ever seen," Boyle said during a break at a recent training camp in Thredbo, a New South Wales ski town. "She's better than Ian Thorpe, and I guess it's a different measuring stick to Michael Phelps. To take the amount of time she's taken off world records in the events I swim is just amazing. What she did last year at the world champs was absolutely groundbreaking.
"She is an incredible athlete and I feel honoured to race beside her. Not many people get to race next to an athlete who is going to be in the history books forever and is looked up to by so many.
"She is usually very far ahead, so I tend to swim my own race but I also think she has opened the minds of a lot of freestyle swimmers and shown us all what is possible, and that's a pretty fantastic thing."
At last year's world champs in Kazan, Russia, Ledecky became the first swimmer to win the 200, 400, 800 and 1500m at a major international meet. She won five golds all told (adding the 4x200 relay) and broke three world records. Boyle claimed silvers in both the 800 and 1500m (in Oceania record times), but was 10 seconds back of Ledecky's world record 8min 7.39sec in the 800 and nearly 15sec behind Ledecky's world record of 15:25.48 in the 1500.
Ledecky has set 11 world records all told, and broken her own mark in the 800 free an astounding four times since 2013. "I don't know if she has any weaknesses," Olympic gold medalist Missy Franklin has said. "If she does, we haven't seen them yet." There is talk that she may race the 100 and 200 free in Rio, on top of the 400-800 double (there is no 1500 for women on the Games programme).
But not even playing Batman against Ledecky's Superman can get Boyle down at the moment as she works towards her third Olympics. After an unsettling period on the coaching front, she finally feels she has found the right person in renowned distance guru Dennis Cotterell on the Gold Coast
"You could probably write a pretty entertaining book about my experiences in swimming," she says. "Since 2012 I've had four or five different coaches, and at the moment I'm working with Dennis and I'm able to stay training there till the Olympics, which I'm really grateful for. He's one of Australia's best distance coaches (he coached Grant Hackett and Olympic 1500m champ Sun Yang) and I'm really happy I get to train there and learn from him."
And the good news is after a January illness that saw her lose significant training time, she is working back towards her best form. "I'm getting better, I'm rebuilding."
She's also ready to be a leader for a Kiwi team that could yet grow larger than the eight already named (for relays). "I love that we're going with a bigger team, it really makes a difference to the dynamic. And I really hope if the younger ones have questions, they'll ask. I love giving back to swimming."
It's been 20 years since a Kiwi won an Olympic medal in swimming – Danyon Loader's golden freestyle double in Atlanta – but Boyle, who is pledging to swim on beyond Rio, feels no burden from the weight of history. She says she doesn't even think about it.
"I really do think New Zealanders don't really respect how huge of an achievement it was when Danyon won those two golds. The reason it hasn't been done again in 20 years is because it is an extremely difficult thing to do, and very few people in the world are capable of achieving it.
"Of course I'd love to win an Olympic medal for New Zealand, but the way for me to produce my best result will be to focus on the process of swimming the absolute fastest I can, and focus a little bit less on something I can't control."
She's asked what result would see her come away from Rio feeling satisfied. It's an interesting question given that she's won exactly half of New Zealand's 10 medals at a world championship level.
"I've been thinking about this for a long time," she says. "People talk about winning medals and yes that's fantastic. But swimming is such a very deep sport, and in my events the 400 and 800 free there are about 10 women capable of winning a medal, maybe more.
"I'm going give it my best, but for me to be really satisfied I will need to have swum the fastest I've ever swum before and have the best performance I've ever had."
Do that and the Ledecky cloud just might have a silver lining.
Lauren Boyle factfile:
Home town: Auckland.
Educated: University of California, Berkeley.
Previous Olympics: 2008 Beijing; 2012 London (4th 800m free).
Commonwealth Games: 2006, 2010 and 2014 (1 gold, 2 silver, 1 bronze).
World championships: 2015 – silver 800 & 1500m; 2013 – bronze in 400, 800 & 1500m.
Other achievements: 2014 – first Kiwi to win three medals at a Pan Pacifics; 2015 – broke 1500m free short-course world record.
NZ records: 200 free (1:56.82); 400 free (4:03.63); 800 free (8:17.65); 1500 free (15:40.14).
- Sunday Star Times