When It Lifts, or Some Scattered Thoughts on Summertime in Newfoundland

I bought my copy of Annie Proulx’s The Shipping News in a bookstore in New Orleans’ French Quarter (‘ol’ E. Annie,’ the owner called her), right before I had to leave for the airport. I don’t remember what drew me to the book (I had not heard of ‘ol E. Annie, nor seen the film version of Brokeback Mountain, her most famous short story), but I do remember spending the flight in the sort of white-out immersion I’d experienced often as a child (The Long Winter! Anne of Green Gables! Vols 1-5 of Harry Potter!), and rarely thereafter. I finished The Shipping News right as the flight touched down, greedily, with a full-body gnaw, and have wanted to go to Newfoundland ever since.

trinity bay, newfoundland

The Shipping News, if you haven’t read it (go read it!), is about a blundering, down-and-out newspaperman who finds luck and love in a hopeless place Newfoundland, his ancestral homeland. It’s a classic underdog tale, set in an unorthodox — but very underdog-friendly! — location, and the language takes its cue from the setting: the descriptions are rough and pummelling; the dialogue terse, and salty. It’s not that the picture ol E. Annie paints of Newfoundland is inviting, exactly — it’s all freeze and fog, squid burgers and pocked skin and fearsome winds — but it latched onto me. I feel a pull towards cold, remote places that are still, somehow, inhabited, and what is more remote than a hunk of rock so far east it has its own time zone, so generally inhospitable that its denizens still speak in the heavy brogues of their great, great, great grandparents?

For years, I kept my interest in Newfoundland confined to Google image searches and the occasional travel blog, and that’s likely where it would have stayed if my husband hadn’t bought bought us two tickets to St. John’s for my birthday this year. In preparation, I read The Shipping News for the fifth time and went through all of the wonderful Edible Roadtrip coverage of the island and watched Youtube videos of Newfoundlanders screeching tourists and explaining choice Newfie phrases.  Last Friday night, we set out, last Saturday morning we set out again, this time successfully, and went on to spend three nights in St. John’s, and one night up the coast in Trinity.  The trip was a heady whirlwind of fog and sun, seeping quiet and spilling hubbub, foods fried and foods fresh, and excellent ’90s rock.
skerwink trail
If you, too, have a Shipping News-inspired hankering to get ye to The Rock in the summertime, here are some observations that might prove useful:

1. In Newfoundland, July can feel a lot like April, thanks to the glacial current coming from near(ish)by Labrador. It was 45 degrees when we landed, and then vaulted up to 72 on our third day. While the summer clothes I packed didn’t go entirely unused, I mostly wore leggings and a puffer. This was not a problem, sartorially, as Newfoundland dress code is casual in the extreme.

2. The landscape, in the summer, is mostly greys and greens: fog, rock, ocean; spruce, bracken, moss. In the towns, sturdy box and row houses in jewel and Easter and popsicle hues cut through the mist, but on the highways and byways, you’d be forgiven for wondering if you’d somehow tumbled into some land before time, primordial and raw and huge.

3. But then the sun comes out (maybe! If you’re very lucky!), and the grey scatters and the greens go emerald and the ocean and lakes turn sapphire and the landscape seems less primordial than majestic, luxuriating in the drama of its sweeping cliffs and shaggy hills and endless waters.

4. The water — good lord, there is so much of it. Lakes and rivers (here, called “ponds” and “brooks”, no matter their girth) dot the Trans-Canada like pearls, and the coastline’s many bights mean that miles inland, you are never too far from a cove or an inlet. Even the land can be amphibious; on the sunniest of days, the footpaths squelch beneath your shoes; step off one onto the fluffy moss and you’ll sink a full foot.

5. Outside of St. John’s, this north-east temple of Neptune is mostly empty, apart from the occasional long-haul trucker on the road, the bright-red trawler in the distance. On the lakes, there are lily pads but no frogs; at the beaches, there are gulls, swooping and preening, but no swimmers.  

6. The wind is a crouching tiger, hidden dragon. By which I mean that, while mild in the summertime, its effects are everywhere, from the worn-away karsts at the edge of the sea to the drunken, sparse bent of the trees. While the fastest gust ever recorded was on Mount Washington, Newfoundland’s aptly named “Wreckhouse” region  regularly sees speeds above 100km/hour (they’re called “Wreckhouse Winds”), and the island in general is known as the windiest province in Canada.skerwink trail

7. The people, too, are wind-beaten — and white. Canada’s reputation for ethnic diversity does not extend to this island of Anglo-Saxons. Most of the current population is of Irish,  western-English, or Scottish descent. A small percentage hails from France, and a much smaller one is indigenous (there were originally two tribes on the island, but settlers wiped out the Beothuk people and their language; today, only the Mi’kmaq remain). You rarely see a face that isn’t ruddy, pink, cream, freckled.

8. The accent is generally closest to Irish, though occasionally you’ll get a stream of Queen’s English, fine — and brittle — as china. The dialect, though, is a lovely hodgepodge, part preservation (‘ye’ for you, ‘me’ for my/mine), phonetic borrowing (as in hangashore, ‘layabout,’ from the Gaelic ainniseoir, and bakeapple,  from the French baie qu’appelle, ‘that berry’), part elision (n’arn, for ‘nary a thing,’ and b’y, which is technically ‘boy’, but is used more like ‘bub’, or ‘bud’), part fun with prepositions (‘where ya ‘longs to?’), and part pure sonic joy (a tickle is a channel, a scruncheon, a fatty morsel, a tuckamore, a low clump of trees).

9. The food goes beyond fish and chips and seal flipper pie. In St. John’s, it felt like every touton-and-baked bean action had an equal and opposite squid vindaloo reaction. The pubs and casual places tend to offer up the more traditional, rib-sticking, scurvy-inducing fare, which is definitely worth trying (check out the Christmas-light-decked, poorly-named Bagel Cafe for a bevy of options), while newer spots like the Adelaide Oyster House and Mallard Cottage offer up inventive takes on local ingredients, such as the aforementioned squid vindaloo and a spicy, zingy vermicelli salad at the former and glorious hunks of salt-baked turnip and whole flounder, simply broiled with herbs and lemon, at the latter.

10. This stuff will set you back a pretty penny. Newfoundland is not a budget travel destination; most of the tourists are around or past retirement age, and the establishments, particularly outside of St. John’s, reflect this: lots of twee gift shoppes and very small-scale artisan stores (in tiny Trinity, we saw stores offering speciality chocolate, seal-skin slippers and hats, landscape paintings, and yoga (Tuesday and Thursday afternoons)), along with a handful of whale, puffin, and iceberg tour outfits.

In the high season, expect to spend at least $150/night for a room at a B&B in a small town and $200+ in St. John’s. In nice restaurants, prices are on par with New York’s — low teens for appetizers, mid-twenties for entries (yes I’ve already converted from Canadian).

11. That said, there is one wonderful free activity available all over Newfoundland: hiking! There are well-maintained trails all over Newfoundland’s coast, including the East Coast Trail, a continuous 540km stretch along the Avalon Peninsula. In St. John’s itself, we hiked the switchbacks up to Signal Hill (so called because it is the site of the first successful transatlantic wireless transmission, aka the beginning of our addiction to all things wireless and the reason I can publish this today!). It was really more of a walk than a hike, and it wended through cozy streets full of neat, cheery row houses and at the top in addition to views of the sea and of St. John’s spread (or really, dotted) out before us, we saw six humpback whales! Six! They were close enough to see with the naked eye, but a nice man gave us an up-close look through his enormous tripod binoculars. They had massive white fins that appeared aqua in the water, and the knack all vast creatures have for making quick movements seem slow and languid. signal hillOutside of St. John’s, we hiked first outside in Bulls Bay in an attempt to see puffins (unsuccessful in that regard but the trail was very Gandalfian in its shrouds of mist and craggy rock, and utterly empty). In Port Rexton, we hiked the famous Skerwink in Trinity Bight. It’s not called the one of the best coastal trails in Canada for nothing: the views — of the cliffs and karsts and sea and inlets and, towards the end, a squat, lonely lighthouse — are staggering, and the lovely Canadian Parks Service built hundreds of wooden steps to facilitate the taking in of them, and the rough-hewn charm of the steps strung along the lush moss and tuckamore (new word!) gives the whole thing a serious woodland faerie vibe.

skerwink trail

In both instances, there was absolutely nothing but our own senses to keep us from going over the cliffs, which made us feel very adventurous and also slightly worried, as we hail from the land of guardrails stay back keep away single file please!

In conclusion: go to Newfoundland, and bring yo jukebox money. (And a sweater! And binoculars for the whales!)

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When It Lifts, or Some Scattered Thoughts on Summertime in Newfoundland

How to Save a Lie

What would you do if your son was at home/
Crying alone/
On the bathroom floor/
‘Cause he’s hungry and the only way to feed him is to/
Sleep with a man for a little bit of money?

Our eighth grade art class had been tasked with creating CD jackets to songs or albums we felt spoke to us, though my reason for choosing City High’s EP had less to do with the subject matter’s relevance to my life — I was thirteen and had barely been kissed, let alone slept with, let alone slept with for money — and more to do with my seating assignment. I occupied the sixth stool at a table otherwise populated by our middle school’s resident wolf pack: boys who’d been suspended for smoking pot on a school trip to Plymouth Rock, girls who’d traded braces for ninth and tenth grade boyfriends, a collective posse whose basement birthday parties were highlighted by girl-on-girl makeouts and breathless flights from our town’s singular night cop. Sitting among them, I felt like Cady Heron showing up as the corpse bride when all the other girls were sexy kittens. Could a song like “What Would You Do?” show the wolf pack that under the fake blood and dirty wedding dress lurked someone with real sexy kitten potential?

It was a question that never got answered, because I forgot to bring in my custom-illustrated copy of City High. And then I lied about it. “I left it by the boombox yesterday,” I said, when it was my turn to press play and explain my mordant depictions. The lie had had twenty anxious minutes of Ja Rule and Sublime and Jack Johnson to foment; it came out smoothly. But my art teacher didn’t tell me I could bring in a different illustrated song the following day, as I had hoped: instead she turned to my classmates, asking, gravely, if anyone had seen City High, or moved it by accident, or borrowed it and forgot to put it back. No one had, of course, but the art teacher seemed to take silence as a group admission. Fine, she snapped. There would be no more expository DJing until City High was found.

The remaining minutes of class inched by, but the relief I felt when the bell ended was short-lived. During gym, I was called to the Vice Principal’s office. When I walked in, the first thing I saw was City High. The second was my art teacher. The third was my mother. City High glinted benignly, but the other ⅔ of the triumvirate were furious.

City High never got its moment in the sunlight, but I did, as I stumbled through a public apology while my teacher glared and the wolf pack, unfazed, drew on their arms and legs with skinny permanent markers. Then I never lied again. Just kidding, but I did learn to tailor my lies so that the only person they ever implicated was myself. For, as the wolf pack, with their nightly window drops and myriad pocket roaches knew, the best lies were islands, independent and capable of floating away, towards truth.

How to Save a Lie

This Is Not Simone de Beauvoir

an (non) Actor’s Lament

“He stole my scarab beetle!” I mumbled.

“No, no, no. Again, stronger please.” Each shake of Professor C’s shaggy head was rife with that combination of exasperation and despair so particular to the French.

“He STOLE my scarab beetle!”

Professor C sighed. I was supposed to be furious, yes? So, where was my fury?

Oh, my fury was there, all right, and, like usual, it was tied up in constricting knots.

I had arrived in Paris a month earlier, when the city was a green-gold oz of languid picnics and easy laughter and insouciant summer scarves. Now the ginko leaves were falling, and I was falling too, deeply disquieted by my inability to summon a six year-old’s roiling, aggrieved rage.

When I enrolled in “Acting French,” it had been in the manner of an empty nester signing up for pottery classes: a “why not?” threaded with a thin suspicion that I might actually be good at this. Apart from a successful turn as an angry Loyalist in our fifth grade class play, there was no historical basis for that suspicion — but I’m a card-carrying millennial; at 19, I believed I could be good at (almost) anything.

Right away, there were warning signs. In my naiveté, I had imagined that we would spend most of class reading aloud from classic French plays, like a sort of extended adult story hour. Maybe I would finally understand why people liked Les Miserables so much, I figured. But Professor C, sprightly in pirate boots and a military jacket, informed us that the play we would be workshopping all fall was one of her own. At the end of the semester, we would get to perform it at the American Embassy. What a treat for us all!

The play was based on the letters of Simone de Beauvoir. Simone was a complicated woman; Professor C acknowledged this by chopping up her life into eight different roles. A sylvan-voiced, doe-eyed Missourian, the sole theatre student in the class, got the role of twenty-something Simone, teenage Simone went to a very stylish Teen Vogue intern, and child Simone went to me.

Ninety percent of my role was a monologue concerning the whereabouts of the aforementioned beetle. Like a good budding philosophe, I exhausted all possibilities; then, I hid in some bushes. I always rushed through my monologue, hoping to reach the bushes before Professor C interrupted me. Unfortunately, the bushes were invisible (the professor was a big fan of the Our Town aesthetic, or else there was no money for props), so even when I escaped sans remark, my flaming cheeks were on full view.   

It was, objectively, a terrible play, and I, just as objectively, was terrible in it. My terribleness compounded, which confounded me, and then it flatlined, which confounded me more. I was accustomed to linear progression, but as October slid into November, it became clear to me that my only hope was an exponential hail Mary.

In Mid-December, we bundled the bony stools that constituted the entirety of our set into a van and set off for the Embassy. “Don’t come,” I instructed my boyfriend, but when I scrambled, fizzy with nerves, atop my stool, he was there, partially blocking the view of an ambassador. In the dressing room right before we went on, I had swallowed a glug of tequila, and as I waited for Professor C to finish introducing the play, I realized that the nerves I was feeling were the good kind, the kind I used to get as a swimmer behind the starting blocks. “Oh hey, this is going to be fine,” I thought, and it was. I tore into my monologue with the requisite fervor; for the first time, my lines didn’t feel like lines anymore, but like skin, something I owned. Quite suddenly it was all over and I was blushing less fiercely than usual and I could hear the audience laughing, just has they had when I was a bonneted Loyalist.

At the party afterwards, Professor C congratulated me and insisted that I finish one of the nicer bottles of champagne that was circulating. “You’ve earned it,” she said. But exponential Hail Marys, however welcome they may be, do not really give one the sense of having “earned it.”

The following fall, I received an email. Someone had made a documentary about Simone and our Embassy performance was part of it. There would be a viewing party at NYU’s Maison Francaise, in the Washington Mews. I was free that evening, but I did not go. I have never tried to act in anything since.

 

This Is Not Simone de Beauvoir

The Thrashers (thoughts on Emily Dickinson and solitude in the age of Trump)

I went to see the new Emily Dickinson exhibit at the Morgan this morning. I’ve liked Emily Dickinson since I was a child, without knowing more than the most famous of her poems. I read and reread Michael Bedard and Barbara Cooney’s picture book about her, and the little girl who spotted the train of her black dress once, on the stairs. Emily wrote the girl a poem, I remember, and in return, the girl gave her paperwhites, bulbs that harbinger spring in winter, indoors, the perfect flower for a recluse.

growing-paperwhites

The book didn’t make clear why Emily felt the need to retreat from a world that was already, relatively speaking, a retreat, and the exhibit didn’t either. Emily, the daughter of one of the treasurers of Amherst College, received the sort of education typically afforded only to wealthy young men. The exhibit contained yearbooks, programs for plays and “Eclectic Societies,” daguerreotypes of the prominent scholars and publishers and ministers whose lives Emily’s intersected with. She grew up in a cultural hub, even if the culture heavily tinged with a religion she could never bring herself to subscribe to. She had large, dark eyes and auburn hair she once prized enough to send her best friend a lock of; she was, in many ways, a catch.

She was a catch but she got caught in herself; by her mid-twenties, she had begun to withdraw, to curl up like a snail in her room, going outside only to garden. And yet, measured in words, her life was full indeed: over its course, she wrote 1800 poems, half of them between 1858 and 1865. Only 10 were published in her lifetime; all anonymously, and most without her say-so. Most of them existed in only one or two places, jotted in pencil on sheets of paper she first sewed into fascicles and later folded together in simpler sets. Some she sent to friends, or admired acquaintances; the majority were known only to her until after her death.

emily_dickinson_fascile

Like e.e. cummings, Emily saw poetry in multiple dimensions, played with capitalization, with alignment, with the shape of the paper beneath the words. She loved em-dashes; some of her poems seems studded with sharp intakes of breath. Shad her own editing notation: “N” for nature, “D” for death, crosses for words with alternates. She almost never used titles. Because of this and because so many of her poems lived in letters, and because her literal voice was so swoonily akin to her poetic one, her posthumous editors sometimes had to guess where the letter ended and the poem began. They may have guessed wrong, but if the world is your shellacking oyster, does it make a difference?

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In recent months, I’ve been doing some shellacking of my own, walling myself off from flesh and bone connections. Conversely, I’ve been texting furiously. Like Emily and the legions of IRC-ers and Redditors and 400 pound men who live in their parental basements, I’ve (re)discovered the comfort of a world of my own making, bolstered by communication whose direction I control. I drink and my texts grow expansive; I make plans I shy away from come shriveled morning.

It’s easy to blame the election for this, and much of it is reactionary: with so much to do, and so much to be angry about, I do nothing and seethe, or the easiest things, while dreaming of doing everything, and loudly. But Emily was at her most productive at the height of the Civil War; in solitude, she produced; I tend to reduce, or flail.

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This post doesn’t have an end; I’m not even sure what I’m trying to say, exactly. Is solitude justified if it’s productive? Can I spend my days consorting with flowers so long as I write about them in ways that contain at least a possibility of politically aware metaphor? Unless you’re a genius, that smacks of privilege. The day I felt least shellacked was the day of the Women’s March, in Washington. There was joy that day, in walking among so many people who didn’t just feel or dream but did. It helped that there was no cell service; the only place I could be was exactly where I was.

 

The Thrashers (thoughts on Emily Dickinson and solitude in the age of Trump)

The Gray Mare Is the Better Horse

nyc_blackout_77

Yesterday, it was beautiful in New York, unseasonably warm, but with November’s brand of curling sun. Perfect weather for waiting in a long line to cast a vote and then walking around with a multi-pronged, fuck-yeah ebullience. In email chains and Facebook posts and Instagram comments, there were giddy, reclamatory uses of  “nasty” and “badass,” photos of suffragettes’ sticker-coated headstones, and so many variations of #withher. We were poised on the precipice of righteousness; we were buoyant and thirsty; we were ready to revel.

garbage-burning-in-nyc-streets-1977

At the DNC this summer (how long ago that feels, now), there was a sense that patriotism, long the far right’s excuse for acts of prejudice and vitriol, might become a rallying cry for unity on the left. Both of the Obamas’ speeches made me proud to be an American, a pride that was kicked along by the Olympics and reached its apex about 30 minutes in to the first presidential debate.  Whatever pluckings of disbelief I felt at the polls being as close as they were (for even a margin of 20 percentage points felt close, given what was on the fuzzy end of that margin) were stayed by a confidence that Hillary would not, could not lose.

I live in a bubble. I’ve known that for years, but I didn’t really understand it until last night, when the New York Times forecast gauge slipped from blue to pink to red. Somewhere around the time Florida was called for Trump, that bubble burst.

ap7707140492

Today is not blue or pink or red. It is still warm, but not sunny and there are no frissons of ebullience to be had. Today is grey and the people I pass on the streets are grey and the man on the subway with his head in his hands is grey and I myself feel grey in a way I have never felt before. Instinct tells me to flee – not out of fear but out of anger and spite and a refusal to own our new reality. Braver to stay and fight – but how, with no house and no senate and the certainty of a conservative court and the spectre of alt-right death-eaters making preparations for their February feast?

One way, the way that seems most obvious, is to use the free tools that Trump employed so effectively against him, to combat his lies with truths, to share the fears of the frightened and disenfranchised so that they might be allayed, to keep insisting that patriotism is love and not hate. If we rage enough against the dying of the light, we just might revive it.

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The Gray Mare Is the Better Horse

Liminal States

Recently, I came across a blog my college roomates and I had kept throughout the last semester of our senior year. It was, largely, a cooking blog, and small-ly, a walking blog, because I was not at a stage where I could give anybody advice about cooking that didn’t start and end with a microwave. I read through the archives, which started with my and my roommate Emily’s joint birthday party and ended with a walk I’d done from my then-office in Times Square home to our apartment in Cobble Hill. The penultimate post, also by Emily, struck a similar chord to me as it had when I’d first read it, at 22. It was written shortly before our graduation, and, in addition to oatmeal cookies, it offers up some really f**king poignant end-of-an-era-now-what??? feelings.

The other night the kitchen was cluttered, it was filled with canned goods and rice and dirty dishes and my computer and shredded coconut and the millions of water glasses I am currently going through.  The next morning it was a little better, as all cluttered nights feel better after you sleep on it. And I think as the week goes on, it will most likely stay on the cluttered side, but I kind of like that. Life is never a shiny, clean kitchen. Especially when you’re graduating.

Emily titled the post “The State that I am in,” and the short answer was a liminal one.

The phrase “liminal state” has been clanging around my head all summer. The word “liminal” comes from the Latin limen, “threshold.” It’s a very pretty word, I think — it sounds like a skip. Nowadays, I don’t know if there is any word with as high a ratio of metaphoric:literal as threshold, though back in Roman times, maybe that wasn’t the case.

the-upside-down

I have my own liminal state, but I’m seeing them everywhere. You could call the Upsidedown in the Netflix series Stranger Things an alternate world but I’d call it a liminal one, attached to the rightsideup like Peter Pan’s stockings. I fell asleep and dreamed our bedroom had grown mossy cumuli and a suspended haze.

Last night, I rewatched Joe Swanberg’s Drinking Buddies, which is such a lovely, unshowy little movie, in the vein of Before Sunrise, about the sort of friendship that can become something else. There are so many scenes in Drinking Buddies where the central teeter, in words but often in gestures, on the brink of that something else; they burst with liminality.

drinking-buddies

A liminal state is a bit of a Shrodinger’s cat: neither one thing nor the other, or both, or their bleeding, shrouded edge. It is not necessarily a bad state, though it can feel so — but then again it can also feel deliciously close to a desired outcome, without all of the responsibility of owning its results.

In a liminal state, we are none of us terminal cases.

 

Liminal States

Cruise Control, or Why Katie Ledecky Dominates Distance Freestyle

I began paying attention to Katie Ledecky, the American distance swimmer, after Brian Phillips wrote a fantastic profile on her for Grantland, in the fall of 2014. Ledecky was seventeen then; she had been the reigning world record-holder in the women’s 800 meter freestyle for over 2 years. Actually, reigning, which suggests stasis, isn’t the best gerund for Ledecky, who, after whittling nine seconds from her prelims time to seize the gold at the 2012 Olympics*, kept whittling. 8 minutes, 14 seconds. 8 minutes, 13 seconds. 8 minutes, 11 seconds. Since Phillips wrote his piece, Ledecky has continued to get faster and faster; in addition to the 800, she now holds world records in the 400 and the mile — the latter by 17(!!!) seconds.It’s in the mile, as Phillips noted, that Ledecky laps her opponents**. At the elite level, this is, let’s just say, unusual. More unusual: holding world records in both mid-distance and distance events (and in Rio, she’ll be racing the 200 — nearly a sprint!– as well).

ledecky_world_record
Via the New York Times

In 2014, Phillips was one of the few non-niche sportswriters to cover Ledecky. These days, with Rio upon us and Ledecky our best, surest chance at Olympic aqua-Gold, features abound. Most of them hammer home the following two points: 1) Katie Ledecky is “the greatest athlete in America”/”peerless”,”better at swimming than anyone is at anything”, and 2) Katie Ledecky is really nice. While I LOVE seeing swimming get some mainstream lip service, calling someone unbeatable without offering more than naive straws as to why they are unbeatable is boring, and calling an athlete “nice” is just lazy. Basically, some of these pieces come off like pre-Kimye T-Swift features, is what I’m saying.

Nonetheless, Katie Ledecky, while perhaps not “better at swimming than anyone is at anything,” is going into Rio with a wider berth between her and her competitors than maybe any other athlete. There are a few explanations for this, some to do entirely with Ledecky herself, and some to do with the mechanics of distance swimming.

First, timing. At 11, Ledecky was still a multisport athlete; two years later, she and her then coach, Yuri Suguiyama, were mapping out plans for London. This might seem like a crazy leap, but it is fairly common for previously casual swimmers go through a period of staggering improvement when they hit adolescence.***  For some, this period may be short and followed by a plateau before improvement continues, but for others, like Ledecky, the period can last for years with little abatement.

Second, margins. The press, not particularly hip to the vagaries of distance swimming, are astounded by the number of seconds Ledecky can drop in an 800 or 1500 between meets. For someone on a spate of improvement, dropping two seconds in the 800 over a month is like dropping maybe a tenth of a second in the 100. Think of it as less of a sprint, more of, I dunno, a half-marathon. Even at the elite level, there’s some cushion, especially before you figure out how you want to swim it. (The length of the race is also why Ledecky is able to establish multi-second leads: being a little faster over the course of a 50 multiplies to being a lot faster over the course of a 800 or a 1500). And these margins are why I think distance swimming is so fun to watch: unlike the 50 or the 100, which are decided almost at the dive, or even the 200, the distance events offer a lot of uncertainty — not only in who will win, but how?

I was never a true distance swimmer, so I’m not the most suited to discuss distance race strategies. That being said, there are three common ones:

  • Go out fast and try to hold on. (When the place matters more than the time, this can be a decent strategy for messing with your competitors’ head games, at least.)
  • Go out easy and build. (If you’re not as susceptible to head games and you feed off pressure, this strategy can pay off. Bonus: it’s more exciting to watch.)
  • Stay a maintainable speed for pretty much the entire race, save for the first and last fifty.

The last method is the trickiest to manage, because the swimmer needs to know exactly what her maintainable speed is. At the elite level, this method also requires the most endurance and raw strength, because the swimmers are holding nearly race pace for over eight minutes. Ledecky follows this strategy, as do some of the elites who she’ll most likely be swimming against in the prelims and finals at Rio.

Below are the splits for each successive 50m in the 800 for the world’s fastest swimmers in this event, using their best times of the past two years.****

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Ledecky swims a nearly perfect steppe: fast out, steady on, fast close. For the middle 700, the standard deviation between her splits is 0.12 seconds. The average standard deviation for the other elites listed here is 0.27 seconds.

The New Zealand swimmer Lauren Boyle, the German Sarah Kohler, and Ledecky’s teammate Leah Smith swim their middle 700 somewhat evenly (stdevs of .18, .27, .27, respectively), but they don’t close like Ledecky, whose final 50 is within half a second of her first 50. Only Jessica Ashwood (AUS) has a final 50 that is closer to her starting 50 than Ledecky, but Ashwood’s strategy is more of a come-from-behind than any other in this chart.

What this all boils down to — and the reason Ledecky dominates this event — is that she is able to swim fifteen 50s at a pace that is, on average, a half second faster than what any other female swimmer can do.

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This isn’t a predictions post, as, barring deus ex machina, Ledecky, whose fastest time this year is 12 seconds above that of Jazz Carlin, the runner-up, will win this handily. That said, looking at the data, I’d say that Carlin and Jessica Ashwood might have the best chance at coming within ~7 seconds of Ledecky. Not because their swims are steppe, but because of the opposite: they have relatively weaker middles, and the middle is the most straightforward target for time whittling.

 

 

*Wresting crowns from the Brits is always a bit of fun, especially when it’s done under the gaze of the king and queen.

**Though it’s unlikely that you’ll get to see her lap anyone in Rio, as women, ridiculously, are forbidden from racing the mile.

***My own childhood coach attributed this phenomenon, in part, to not knowing enough to overthink, and I see echoes of this in many a profile on top American swimmers.

****Missing Zhang Yuhan, of China, as I was not able to find her splits.

Cruise Control, or Why Katie Ledecky Dominates Distance Freestyle