Ten years ago, Ledecky’s feat was unprecedented for someone so young. These days — six more Olympic golds, three coaches, two cross-country moves and a Stanford degree since — she’s been doing things unheard of for someone so old.
When she dives off the starting blocks on Saturday for her first race at the FINA World Championships in Budapest – the 400-metre freestyle, the first of four events on her program during the eight-day competition – Ledecky, 25, will do so as a certified legend, the undisputed greatest female long distance swimmer in history and one of the most decorated U.S. Olympians of all time.
“No way,” Ledecky said when asked if she could have imagined the career she had 10 years ago. “Right after 2012, my biggest goal was just to come back to another international competition, to be part of the world championship team the following year. “Olympics. When you start a career like that, at 15, I wasn’t going to see that far. Now I’m at the point where I’m one of the oldest members of the team. . . . He so it’s hard not to go back and see how far I’ve come.
Multimedia: How Katie Ledecky swims faster than the rest of the world
Team USA will be led in Budapest by a quartet of household names: Ledecky, breaststroke Lilly King, backstroke Ryan Murphy and freestyle/butterfly superstar Caeleb Dressel, who boast a combined 20 Olympic gold medals, including eight at the Tokyo Olympics last year, and are all favorites to win multiple gold medals. The encounter, however, was put on the schedule after Japan delayed its world championships in Fukuoka from 2022 to 2023 due to covid-19 concerns; as a result, the competition will be missing several big names, including Australia’s Ariarne Titmus, Ledecky’s main rival.
Last month, 21-year-old Titmus clocked 3 minutes 56.40 seconds in the 400 freestyle final at the Australian National Championships in Adelaide, shaving six hundredths of a second off Ledecky’s standard from the Rio Olympics in Janeiro 2016 and marking the first time one of Ledecky’s world records had been lowered by someone other than herself. (She remains the world record holder in the 800 and 1,500 meters.)
“It was a very nice swim. And I would say that I was not surprised to see it. She’s been really close in the past and she had a really good encounter before this event,” Ledecky said of Titmus, who last summer in Tokyo became the first woman to beat Ledecky in an Olympic final. , beating her for gold in the 400. “I take my hat off to her for this race. I know what it takes to go 3:56.
Due to Titmus’ decision to skip the world championships this summer, Ledecky will likely not face her rival again until next summer’s world championships in Fukuoka, a preview of what is sure to be one of the showpiece clashes. of the Paris 2024 Olympic Games. But Titmus will be represented in Budapest in Saturday’s 400 freestyle final – at least digitally – by the thin red line moving across the water on television screens, marking out his new world record.
Ledecky wouldn’t admit to being motivated to try to reclaim her record, but wouldn’t rule out the possibility of it happening either.
“Of course, I would love to do another 3:56 or faster. Whether it’s within my capabilities, we’ll find out,” she said. “But I feel good about the way I train and I don’t see why I couldn’t come back there, either this year or in the years to come. Being 3:57 last year [a 3:57.36 in Tokyo, her best time in the event since 2016], I was pretty close. It’s close at hand.
Hot on the heels of the Tokyo Olympics – where she won the 800 and 1,500 meters freestyle, the sixth and seventh gold medals of her Olympic career, and added silver medals in the 400 freestyle and 4×200 freestyle relay – Ledecky began considering leaving Stanford, where she had been training since the fall of 2016 as an undergraduate and later as a professional.
She chose the University of Florida and coach Anthony Nesty largely because the Gators had the deepest and most elite group of male middle and long distance swimmers in the world – a list led by Bobby Finke. , gold medalist in the 800 and 1500 m freestyle in Tokyo. , and 400 freestyle bronze medalist Kieran Smith. The theory: If Gator men could push Ledecky to her limits in daily practice, which few or no American women can do, it would make her faster and sharper.
“It’s a lot of fun to be able to run in practice and forget to look at the clock,” Ledecky said. “For a few years at Stanford, a lot of my distance sets, I was basically racing against the clock. And I’m just a little obsessed with the clock. So it’s been really good trying to chase the guys and push them as much as possible.
At a meet in December, after training with Ledecky for several months at that point, Finke was asked what it was like to ride her in practice every day. “You just have to expect to lose sometimes,” he said, “just because of how crazy you are.”
Looking back: Katie Ledecky ran 2,100 meters and won a silver medal on the busiest day of her Olympics
Even before swimming at the world championships for the first time, Ledecky’s decision clearly paid off. At April’s US World Championships trials in Indianapolis, Ledecky’s times in all four individual events – the 200, 400, 800 and 1,500 freestyles – were significantly faster than his corresponding times at the 2021 US Olympic trials. In the case of the 800m, Ledecky’s signature event and the one in which she has won gold at every Olympics and world championships for the past decade, her time of 8:09.27 was her fastest in nearly four years.
(Although Ledecky will drop the 200m freestyle in Budapest to avoid having to race the 200 and 1,500m on the same day, she will swim it in the relay and could add the individual race to her schedule for Paris, depending on how the fixed calendar at the top.)
“Results are just the beginning. Or hopefully they’re just the start,” Ledecky said. “They’re just a byproduct of being very happy in my surroundings and enjoying every day with my teammates and letting the results take care of themselves.”
Twenty-five has long been considered an unofficial cut-off age for female distance swimmers – due to lack of financial opportunity as much as physiology. Four-time Olympic gold medalist Janet Evans, Ledecky’s predecessor as America’s queen of distance swimming, has retired at 24. shoulder injuries effectively ended her career by 24. Since the women’s 800 freestyle debuted in Mexico City in 1968, gold medalists have been 16, 15, 15, 18, 18, 17, 20, 16, 20, 22, 19, 15, 19 and 24 – the last three being Ledecky.
“I’ve heard it throughout my career: distance swimmers are better when they’re young,” she said. “And I always thought that was kind of silly because there’s a lot of evidence that some of the best endurance athletes are older. I don’t see age as a limiting factor here.
Ledecky will be 27 in Paris, but she’s already talking about extending her career to Los Angeles in 2028, when she would be 31. The grueling workload of a long-distance swimmer has driven many young swimmers to a landlocked life, but she still relishes the 6 a.m. practices, the relentless pursuit of improvement, and the countless hours spent watching this black line at the bottom of the pool.
“Distance education isn’t for the faint of heart, but it’s something I love,” she said. “I don’t see myself stopping after 2024. At this point I’m not going to commit to anything, but I very much see myself going through 2028 now. I love sport. I love training. I like challenges. »