For the First Time, Katie Ledecky Comes Up Short

federica pellegrini, katie ledecky
Photo Courtesy: SPIA USA

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By David Rieder.

The prospects of Katie Ledecky not finishing first in the women’s 200 free final were real, very real. During the first three days of the World Championships, Ledecky has insisted that she believed she was clicking, but her times had just not been up to her usual standard.

She had missed her world record in the 400 free by almost two seconds and was off her global standard in the 1500 free by six seconds—although she appeared to ease up in the mile when she realized how massive a lead she had built.

The biggest warning sign, though, was her split on the U.S. women’s 400 free relay. Yes, she pulled the Americans into the lead, but that was despite a split of 53.83, more than a second slower than the 52.7 splits she had put up at the 2016 Olympics in Rio.

Oh, and while Ledecky had been a bit shy of her best, Emma McKeon had been flying. The 23-year-old Australian had already won silver in the 100 fly in a lifetime-best time of 56.18 and anchored the Aussie 400 free relay to silver with a career-best split of 52.29.


Photo Courtesy: lan MacNicol

McKeon had won bronze in the 200 free at the Olympic Games and had put down a swift 1:54.99 in the semi-finals, good enough for the No. 2 seed going into finals behind Ledecky’s 1:54.73. Going into the final, both felt supremely confident

“It’s feeling really good,” Ledecky said. “I think 1:54 coming off the mile (less than an hour before) is really good for me. Puts me in a good spot for tomorrow.”

“I’m relaxed,” McKeon said. “I found the right amount of nerves. I feel the most confident I have in a while, with my swimming and with myself.”

The battle for gold, in all probability, would be McKeon’s early speed vs. Ledecky’s ability to motor down the stretch and run everyone down. McKeon, surely, was the only threat to the dynamo Ledecky, who had previously swum in 13 individual finals at an Olympic or World Championship, and she had won gold in all of them.

For the first 150 meters of the race, that’s exactly what happened. McKeon built a big lead and was a half-second up at the halfway mark, but Ledecky closed the gap to one hundredth off the final turn. It was game on.

But little did either Ledecky or McKeon know: Federica Pellegrini was about to come up and steal the gold medal.

Pellegrini, who had amazingly won a medal in the 200 free at each of the previous six World Championships, was in third place with one lap to go. But closing speed has long been Pellegrini’s calling card, and at that moment, she downshifted.

Pellegrini’s split on the final 50 was 28.82, seven tenths faster than anyone else in the field. Ledecky tried to go to her extra gear, but the tank was empty. She ended up with the sixth-fastest closing 50 in the field.

“I could just feel it at the end that I didn’t have that extra gear that I normally have,” Ledecky said. “I was just trying to get my hand to the wall. I couldn’t really see much the last 50.

Ledecky had no explanation as to what went wrong. All she knew was that Pellegrini, who never considered Ledecky unbeatable, was coming hard. Pellegrini touched the wall in 1:54.73, four hundredths slower than Ledecky’s semi-final time, but it was enough to reclaim her gold medal.

“Everything seemed to be in slow-motion to me in the water. At 150 meters on the turn we were all there, so I closed my eyes and went for it,” Pellegrini said. “It’s incredible. I didn’t believe I would make it—I still can’t believe it.”


Photo Courtesy: SIPA USA

She had become the first swimmer, male or female, to win a medal in one event in seven straight World Championships. Pellegrini won silver in 2005, bronze in 2007 and then golds in 2009 and 2011—her 2009 win coming in a world record-time that still stands. But in both 2013 and 2015, she finished second— to Missy Franklin in 2013 and Ledecky in 2015.

Six years after she last stood atop the podium, Pellegrini had her retribution in Budapest.

Ledecky finished in 1:55.18, tied with McKeon for the silver medal. She had swum a half-second slower than she had the night before in the semi-finals and a second and a half slower than she swam on her way to gold in Rio last summer.

Afterwards, there were only questions about what went wrong. That’s what happens when you lose your first major international final in 14 tries, after going undefeated for her first five years competing for Team USA.

“I don’t know if I went out too hard or just was feeling yesterday, the rest of the meet,” she said. “Maybe I haven’t been quite on point as much as I would have hoped to have been this week, but I’ve still been feeling good. That was mostly a matter of how I executed my race. It wasn’t anything really too wrong or additional to that.”

Of course, no need to hit the panic button, as it would take an upset much bigger than Pellegrini’s for Ledecky not to return to the top of the podium as part of the U.S. women’s 800 free relay Thursday or in the 800 free individual race Saturday.

But after so many years of invulnerability, of always stepping up to the biggest challenge, it was a bit disconcerting watching Ledecky actually not have all the answers when she needed them.

Ledecky was calm and collected after the race, not pouting about one final gone wrong, and she smiled for photos on the medal podium with Pellegrini and McKeon. Setbacks happen to every swimmer, but for Ledecky, it had been a long time waiting for something to go wrong.

“It happens. Happens to every athlete at some point,” Ledecky said. “I know this race will really motivate me moving forward and the rest of the week.”

Just how motivated will she be? Just how much does Katie Ledecky hate to lose? She—and the rest of the world—are going to find out.


  1. Matteo Forni

    Article solely for the Goddess please.

  2. Felicity Lacchin

    Does anyone know Pellegrini’s name? The journalism has been appalling with this race.

  3. Johnny Quid

    Just another gold in Frederica’s world #championforlife <3

  4. Kylie Youmans

    Katie Kreider that’s literally the dumbest headline I’ve ever heard

    • Keri Sullivan

      I literally just said the same thing – if a silver at worlds is coming up short I guess I have a lot more to learn

    • Katie Kreider


    • Kylie Youmans


  5. Jorge Bohabot

    Federica is a monster swimmwer on right. It’s the 5th time she wins this event at worlds.

    • Betsy Perry

      If she swam her semi time (done after 1500m gold) she’d have won the final, but yeah fair play

    • Shaheen Alghofari

      But she didn’t swim her semi time it’s about delivering at the right times and she didn’t but silver will do for her

  6. Dave Hoover

    An almost never to be seen occurrence, a bad race from Katie Ledecky. Her semi-final swim the day before, a mere 45 mins after winning 1500M, would have won today. But that loss with certainly light a fire under her for the future

  7. Halim Yussuf

    The sheer mileage of previous workload, caught up with Katie. Second is still pretty good.

  8. Suzanne Maranto Baker

    Oh please Katie did amazing considering this is not even an Olympic year and she still hold plenty of World Records!!

  9. Jeff Salomon

    Ridiculous headline. 200 has always been her most challenging event. She is a distance swimmer and the 200 is a middle distance event. She is a classy competitor. The fact that she is so competitve in the 200 is remarkable.

  10. Kylie Hoyer

    Mortality? Really. Worst headline ever.

  11. Rosalee Kalil

    Just because she lost this one race does not make Katie any less the super champion that she is!!!

  12. David Prunell-Friend

    Federica The Queen is back. God save the Queen!!! Bravo Federica!!!

  13. Carole Machol-Atler

    Seriously Swimming World… Mortality? A little over the top in the headline department. Geez. It’s like you’re excited someone beat Ledeckey. Lighten up already.

    • dave

      they are….

  14. Alexander B Gallant

    Katie is still phenomenal and is gracious winning or coming in second. Love watching her stroke.

  15. Nancy Buder Peters

    Really?? Katie is human. 200 not her strongest, never has. Shoot anyone recall NCAA’s, she tied with Comerford. She is a fierce competitor

  16. Robert Nesbitt

    You win some and you loose some. No reason at all to mock a second place performance from a world championship final with a “mortality” headline.

  17. Eva Applebee

    Stupid headline! Katie is a winner, in and out of the pool. Her work ethic and sportsmanship is an example to athletes of all age and ability?

  18. Matt Ponds

    The 200 is her newest event. So just getting a silver is still an accomplishment.

  19. Meg Murphy

    Come up short? Hardly….another swimmer won a race…yes.

  20. Jane Geldart

    Whatever the result, Katie is a classy athlete !

  21. avatar
    Cameron Rothery

    Women don’t swim the 1500 at many major competitions. Having a program with all the distance free, plus relays, plus moving into middle distance will take its toll – even on Katie. Her impressive 1500 then 200 semi an hour later emptied her tank, something she only noticed the next day as her depleted glycogen stores didn’t allow her to kick it up a notch on the last length of her 200 final. But that’s the sort of thing that happens when you’re pushing the limits of human athletic performance. She’s still young and learning what the costs to her are for swimming SO many events. No doubt she will have to start making some hard choices – giving up events she thinks she can win because she can’t win them ALL in a single meet. Phelps learned this lesson as he aged. Katinka Hosszú is now having to make these hard choices.

    Katie Ledecky remains one of the world’s greatest athletes, and I suspect she will be back with a vengeance.

  22. Lisa Hichkad

    So a silver medal is coming up
    Short ?? Seriously ….

  23. Scott Smithers

    She’s human and didn’t throw down a great swim,( for her) just a very good one. She will be more determined then ever and will come back with a vengeance. You could see it in her eyes and in her voice in the interview right after the race. She absolutely hates to lose and is amazingly mentally tough.

  24. John Razi

    Champion..all the way…every-way !!!! Incredible..young-woman – super class.. Guts.. Heart !!!!!!!

  25. Mike Bolstridge

    Well swum Frederica…a well judged race and excellent finish!

    • avatar
      Cameron Rothery

      Yes I agree. Let’s not take away from Pellegrini’s strategic masterpiece. She, too, is a class act AND great swimmer. What a treat to watch her and KL go at it.