Katie Ledecky and Her Unbeatable Mystique Pushing Toward Tokyo

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Katie Ledecky -- Photo Courtesy: Becca Wyant

Katie Ledecky and Her Unbeatable Mystique Pushing Toward Tokyo

Katie Ledecky is not “back.” That would imply she was ever anything but history’s most dominant freestyler and the world’s best female swimmer, which is simply not the case. But at the TYR Pro Swim Series in Mission Viejo, fans have saw a bit of the swagger and mystique that carried Ledecky to an Olympic gold at age 15, four more golds at age 19 and 14 world records between the ages of 16 and 21.

Today, Ledecky is 24, which means her third Olympic Trials coming up will mark nine years since she stunned the country by annihilating the 800 free field in Omaha to make her first Olympic team and then stunned the world by knocking off Rebecca Adlington for Olympic gold a few weeks after that. The leadup to the 2016 Olympics saw Ledecky go on a record-smashing streak that culminated in Rio. If she had any setbacks along the way, no one ever noticed.

But while the post-2016 Ledecky still accumulated wins and gold medals, she didn’t have the same record-breaking edge every time out. After a dominant two years of college swimming at Stanford, she promptly broke a world record in her first race as a pro. She took down the 1500 free record by five seconds at the Pro Series meet in Indianapolis with a 15:20.48, and she also posted the second-fastest time of her career in the 400 free (3:57.94) and her third-best mark in the 800 (8:07.27) that weekend.

But just a year later, Ledecky faced arguably her toughest challenge yet when she dealt with illness at the 2019 World Championships. She suffered her first 400 free defeat in seven years when Australia’s Ariarne Titmus ran her down over the final 100 meters, and then she was forced to withdraw from both the 1500 free and 200 free. Finally, she felt well enough to race the 800 free, and she fought tooth and nail to overcome Simona Quadarella of Italy over the final 100 meters to win her only gold medal of the meet.

But the Ledecky that showed up in Mission Viejo looked more like teenage Ledecky than she has in several years. We saw hints at the last Pro Series in San Antonio, when she swam an 8:13.64 in the 800 free—a time which no one else has ever beaten. In Mission Viejo, Ledecky swam a 1:54.40 in the 200 free, the second-quickest mark of her career behind the 1:53.73 she swam on her way to Olympic gold in Rio. Her previous in-season best came a few months before the 2016 Olympics when she was racing eventual Rio silver medalist Sarah Sjostrom head-to-head. This time, Ledecky crushed the field by more than 3.5 seconds.

Ledecky swam a 3:59.25 in the 400 free, a time very much “routine” by her standards. This was the 13th-fastest swim of her career, her second-quickest in-season time and—most significantly—her fastest performance in any meet since 2018. Of the 25 occasions a woman has broken 4:00 in the events, Ledecky is responsible for 20 of them. Still, whenever she’s in the pool and swimming fast, you check out the world record pace. Just in case.

Ledecky dominated the 1500 free and swam a time of 15:40.55, the 14th-fastest performance in history. She wasn’t close to world record pace, but only two other women have ever beaten that time, and no one besides Ledecky has been that quick in six years. That’s faster than the 15:40.89 that Quadarella swam to win the 2019 world title in Ledecky’s absence. Finally, to wrap up her weekend, Ledecky swam a 54.22 to finish second in the 100 free.

From Ledecky’s perspective, everything is fairly normal this week, on track towards the summer with nothing out of the ordinary.

“I feel like I’m in a great spot. Training’s been going great, and I’ve just been getting a lot of really good work in. The last two weeks, we’ve kind of called it a training camp, even though we haven’t been able to go anywhere,” she said. “ It all feels like we’re really gearing up in a good way.”

But no one can ignore how good she has been this week and the signs pointing to a return to unfaltering dominance.


Katie Ledecky’s Threats and Her Chances at History

Still, Ledecky will face challenges that she will face in her journey to the Tokyo Olympics, challenges harder than they dealt with in 2016. While it’s still unlikely any other swimmer can challenge an in-form Ledecky in the 800 free or the 1500 free, newly added to the Olympic schedule, she will have to fend off Titmus in a 400 free rematch. Titmus has been dealing with a shoulder injury this year, but expect her to be ready when she and Ledecky face off again in Tokyo.

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Katie Ledecky racing in Mission Viejo — Photo Courtesy: Becca Wyant

She will face a gauntlet of competitors in the 200 free, including Sjostrom, Titmus, 32-year-old world champion Federica Pellegrini of Italy, Hong Kong’s Siobhan Haughey, China’s Yang Junxuan, Australia’s Emma McKeon and, potentially, Canada’s Taylor Ruck. Everyone in that group has swum under 1:54 within the past several years.

Finally, the 800 free relay should feature an epic dual between the United States and Australia, and the Americans will need every bit of Ledecky’s 200-meter speed to stay in contention.

But in the biggest meets, Ledecky always steps up. Think back to Rio, when she edged out Sjostrom by three tenths to win gold in the 200 free. She needed every drop of energy in the tank to hold off her Swedish rival, and she admitted she felt like throwing up on the last 50.

Even if she’s not always perfect, the great ones always deliver at the biggest moments. Ledecky will get that chance in her third Olympics this summer, her most significant opportunity to bolster her already immense legacy in five years.

Among Ledecky’s chances for history, a gold medal in the 800 free would make her just the third female swimmer to win three straight gold medals in one event, joining Australia’s Dawn Fraser (100 free, 1956-1960-1964) and Hungary’s Krisztina Egerszegi (200 back, 1988-1992-1996). In recent memory, only two swimmers have dominated his or her events for a full decade or more: Michael Phelps and now Ledecky.

Sure, nothing is certain, especially not in a year when the threat of COVID-19 hovers over anything sports-related. But barring any major unavoidable setbacks, Ledecky has the in-season performances and her old invincible aura that show she should be ready and at her best for Tokyo.