Katie Ledecky Has Her Record-Breaking Swagger Back

Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

Morning Splash by David Rieder.

Katie Ledecky has broken world records at mid-season meets before. In 2014, the then-17-year-old took down her own records in the 1500 free and 800 free at a late June meet outside Dallas. Less than two years later—seven months out from the Rio Olympics—she broke the 800 record at the Arena Pro Series meet in Austin in January.

Each of those records was unexpected, but such was the run Ledecky was on between 2013 and 2016, when she set 13 world records between the 400, 800 and 1500.

The difference this time, when Ledecky chopped five seconds off her world record in the 1500 free Wednesday evening at the TYR Pro Swim Series in Indianapolis? Before that, she had been, by her standards, in a record-breaking drought.

In 2017, she swept World titles in the 400, 800 and 1500 free for the third straight edition of FINA’s showcase meet. By medal count, Budapest was her most successful meet, with Ledecky coming home with five gold medals and one silver.

But something felt different at that meet: Ledecky’s aura of invincibility had faded, as had her seemingly limitless ability to break records. She didn’t win gold in the 200 free, and she was not close to any of her best times. Her margin of victory in the 800 free was—GASP—less than three seconds.

In the aftermath and throughout the ensuing NCAA season, there were whispers of “What if?” What if her best was behind her? What if Stanford wasn’t the right place for her to train? Maybe she would never break another world record? Certainly, if she did, she wouldn’t crush records like she had during as a teenager—right?

It’s worth remembering that plenty of female swimmers have hit their peak as teenagers, Missy Franklin being one recent example. Janet Evans never set another world record after she turned 19, even if she won a lot of races over the five years after that. Maybe Ledecky would follow that track, some wondered. She would still wind up as one of the most decorated swimmers ever.

At her second—and final—NCAA championships, Ledecky was again solid but not spectacular. She had broken two American records during the season but set none at the championships. Even as Stanford dominated en route to a second straight national championship, Ledecky’s confidence had suffered after dealing with illness in the leadup.

And then, two months later, the entire narrative changed in the span of 15 minutes, 20 seconds. The Katie Ledecky magic of Rio, and of so many major meets before that, returned.

katie ledecky

Ledecky (right) with Stanford coach Greg Meehan — Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

Ledecky did not rest or shave for the Indianapolis meet—and in her first swim, she broke her first world record in more than two years. It was also her first world record since coming to Stanford and her first world record swimming for coach Greg Meehan—and yeah, that’s a big deal. It means that their plan is working.

Also: “That was my first world record while taking classes. All my other ones were either in the summer, and the one I set in January was in my gap year.”

How did that happen? After a quick post-NCAAs break and then announcing that she would turn pro, Ledecky put in one of her best six-week training blocks in years, and her confidence soared.

“I guess I don’t need to taper ever again. That’s the downside to this. Don’t tell Greg,” Ledecky joked. “I need my confidence to be skyrocketed to swim fast. It’s not really about the rest for me—it’s how I feel my training’s been.”

Ledecky knew the training would pay off eventually, but not this soon.

And boom, some of that old Ledecky swag was back. She is never pretentious or boastful, but as with so many swimmers, each impressive swim builds her confidence and her spunk just a bit more. The post-record Ledecky is a bit more at ease, a bit more likely to smile and joke in a post-race interview. And when she starts riding that wave, she’s the most dangerous.

To follow up her mile, Ledecky posted 3:57.94 in the 400 free, merely the second-fastest performance in history. A Friday night double included a third-place finish in the 400 IM (4:38.88) and a win in the 200 free (1:55.42). Rounding out her weekend was another dominant win in the 800 free, where her time of 8:07.27 ranks as the third-fastest time in history—behind two other Ledecky performances, of course.

No, she did not set world records in the 400 and 800, but she did swim much quicker in both races than her World-title winning times from 2017.

After the world record, Ledecky spoke about “recalibrating” her goals for the summer. She had reasoned that anything under 15:30 would be a good objective for U.S. Nationals and the Pan Pacific Championships after she won the 2017 World title in 15:31.82. But beating that mark by more than ten seconds two months before championship season changes things.

Well, we might have to do some recalibrating of our own. Of our expectations, that is. If anyone expected that the slump (by her standards) over the last year would continue indefinitely, Ledecky has disproven that theory once and for all.

At a mid-May non-championship meet, Ledecky got us talking about records. Name another swimmer who has done that in the last decade. I’ll wait.

This weekend in Indy, Ledecky was in vintage form. Twenty-one-year-old Katie Ledecky has eclipsed teenage Katie Ledecky in one event, and you better believe it will happen again.

9 Comments

9 comments

  1. avatar
    Pat

    Record-breaking drought? What planet have you been on? In two years of college swimming, Ledecky broke American records 11 times including in 4 different individual events (even twice in the 400 IM, an “off event”), NCAA records 15 times, and NCAA Championship meet records 6 times while the Stanford team won two National Championships.

    • avatar

      obviously he’s talking about world records…as it clearly states in the story.

      • avatar
        Pat

        Pretty silly distinction, don’t you think, since that would put basically every recent female NCAA swimmer into a “record-setting drought.” Apart from Ledecky, the only female NCAA swimmer to break an indiv LC WR recently is L. King in 2017, and those were her first WRs ever.

      • avatar
        David Rieder

        Pat,
        My point was that Katie did not break any individual WRs last year for the first time in five years (at least two WRs each year 2013-2016). She also did not break any SC records at NCAAs. Not that she’s been swimming poorly — the term “slump” only applies to the insanely high standard she’s set for herself.

Author: David Rieder

avatar
David Rieder is a staff writer for Swimming World. He has contributed to the magazine and website since 2009, and he has covered the NCAA Championships, U.S. Nationals, Olympic Trials as well as the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio and the 2017 World Championships in Budapest. He is a native of Charleston, S.C., and a 2016 graduate of Duke University.

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