Now Honored With Medal of Freedom, Katie Ledecky Represents Complete All-American Status

Katie Ledecky of United States of America shows the silver medal after competing in the 400m Freestyle Women Final during the 20th World Aquatics Championships at the Marine Messe Hall A in Fukuoka (Japan), July 23rd, 2023.
Katie Ledecky -- Photo Courtesy: Andrea Masini / Deepbluemedia / Insidefoto

Now Honored With Medal of Freedom, Katie Ledecky Represents Complete All-American Status

Before Katie Ledecky, no Olympic swimmer had ever been honored with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honor in the United States. The 27-year-old received the honor Friday in Washington, a short drive from her hometown of Bethesda, Md., as one of 19 notable Americans in this year’s group. Ledecky is one of only three 21st century Olympians to get the medal, joining gymnast Simone Biles and soccer player Megan Rapinoe.

After receiving the award from President Joe Biden, a humbled Ledecky shared her reaction in a video posted to X from the official White House account.

“The Medal of Freedom just represents a tremendous honor. Just growing up in the Washington area, I was aware of what the award was, but I never in my wildest dreams imagined I would be here at the White House. So many incredible female athletes have blazed the trail. A number of women that I looked up to from a young age when I started in the sport and have given back to the sport of swimming, given back to the next generation and inspired me,” Ledecky said.

“I’d really like to thank President Biden for this great recognition. It’s such an honor to represent the United States on the international stage, and I hope everyone out there will cheer on Team USA this summer.”

Why was Ledecky a perfect candidate for this award, distinguishing her from a long line of American swimmers who could have been candidates? It is impossible to know the exact thinking of Biden and his staff, but consider that Ledecky has spent 12 years as a model of perfection, both in the excellence and consistency of her results and her conduct outside of her competitive endeavors.

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Katie Ledecky — Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

Her pool results were so immense that Ledecky was an all-time great before her 20th birthday, having set groundbreaking world records in the 400, 800 and 1500 freestyle. In each of her first 12 individual finals between the Olympics and World Championships, Ledecky won gold. Since then, Ledecky has added some silver and bronze medals in the shorter freestyle races, but in 27 career finals at the two biggest meets, she has won medals in all except one, a loaded 200 free heat at the Tokyo Olympics. Of course, Ledecky would rebound by winning the inaugural Olympic gold medal in the 1500 free later in that same session.

In just the last two decades, plenty of female swimmers have risen to prominence as teenagers, and many have gone on to Hall-of-Fame careers. But maintaining that level of excellence has been a challenge for many, if only because of the realities of elite-level athletics. Missy Franklin, for instance, won four gold medals at the 2012 Olympics and six at the 2013 Worlds, but she struggled in the leadup to the 2016 Olympics, and injuries would later derail a comeback attempt.

That is the norm among swimmers, even elite, all-time great swimmers: excel at times, struggle at others. Ledecky, meanwhile, has raced at three Olympics and six World Championships without a single bad meet. And that’s in distance freestyle races that usually are the domain of younger swimmers. Last year, she became the first-ever six-time world champion in one event.

Sure, she expected more out of herself at the 2019 World Championships, but that was the meet where Ledecky became sick and was forced to pull out of the 1500 free final and the 200 free altogether. But Gwangju was arguably the site of Ledecky’s greatest triumph, as she found enough strength to out-duel Simona Quadarella salvage 800 free gold on the seventh day of the meet.

In recent years, Ariarne Titmus and Summer McIntosh have taken down Ledecky’s invincibility in the shorter events, and both have broken a 400 free world record that seemed poised to last years. That’s not a knock on Ledecky but a testament to the remarkable nature of these younger swimmers, both of whom came up chasing the decorated American.

And in her outside-the-pool efforts, Ledecky has never been the subject of controversy. She has been an ideal role model, gracious to fans and to rivals and standing up for important causes such as anti-doping efforts in sport.

Ledecky is bidding to become a four-time Olympian this year, an achievement which only four American swimmers have pulled off this century. Both Michael Phelps and Ryan Lochte had their down periods as well as their share of controversial moments while Dara Torres and Allison Schmitt each had major down periods between their Olympic appearances. Not Ledecky.

She is also aiming to become the first female swimmer and just the second swimmer overall (along with Phelps) to win four consecutive Olympic gold medals in one race, with her chance coming in the 800 free. Titmus and McIntosh could pose a challenge, with McIntosh handing Ledecky a defeat earlier this year that was Ledecky’s first over 16 laps since before the 2012 Games, but McIntosh is likely to pass on this event in Paris.

Is she the greatest female swimmer of all-time? Right now, there is a legitimate debate, but should Ledecky achieve the 800-meter four-peat in Tokyo while also defending gold in the 1500 free and winning medals in the 400 free and 800 free relay, there will be no one left to compare her to.

This swimmer, an All-American in seemingly every aspect, will stand alone.

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Andrea De Leon
Andrea De Leon
18 days ago

She is my hero!! ❤️

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