The Building Blocks of a Record Medal Haul, Unprecedented Five-Peat for Katie Ledecky

Katie Ledecky -- Photo Courtesy: Andrea Staccioli / Deepbluemedia / Insidefoto

The Building Blocks of a Record Medal Haul, Unprecedented Five-Peat for Katie Ledecky

Perhaps you’ve heard this story before: Katie Ledecky made history. She accomplished a feat that no one had ever reached in the sport’s history, showcasing an unimaginable level of invincibility. And the context was eerily familiar.

Ledecky swam 16 lengths of the pool in Lane Four of Duna Arena Friday evening, each one quicker than every other competitor in the field. Her last length was more than a second quicker than her previous 14 as she shifted into overdrive, sprinting her way to an 800-meter time of 8:08.04, the fifth-fastest mark of her life and her fastest in four years, not to mention almost six seconds quicker than any other human being ever.

But of course, Ledecky’s supremacy goes well beyond merely this 800 free final at the World Championships. To fully grasp Ledecky’s impact, consider the chapters of her history-making run atop the middle distance and distance freestyle events over the past decade, a stretch that began with the teenaged Ledecky stunning the crowd at the London Aquatic Center in 2012 as she dethroned Rebecca Adlington in the 800 free. The next few years saw Ledecky at her most dominant as she collected gold medals in the 400, 800 and 1500 free with ever-increasing margins of victory, and by 2014, she held world records in all three distances.


Katie Ledecky (left) and Katie Grimes shared the podium in the 1500 freestyle in Budapest — Photo Courtesy: Andrea Staccioli / Deepbluemedia / Insidefoto

In 2015, she added the 200 free to that ledger as she beat a loaded field for a world title in that event. One year later, she achieved her finest performance at the Rio Olympics as she established world records in the 400 and 800 free and won an intense duel for gold with Sarah Sjostrom in the 200 free, a race that left Ledecky gassed and feeling as though she might throw up. Her final gold of that Olympics, the 800 free triumph that put Ledecky alongside Debbie Meyer as the second female to sweep the 200, 400 and 800 at one Games, brought the typically-stoic 19-year-old to the verge of tears.

After Rio, Ledecky spent her college years at Stanford, and the most transcendent feats from that 2016-to-2021 span included a two-year stint in collegiate swimming brought a bevy of short course yards records as well as a pair of national crowns for the Cardinal and overcoming illness at the 2019 World Championships to gut out a fourth consecutive world title in the 800 freestyle.

At her third Olympics in Tokyo, Ledecky delivered the second-best 400 free performance of her career in an epic showdown with Ariarne Titmus, and then she captured the first-ever Olympic gold in the 1500 free and completed a three-peat in the 800-meter event. Ledecky’s three-peat put her in rare company: the only other swimmers with Olympic threepeats are Dawn Fraser (100 free, 1956-1960-1964), Krisztina Egerszegi (200 backstroke, 1988-1992-1996) and Michael Phelps (200 IM, 2004-2008-2012-2016; and 100 butterfly, 2004-2008-2012).

Now, her fifth consecutive world title in the 800 free puts her in a category all by herself. No one in the history of the sport has ever achieved five consecutive. Phelps (200 fly) and Katinka Hosszu (400 IM) each won five titles overall in one race but nonconsecutively. Here, Ledecky beat runnerup Kiah Melverton of Australia by 10.73 seconds. It was a familiar sight of Ledecky finishing with no other competitor in sight of the wall, but this was actually Ledecky’s widest margin of victory in a Worlds final of the 800 free after capturing her previous titles by 2.46, 10.26, 2.78 and 1.41 seconds.

All those years ago when Ledecky was a surprise qualifier for the U.S. Olympic team at 15 years old and then an even more surprising gold medalist, it was clear she had special potential. But no one would have been foolish enough to imagine in their wildest dreams that Ledecky would go undefeated in the 16-length event for a decade.

The medal tally at World Championships, also unmatched. Ledecky now owns 22 total medals over her five appearances at the global meet, two more than any other female swimmer in history. Her 19 World Champs gold medals is — incredibly — eight more than any other female swimmer, and this gold in the 800 free broke a tie with Ryan Lochte for second-most by any swimmer behind Phelps’ 26.

The latest chapter in Ledecky’s career has taken her to Gainesville, Fla., where she joined up with Gators head coach Anthony Nesty. Ledecky did not need to enter a completely new training and living environment at this stage of her life. Heck, she could have stopped completely after Tokyo Games with her place among the sport’s all-time greats secured. But that’s not how she ticks. Instead, she returned to full-time training two months after the Olympics, and by early December, she was among a small handful of returnees from the Olympics racing at the low-key U.S. Open in Greensboro, N.C., and even at that early stage, she surpassed her time from the Olympics in the 800 free.


Katie Ledecky, Leah Smith, Claire Weinstein and Bella Sims won gold for the U.S. in the women’s 800 freestyle relay — Photo Courtesy: Giorgio Scala / Deepbluemedia / Insidefoto

This week at Worlds has brought gold medals in the 400, 800 and 1500 free, her fourth sweep of the world titles in those events, plus a gold as part of the U.S. women’s 800 free relay. And the look on Ledecky’s face showed how much it meant to share an international podium with Leah Smith in the 400 free for the fifth time, to witness young teammate Katie Grimes secure her first international medal in the 1500 free and to help teenagers Claire Weinstein and Bella Sims raise their game for all-important relay duty.

Yes, Ledecky has certainly benefitted from Titmus’ absence this week in Budapest. The 21-year-old Australian would have been the big gold-medal favorite in the 400 free, and her presence could have swung the tables in the 800 free relay as well. But Ledecky is not judging her success against Titmus or anyone else.

For instance, here is what Ledecky had to say upon swimming the third-quickest mark of her career on the way to gold in the 400 free: “It’s been a lot of fun. It’s just been refreshing and fun to have new teammates and new coaches and a different perspective. We kind of just set out this year with a goal of making Worlds in the events that I am swimming. Really not setting any time goals, so I’m just trying to improve each meet. So far, I’ve done that, so that’s pretty good.”

And it’s really that simple. A passion for the sport and the accompanying lifestyle have galvanized Ledecky, and that has been the key to her magnificence and to her longevity. And on this Friday evening in Budapest, a win in the 800 free that appeared all but routine extended Ledecky’s record as the winningest female swimmer in World Championships history and allowed her her achieve the unprecedented five-peat.

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