The Ledecky Legacy: On Road to Fourth Olympic Games, Katie Ledecky Has Produced a Legendary Career

Katie Ledecky of United States of America prepares to compete in the 400m Freestyle Women Heats during the 20th World Aquatics Championships at the Marine Messe Hall A in Fukuoka (Japan), July 23rd, 2023.

The Ledecky Legacy: On Road to Fourth Olympic Games, Katie Ledecky Has Produced a Special Career

At 27 years old at the 2024 Olympic Games in Paris, Katie Ledecky will be favored to add to her vast collection of accolades. In turn, her future Hall of Fame profile will be enhanced, and fans of the sport can continue to appreciate a generational talent who has methodically, but humbly, crafted a career that is a piece of art.

Inside the CenturyLink Center in Omaha, the whispers started. It was 2012 and the United States was in the early days of selecting its squad for the 2012 Olympic Games in London. Sure, a handful of savvy fans knew she was an age-group upstart, but she largely dove into the pool in anonymity—even if it proved to be fleeting.

“Who is she?”

That question was the general refrain from the stands, and it was uttered with excitement. Such is the tone when a 15-year-old emerges as a clear future star. Everyone wants to know the name, and eventually claim to be in the know when the breakthrough came to fruition.

The final of the women’s 400-meter freestyle was held on the second day of the Olympic Trials, and as the event wrapped, Allison Schmitt and Chloe Sutton had earned berths to London. Just 82-hundredths behind Sutton, touching in third place, was Katie Ledecky. The longtime commentary at Trials is that third is the most-difficult finish to accept, as it leaves an athlete agonizingly shy of an Olympic bid.

Yet, for Ledecky, this performance over eight laps was just the start. Within days, she was the Trials champ in the 800 freestyle and bound for London. At the Games, she mined gold, blasting her way to a four-second triumph and nearly setting a world record while cracking the longstanding American standard of the legendary Janet Evans.

In the little more than a decade that has elapsed since Ledecky announced her global presence, she has dominated the sport in spectacular fashion. Her reputation is built on the combination of her distance range and the chasm she has generated in the longer events between herself and the competition.

As the next Olympiad approaches, Katie Ledecky is eager to draft the next chapters of her illustrious career.

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A STUNNING PORTFOLIO

There really isn’t an ideal way to list the entirety of Ledecky’s achievements. To include them all would require the majority of the space in this issue of Swimming World. So, we’ll go with a bullet-point approach that—hopefully—provides a sound overview of just what the American ace has achieved in the water.

  • Ledecky is an individual Olympic freestyle champion over four distances—200, 400, 800 and 1500—and she owns 10 Olympic medals between the Games of 2012, 2016 and 2020.
  • She boasts 26 medals from the World Championships, including 20 of the individual variety.
  • In the 800 freestyle, the event that rocketed Ledecky to global acclaim, she owns the 16-fastest performances in history. More, her world record of 8:04.79 from the 2016 Olympics is nearly seven seconds quicker than the 8:11.39 of Canadian teen Summer McIntosh, who recently became the No. 2 performer of all-time with a defeat of Ledecky.
  • Ledecky’s dominance in the 1500 freestyle, in which she became the first female Olympic champion at the Tokyo Games, is as impressive as what she has managed in the 800 free. In addition to owning the fastest time ever by an almost unbelievable 18-plus seconds, she occupies the top-16 slots on the event’s all-time chart.
  • While Aussie Ariarne Titmus and Canadian Summer McIntosh have eclipsed Ledecky’s top time in the 400 freestyle, the American still owned 16 of the 25-fastest times entering the 2024 campaign.
  • Although the above points are concrete in nature, Ledecky deserves as much credit for how she has excelled. Her dedication and hard work have been complemented by an appreciation for the history of the sport and humility that have made her a role model for the youth who yearn to follow her path and dressed as Ledecky for school presentations and on Halloween night.

“She is the greatest female swimmer of all-time,” said three-time Olympic champion Rowdy Gaines, who now serves as the voice of swimming for NBC and has covered Ledecky’s international career from its start. “When you look at all she has done, it’s unbelievable. No one has shown that kind of dominance. In the longer events, it’s like she’s racing in a different pool. And she’s done it all with such professionalism.”

LIGHTING THE FLAME

At every stop during her career, Ledecky has known nothing but great success. After Yuri Suguiyama coached her to her initial Olympic title, her coach-athlete relationship with Bruce Gemmell yielded countless global crowns, including her golden trifecta in the 200-400-800 freestyle events at the 2016 Games in Rio de Janeiro. A stop at Stanford University, where Greg Meehan became her coach, led to her Olympic titles in Tokyo.

These days, Ledecky is grinding away in Florida, where Anthony Nesty is molding her career in Gainesville. The training group surrounding Ledecky is stacked, the likes of fellow Olympic champs Bobby Finke and Caeleb Dressel sharing the water. The atmosphere, according to Ledecky, is one that offers the right amount of levity to match the demanding workload.

“I really feed off (my teammates’) energy, and I try to bring my best every day so that I can give them as much as a push as I can,” Ledecky said at the Golden Goggle Awards. “Some days, it’s more than others. It’s a great environment, and we’re all working toward similar goals. We work really hard, but we’re having a lot of fun doing it.”

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Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

What Ledecky managed during the 2023 season certainly reflected her longevity, but also determined she is far from beyond her peak days. The truth is, Ledecky—simply through her greatness—probably does not receive the credit she deserves. Over time, she has produced swims that others can only dream of delivering. The day (it will be awhile) another athlete swims within three seconds of Ledecky’s world record in the 800 freestyle, the outing will be revered. But when Ledecky is several seconds adrift of one of her world records, a ho-hum reaction is sometimes the norm.

No, Ledecky did not register a world record in 2023. Nonetheless, her year was stellar, perhaps her best since 2016.

At the World Championships in Fukuoka, Ledecky opened with a silver medal in the 400 freestyle and followed with blistering victories in the 800 freestyle and 1500 freestyle. With the meet serving as Ledecky’s final global competition ahead of the Paris Games, it was the perfect way to enter 2024 and the road to the French capital.

In Fukuoka, Ledecky’s winning time (15:26.27) from the 1500 freestyle was the third-fastest of her career. Meanwhile, at the United States National Champs, Ledecky posted a time of 8:07.07 in the 800 freestyle for the third-quickest swim of her career. The knowledge that some of her fastest efforts are still coming acts as fuel.

“I was really happy with all of my races between Trials and Worlds,” Ledecky said of her 2023 exploits. “I swam some really great times and I’m trying to use that to build into this year. Right after Worlds, I took a week off, and then it felt like it was the Olympic year.”

CHASING HISTORY

With the next Olympics calling, Ledecky already enjoys membership in an exclusive club, thanks to her status as one of four swimmers to have won Olympic gold in the same event (800 freestyle) at three consecutive Games (2012-20). The feat was first pulled off by Australian legend Dawn Fraser in the 100 freestyle from 1956-64, and matched by Hungarian ace Krisztina Egerszegi in the 200 backstroke from 1988-96.

Michael Phelps made it a dual-gender club in 2012, when he prevailed in the 200 individual medley for the third straight time. At the 2016 Games in Rio de Janeiro, he claimed another gold in the event to become a four-time titlist. Ledecky will try to join Phelps this summer in the 800 freestyle, the discipline that launched her to worldwide stardom.

Despite McIntosh’s recent excellence, Ledecky will be favored to earn a fourth consecutive gold in the 800 freestyle. Her best time from last year is still four seconds clear of No. 2 all-time, and her three Olympic triumphs have arrived by a combined 16 seconds, an amount of time that is found in the age-group ranks, not at the elite level.

katie-ledecky-

Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

Barring a major surprise at the United States Olympic Trials, Ledecky will also see work in Paris in the 400 freestyle and 1500 freestyle. The 400 freestyle will be the most demanding test, as Titmus will be the favorite for gold, with McIntosh lurking. Ledecky’s presence will make for three world record holders in the field.

As for the 1500 freestyle, Ledecky became the first female champion in the event when the discipline was added to the Olympic program in Tokyo. A repeat is likely, and if Ledecky can walk away with three medals in Paris, she’ll become the most-decorated American female in Olympic history.

It would be a fitting result, given her dominance and the way she is revered by icons she has followed. Through the years, Evans has praised Ledecky. The same can be said for Debbie Meyer, an idol of Ledecky who won three freestyle titles at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City. Meyer has long appreciated the way Ledecky carries herself in competition.

“She reminds me of myself and brings back memories of when I was competing,” Meyer said in a past interview. “She has a desire and tenacity that she brings to her races. I love watching her swim and know when to change pace. I love her drive. She attacks her races and chases her goals. She is a special talent.”

A LEGACY FOR THE AGES

As Katie Ledecky powered through the water at the 2012 Olympic Trials, it was impossible to know we were witnessing the birth of a legend. More than a decade later, we know that case to be true. Over three Olympiads, and with another knocking, Ledecky has blessed the sport and its fans with her unique gift.

“Who is she?” That question was once asked about Ledecky, the upstart. Now, it has a definitive answer.

She’s the greatest female swimmer of all-time.

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Marina
Marina
2 months ago

the greatest and most inspiring person in the world. One of a kind 🙂

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