World Championships, Day Seven Finals: Katie Ledecky Makes History With Sixth Consecutive World Title in Dominant 800 Free

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

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World Championships, Day Seven Finals: Katie Ledecky Makes History With Sixth Consecutive World Title in Dominant 800 Free

Already an Olympic gold medalist in the 800 freestyle and with world titles already secured in the 400 and 1500-meter races, Katie Ledecky actually trailed for most of the race in her first World Championships final of the 800 free. Lotte Friis, a Denmark-native nine years older than Ledecky, had command of the field during the middle portion of the race, leading Ledecky by more than one second at times. However, Ledecky would explode over the final 200 meters, pulling ahead and pulling away from Friis to clinch her first world title and first world record in the event (8:13.86).

Ledecky has not lost in the 800 free since, claiming international gold medals at age 15 and now at age 26. A dominant win in the event Saturday evening Fukuoka made Ledecky the first swimmer ever to win six consecutive world titles in one event. Ledecky was previously the only swimmer to win five consecutive world titles, having earned No. 5 in the 800 free last year, until Sweden’s Sarah Sjostrom tied Ledecky with her fifth gold in the 50 butterfly earlier in the evening. Earlier in this meet, Ledecky became the first swimmer to win five world titles in two different events when she dominated the 1500 free.

The title also gave Ledecky the most individual world titles of any swimmer, with her 16th such gold medal breaking a tie with former American teammate Michael Phelps. Ledecky joins Phelps as the only swimmers to win a world title two decades apart, with Phelps previously doing so in the men’s 200 fly as far apart 2001 and 2011 (not six straight since he skipped the 200 fly at the 2005 Worlds).

This latest world-title-winning effort was more akin to Ledecky’s maiden international final, when the unknown teenager blasted out from the beginning on the way to an upset victory over Rebecca Adlington. Against an elite field in the 800 free final, where a time of 8:22.20 was required simply to qualify, Ledecky chose to aggressively attack the race from the start, building a lead of more than one second by the 100-meter mark, one-eighth of the way through the race. Australia’s Ariarne Titmus, who won gold and crushed the world record in the 400 free, tried to go with her American rival, but Ledecky extended her lead with every stroke.

For a moment, it looked as though Ledecky might challenge the world record as she split 1:58.29 at the 200-meter mark, 2:59.89 after six lengths and 4:01.91 at the halfway point. After that, however, Ledecky slowed slightly, unable to keep pace with her initial efforts. But no one was out-splitting her, at least not until China’s Li Bingjie began making a move from fifth place to try to knock Titmus out of the silver-medal spot.

In the end, Ledecky remained almost four-and-a-half seconds ahead. Turning on the jets over the final 50 meters as she concluded her program of racing in Fukuoka, Ledecky touched in 8:08.87, the seventh-fastest performance in history behind six of her other efforts. Even as Li finished in 8:13.31, making her the second-fastest swimmer in history, Ledecky was still four-and-a-half seconds ahead.

“It’s cool. It’s always fun to come to this meet, come to World Championships, try to do my very best. If that’s a gold medal, it’s a gold medal. I’m really happy with how I’ve been able to be consistent over all these years. Just always trying to get a little bit better,” Ledecky said.

“It’s my favorite race, definitely. I think just the history with it, with it being my first Olympic race and getting that gold and then I guess it was my second world record. It’s the one that I hold closest to me given that the 1500 was added to the Olympics only in 2021, so it was my first big race and the one that I focused on. I think it’s continued to be the one that I’ve focused on the most, along with the 1500. It’s fun to end a meet with your favorite event, and I just wanted to leave it all in the pool.”

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

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

Ledecky’s time did not quite reach the standard she has established in major meets over the past two years, having gone 8:08.04 in winning last year’s gold before an 8:07.07 at U.S. Nationals last month. Her 8:08-high, Ledecky said, meant that “I’ve got everything turning in my head right now. I kind of wanted to be better than I was tonight.”

Titmus claimed bronze for her third individual medal of the meet following her 400 free gold and 200 free silver (plus 800 free relay gold), tying her lifetime best of 8:13.59 in the race. Italy’s Simona Quadarella finished fourth in 8:16.46, with Germany’s Isabel Gose (8:17.95) and Ledecky’s American teammate Jillian Cox (8:19.73) also getting under 8:20.

Over a magical three years after that first world record, Ledecky would lower that record by an astounding nine seconds, topping out at 8:04.79 in the 2016 Olympic final. But after that race with Friis that produced her first world title in the event, would be six years until Ledecky would be challenged again over 800 meters. At the 2019 World Championships, an ill Ledecky had to withdraw from the 1500 free final, and she was still feeling the effects heading into the 800. She faced a challenge in that final from Quadarella, who had won the mile in Ledecky’s absence.

Over the second half of that 2019 race, Quadarella had the lead over Ledecky, stretching it out to eight tenths with 200 meters remaining. But Ledecky fought and dug, and on the final lap, she finally pulled away, leaving Quadarella in the dust on the way to world title No. 4.

It was that effort that kept alive Ledecky’s chance at the historic six-peat. In 2022 and again here in Fukuoka, no one could come anywhere close to Ledecky.

Simply, there has never been a more consistent swimmer in history. Fueling Ledecky along the way has been a desire to find some way to make herself better, and even fol. “There have been a lot of years where I haven’t gone a world record in certain events,” Ledecky said prior to arriving in Fukuoka. “It took a little time to realize, ‘Hey, my records are set at a really high standard,’ and even through all that, I think what I’ve been able to do is recognize the progress that I make in training. I don’t think a year has gone by where I haven’t felt like I progressed in some way in training.”

After winning the record-breaking world title, Ledecky credited her coach at the University of Florida, Anthony Nesty for his caring attitude when Ledecky is overly critical of herself. But even as she specializes in disciplines that require such intense training dedication, focus and volume, Ledecky is far from an emotionless robot. Her leadership has been evident among the American team, particularly as she swam the 800 free relay alongside three swimmers at least eight years younger, and she seeks to bring joy to the pool deck even in serious moments.

“I remember that I just started swimming as a six-year-old for the fun of it in the D.C. area, and that’s how it should always be,” Ledecky said. “When I come to meets like this, I try to have the best time that I can. It’s something that I tell people, ‘Don’t be fooled by the serious face that you see behind the blocks.’ I’m someone that loves a good joke, loves to cheer on my teammates, loves to smile. I just try to have as much fun as I can when I’m on the pool deck.”

That attitude will help Ledecky continue thriving in training as after a quick break, she turns her attention to Paris and next year’s Olympic Games, where the 800 free will provide her yet another opportunity to stand alone in swimming history. She is one of three females to three-peat in an Olympic event, along with Australia’s Dawn Fraser (100 free, 1956-1960-1964) and Hungary’s Krisztina Egerszegi (200 backstroke, 1988-1992-1996), and a fourth consecutive 800-meter gold would put Ledecky ahead of them, alongside only Michael Phelps’ four victories in the men’s 200 IM.

While Ledecky is no longer the undisputed top swimmer in the world in the 400 free, she remains a whopping margin ahead of the world in the longer distances. Over 16 laps, with history on the line? Don’t bet against Ledecky now, and certainly not in Paris.


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