World Championships: Katie Ledecky Pulls Away From Summer McIntosh to Retake 400 Free World Title

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

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World Championships: Katie Ledecky Pulls Away From Summer McIntosh to Retake 400 Free World Title

Katie Ledecky is back on top in the women’s 400 freestyle. With Olympic gold medalist and new world-record holder Ariarne Titmus absent from the field, Ledecky took control over the race over the first 100 meters and never surrendered the advantage. She was challenged throughout by 15-year-old Canadian Summer McIntosh, and Ledecky’s lead was by less than a second through the first 300 meters, but she extended the advantage down the stretch on her way to gold.

Ledecky finished in 3:58.15, breaking her own championship record of 3:58.34 set while winning gold at the 2017 World Championships (also in Budapest). The time was the seventh-fastest performance in history, and only Titmus and Ledecky have ever been faster. Ledecky finished 1.24 seconds ahead of McIntosh, who took silver in 3:59.39, while the second American in the field, Leah Smith, earned bronze in 4:02.08.

“It feels good. It’s the fastest I’ve ever been at Worlds, so I’m really happy with that and really excited about the rest of the week I have ahead of me,” Ledecky said.

Over the past several years, Titmus has chipped away at Ledecky’s supremacy in the 400 free. At the 2019 World Championships, Titmus pulled off a surreal performance as she came from behind to pass Ledecky and claim gold. Two years later, Titmus won an epic showdown with Ledecky at the Tokyo Olympics, and just one month ago, Titmus beat Ledecky’s six-year-old world record in the event. But with Titmus skipping these Worlds to focus on the upcoming Commonwealth Games, Ledecky had the chance to get back on top, and she took advantage.

“That wasn’t any added motivation,” Ledecky said of Titmus breaking the world record. “If I didn’t have motivation before that, that would be a problem. I think a lot of people are like, ‘Oh, it must motivate you more.’ But I’m always motivated. I’m always excited to see what I can do. So I’m really happy with that result.”

With the swim, Ledecky earned the fourth world title of her career in the event after previously winning in 2013, 2015 and 2017 and taking silver in 2019. This title was Ledecky’s first since she left her longtime training home at Stanford University to move to Gainesville, Fla., and train with the University of Florida team under coach Anthony Nesty. After almost a decade competing at the highest level of the sport, Ledecky was willing to make changes and take chances to extend her run of dominance. The results have been impressive, and her satisfaction in the new environment has been evident.

“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. And yeah, so we kind of just set out this year with the goal of making worlds and the events that I’m swimming and I’m really not setting any time goals. So just trying to improve each meet and so far I’ve done that,” Ledecky said. “I’m learning a lot of new things every day, just kind of having new training sets, new techniques. I’m working on just getting that fresh perspective from a different set of eyes and just continue to have a lot of fun and in different ways.”

With her silver, McIntosh dropped two seconds from her lifetime best, and she became just the fourth woman in history to break 4:00, joining Titmus, Ledecky and Federica Pellegrini. McIntosh is a star on the rise, and she will have additional medal chances this week in the 200 butterfly, 400 IM and 800 free relay, she called winning her first World Championships medal “definitely one of the coolest experiences of my life.”

“I think I’ve learned so much in the past year, how to execute the 400 freestyle, and I am really happy with the way I swam it, how it felt in the water, and it has given me a lot of confidence going into the next couple of races,” McIntosh said. “I don’t think I would ever have thought I would be under 4:00 in the 400 freestyle. I remember it was a big deal for me to break five minutes! So to break the four-minute barrier is something that is really special for me.”

For the majority of McIntosh’s life, Ledecky has been a constant force in the middle-distance and distance events — when Ledecky won her first Olympic gold medal in 2012, McIntosh was five years old — and McIntosh admitted that if felt strange to be swimming next to Ledecky and squaring off with world titles on the line.

It’s crazy because she is definitely one of my swimming idols – if not my main swimming idol – and to be able to race her and try and keep up with her as close as possible was such a cool experience that I never thought I would have. To see where I have made progress in the last couple of years is something that is really special and I am just really happy to have this opportunity,” McIntosh said.

“I think you just have to look at it just like another person to beat, another person to keep up to, She always pushes me in my race to make it my best. No matter who it would be I just try to think of it as another racer, even though it is Katie Ledecky.”

Smith, meanwhile, touched out Australia’s Lani Pallister (4:02.16) by just eight hundredths to claim bronze, and she finished on the podium for the third consecutive World Championships. This year has seen Smith bounce back after a disappointing 2021 when she missed making the U.S. Olympic team.

“This means a lot to me,” Smith told NBC Sports after the race. “I think that it’s just been such a long journey in my career, and this is the third Worlds that Katie and I will be on the podium together. I think it’s really special. I’ve had the time of my life swimming internationally with her.”

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