Katie Ledecky enters another world championships at 25, and faster

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Later this summer, Katie Ledecky will celebrate the 10th anniversary of her breakthrough gold-medal swim in the women’s 800-meter freestyle at the 2012 London Olympics at the age of 15, an occasion she likely will mark with another 10,000 meters of training, a post-workout chocolate milk and perhaps some wild extravagance such as an extra hour of sleep.

Ten years ago, Ledecky’s feat was unprecedented for someone so young. These days — six more Olympic gold medals, three coaches, two cross-country moves and one Stanford degree since — she is doing things unheard of for someone so old.

When she dives off the starting blocks Saturday for her first swim at the FINA World Championships in Budapest — the 400-meter freestyle, the first of four events on her program over the eight-day meet — Ledecky, 25, will do so as a certified legend, the undisputed greatest female distance swimmer in history and one of the most decorated U.S. Olympic athletes ever.

“No way,” Ledecky said when asked if she could have imagined 10 years ago the career she has had. “I think right after 2012, my biggest goal was just to get back to another international meet, make the world championship team the next year. I never imagined I’d compete at this many world championships and Olympics. When you’re just starting a career like that, at 15, I wasn’t going to look ahead that far. Now I’m at the point where I’m one of the older members of the team. … So it’s hard not to think back see how far I’ve come.”

Multimedia: How Katie Ledecky swims faster than the rest of the world

Team USA will be led in Budapest by a quartet of familiar names: Ledecky, breaststroker Lilly King, backstroker Ryan Murphy and free/fly superstar Caeleb Dressel, who own a combined 20 Olympic gold medals, including eight at last year’s Tokyo Olympics and are all favorites to win multiple golds. The meet, however, was shoehorned into the schedule after Japan delayed its world championships in Fukuoka from 2022 to 2023 because of covid-19 concerns; as a result, the meet will be missing several prominent names, including Australia’s Ariarne Titmus, Ledecky’s top rival.

Last month, Titmus, 21, dashed off a time of three minutes 56.40 seconds in the final of the 400 free at the Australian national championships in Adelaide, shaving six-hundredths of a second off Ledecky’s standard from the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics and marking the first time one of Ledecky’s world records had been lowered by someone other than herself. (She remains the world record holder at 800 and 1,500 meters.)

“It was a really great swim. And I’d say I was not surprised to see it. She’s been very close in the past, and she was having a really great meet leading up to that event,” Ledecky said of Titmus, who last summer in Tokyo became the first woman to beat Ledecky in an Olympic final, edging her for gold in the 400. “My hat goes off to her for that swim. I know what it takes to go 3:56.”

Because of Titmus’s decision to skip worlds this summer, Ledecky likely won’t face her rival head-to-head again until next summer’s world championships in Fukuoka, a preview of what is certain to be one of the marquee matchups of the 2024 Paris Olympics. But Titmus will be represented in Budapest at Saturday’s 400 free final — at least digitally — by the thin red line moving across the water on television screens, representing her new world record.

Ledecky wouldn’t acknowledge being motivated by trying to get her record back, but also wouldn’t rule out the possibility it could happen.

“Of course, I’d love to go 3:56 again, or faster. Whether that’s in my capabilities, we’ll find out,” she said. “But I feel good about how I’m training, and I don’t see why I couldn’t get back down there, whether that’s this year or in the coming years. Being 3:57 last year [a 3:57.36 in Tokyo, her best time in the event since 2016], I was pretty close. It’s within reach.”

Just after the Tokyo Olympics — where she won the 800- and 1,500-meter freestyles, the sixth and seventh golds of her Olympic career, adding silvers in the 400 free and 4×200 free relay — Ledecky began contemplating leaving Stanford, where she had trained since the fall of 2016 as an undergraduate and later as a professional.

She chose the University of Florida and coach Anthony Nesty largely because the Gators boasted the deepest and most elite group of male middle-distance and distance swimmers in the world — a roster led by Bobby Finke, gold medalist in the 800 and 1,500 freestyles in Tokyo, and 400 free bronze medalist Kieran Smith. The theory: If the Gator men could push Ledecky to her limit in practice every day, something few if any American women can do, it would make her faster and sharper.

“It’s a lot of fun to be able to race at practice and really forget about looking at the clock,” Ledecky said. “For a few years at Stanford, on a lot of my distance sets, I’d basically be racing the clock. And I just kind of obsessed over the clock. So it’s been really nice to just kind of try to chase the guys and push them as much as I can.”

At a December meet, having trained with Ledecky for several months at that point, Finke was asked what it’s like to race her in practice every day. “You just have to expect to lose sometimes,” he said, “just because of how insane she is.”

Look back: Katie Ledecky raced 2,100 meters and won a silver medal on the busiest day of her Olympics

Even before she makes her first swim at world championships, Ledecky’s move clearly has already paid off. At April’s U.S. world championship trials in Indianapolis, Ledecky’s times in all four individual events — the 200, 400, 800 and 1,500 frees — were significantly faster than her corresponding times at the 2021 U.S. Olympic trials. In the case of the 800, Ledecky’s signature event and one in which she has taken gold at every Olympics and world championships for the past decade, her time of 8:09.27 was her fastest in nearly four years.

(Although Ledecky will drop the 200 free in Budapest to avoid having to race the 200 and 1,500 on the same day, she will swim it in the relay and could add the individual race back to her program for Paris, depending on how the schedule sets up.)

“The results are just the start. Or I hope they’re just the start,” Ledecky said. “They’re just a byproduct of being very happy in my environment and enjoying each day with my teammates and letting the results take care of themself.”

Twenty-five was long considered an unofficial age of demarcation for female distance swimmers — because of lack of financial opportunity as much as physiology. Four-time Olympic gold medalist Janet Evans, Ledecky’s predecessor as the queen of American distance swimming, retired at 24. Brooke Bennett won Olympic golds in the 800 free in 1996 as a 16-year-old and again in 2000 at age 20, but shoulder injuries effectively ended her career by 24. Since the women’s 800 free made its debut in Mexico City in 1968, the gold medalists have been 16, 15, 15, 18, 18, 17, 20, 16, 20, 22, 19, 15, 19 and 24 — with the last three being Ledecky.

“I’ve heard it throughout my whole career: Distance swimmers are best when they’re young,” she said. “And I always thought that was kind of silly, because there’s a lot of evidence that some of the best endurance athletes are older. I don’t see age as being a limiting factor here.”

Ledecky will be 27 by Paris, but she is already talking about extending her career through Los Angeles in 2028, when she would be 31. The grueling workload of a distance swimmer has chased plenty of younger swimmers to a landlocked life, but she still relishes the 6 a.m. practices, the relentless pursuit of improvement and the countless hours spent staring at that black line at the bottom of the pool.

“Distance training isn’t for the faint of heart, but it’s something I just love,” she said. “I don’t see myself stopping after 2024. At this point — I’m not going to commit to anything, but I could very easily see myself going through 2028 now. I just love the sport. I love the training. I love the challenges.”

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