As the greatest female swimmer in history and the rock of the U.S. team for more than a decade, Katie Ledecky has accumulated quite a laundry list of accomplishments, including her cache of Olympic and world championship medals, her prodigious world records and the now-iconic photos of her races when she wins and no one else is in the picture.
But even by her own ridiculously high standards, Ledecky outdid herself Saturday at the 2023 world championships in Fukuoka, Japan, with two new, stunning achievements. By dominating a stacked field in her favorite race, the 800 freestyle, she passed Michael Phelps for the most individual world swimming titles in history with 16 while becoming the first swimmer ever to win six world titles in the same event.
Ledecky being Ledecky, arguably the sports world’s most self-effacing superstar, she said she wasn’t even aiming to do it.
“I tend to focus on one race, one practice, and one season at a time and never really ‘aim’ for medal-count records,” she told USA TODAY Sports in a text message a few hours after her race. “It is just the product of hard work over many years.”
In a recent Zoom interview, she acknowledged that talking about hard work is “a cliche,” but it has become crystal clear over the past 11 years, since she burst onto the world scene as a 15-year-old winning the gold in the 800 at the 2012 London Olympics, that the secret to Ledecky’s success is no secret at all.
Now 26, she still loves training in the pool, back and forth, lap after lap. Her pain threshold has to be off the charts. She can’t wait for the next challenge, in practice or at a meet. And it’s true: she is willing to work harder than everybody else.
Throw in once-in-a-generation talent, add water — and there you have it.
“I’m very happy with how this World Championships went,” Ledecky wrote. “… I have to give tremendous credit to all my coaches and teammates over the years for supporting me and keeping me motivated season after season. Coach (Anthony) Nesty and I are very happy about how this season went with training and racing, and we both already have thoughts turning in our heads about how to be better next year headed into Paris. So I’m excited to get back to work soon, after a short break … maybe two weeks or so.”
Based on her performance at this week’s worlds, she will be a strong favorite to win both the women’s 800 and 1,500 freestyle events a year from now at the 2024 Paris Olympics. She will likely be favored to win a medal in the 400 freestyle, and she should pick up a fourth medal as a member of the U.S. women’s 4×200 freestyle relay. She already has won seven gold medals and three silver medals in her first three Olympics: London, Rio in 2016 and Tokyo in 2021.
Ledecky actually is swimming faster now than she was two years ago at the Tokyo Games. A comparison: In 2021, she won the Olympic gold medal in the 800 with a time of eight minutes 12.57 seconds. On Saturday, her time was 8:08.87.
In the 1,500, she won gold in Tokyo in 15:37.34. This week at the worlds, her time was 15:26.27, more than 11 seconds faster.
How is she doing this? She made a big change after the Tokyo Olympics, leaving her training base at Stanford University to move to Gainesville, Fla., and join Nesty, an Olympic gold medalist himself, and his stable of top male distance swimmers at the University of Florida.
“I’ve been back racing the boys and I learn a lot from racing those guys,” Ledecky said.
Back in May 2022, during the U.S. Olympic team’s visit to the White House, I asked Ledecky if this was some kind of an experiment.
“It’s not an experiment because it’s the real thing,” she said with a laugh. “It’s something that I knew would help me in my career at this point, training with some of the top male distance swimmers in the world and being in that environment. I love to train, I love the work and so I knew that if I put myself in a position where I could really love the work every day and be pushed every day that the sky’s the limit from there.”
Now there’s a sports prediction that has totally come true.
With Russia’s state-sponsored doping never far from the headlines, and with the history of cheating in swimming going back to the days of East Germany and lingering to this day, Ledecky has distinguished herself as an outspoken advocate for tough drug-testing and clean sport.
She has estimated that she is tested 20-25 times a year by the U.S. and World Anti-Doping Agencies. Top athletes like Ledecky must provide their daily schedules to USADA so they can be found at any time for surprise, knock-on-the-door tests of both blood and urine, but Ledecky goes even further. If she is leaving home for even a few minutes, she doesn’t want to chance missing a tester who might be coming at that moment for a random visit.
“If anything changes, which is pretty much any day, if I’m in the car heading out to get groceries or run errands, I usually get on my phone and go to the app and submit an update,” she said several years ago. “That’s something a lot of people don’t realize but it’s something I’m happy to do. I probably update more than I need to. I do it just to be cautious, so they know where I am if they need to find me for a test.”
Ledecky is most unusual in that way. And in this way as well: Next time you see a video highlight of a Ledecky race from the Olympics or worlds in which a U.S. teammate is also near the lead, fighting for a medal, watch Ledecky after she wins. She starts looking around, searching to see where her teammate is. And if that teammate touches for silver or bronze, Ledecky slaps the water in celebration, not for herself, but for her teammate.
“When I come to these meets, it’s all about representing Team USA and the honor that it is to put on that cap and be with my teammates and make everyone back home proud,” she said. “So that’s my biggest motivation when I get to represent the USA and that’s my motivation every day at practice, to get that opportunity again and be the best that I can be for my team.”
In that way, among many others, Ledecky’s world championships were a complete success.