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At 15 years and four months, American swimmer Katie Ledecky sprung a huge surprise by winning 800m freestyle gold at London 2012. Proving that success was no fluke, she then claimed a series of world records and titles before scooping four golds at Rio 2016, including a historic 200m/400m/800m freestyle treble.
When she lined up for the start of the Olympic women’s 800m freestyle final at London 2012, Katie Ledecky was visibly delighted to have gone so far in her first major international competition. The youngest athlete on Team USA at the Games that year, the 15-year-old had earned her trip to London thanks to an unexpected win at the United States Olympic trials a month earlier. In nailing down that place, she achieved a goal she had set herself back in September 2011, following a series of successes at junior level. “I sat down with [my coach] and we were talking about Olympic trials, and he said, ‘Now, what would be the ultimate goal of that?’” she recalled. “And he sort of forced me to say, ‘Make the Olympic Games,’ and ‘OK, we’re just going to focus on that.’”
After watching compatriot Missy Franklin break the 200m backstroke world record and receiving a high-five from newly crowned 100m butterfly champion Michael Phelps, Ledecky focused on her gameplan, which involved setting a strong pace from the outset. “I knew I was ahead right from the start,” she explained. “You can see underwater when you flip. I just kept the same rhythm, stuck to my plan, counted the laps and got through it. Around the 600-metre point, I was like, ‘Whoa, I’m ahead in the Olympics’. I didn’t dismiss the thought that someone could come and catch me until the 799-metre point, when I touched the wall.” After respectively finishing four and six seconds clear of Mireia Belmonte García of Spain and Great Britain’s defending Olympic champion Rebecca Adlington and setting a new national record of 8:14.63, the young American tried to comprehend the scale of her achievement: “It was such an ‘oh-my-gosh’ feeling. What is this? This isn’t right. This isn’t real. It was just so surreal, being able to do that on that stage, in that environment.”
Building on her Olympic breakthrough, Ledecky swept all before her at the 2013 FINA World Aquatics Championships in Barcelona (ESP), landing freestyle gold medals in the 400m (in 3:59.82, a national record), 800m (in 8:13.86, a world record), 1,500m (in 15:36.53, another world record) and the 4x200m relay, alongside Franklin, Shannon Vreeland and Karlee Bispo. Continuing in the same vein, a 17-year-old Ledecky improved on her 800m world record in Conroe, Texas, in June 2014, trimming it to 8:11.00. Later that year she won all five of the events she entered at the Pan Pacific Swimming Championships in Gold Coast (AUS), where she clocked a new world record of 3:58.63 in the 400m and again lowered her own 1,500m world record, this time to 15:28.36. Further success came the American’s way at the 2015 World Championships in Kazan, Russia, where she completed a freestyle clean sweep, winning gold in the 200m, 400m, 800m (in a new world record of 8:07.39), 1,500m (another world record: 15:25.48) and the 4x200m relay. That haul took Ledecky’s world championship medal collection to nine, all of them gold.
Ledecky’s Rio 2016 campaign began with a loss in the 4x100m final, Australia getting the better of the USA quartet to leave her with silver. Recovering from that setback, the 19-year-old then made her indelible mark on the Games, kicking off her individual freestyle gold rush by clipping the best part of two seconds off her 400m world record to win in a time of 3:56.46. “3:56 was the goal I set after Barcelona 2013 (world championship) so it feels really good,” she said afterwards. Two days later, Ledecky held off Sweden’s Sarah Sjöström and Australia’s Emma McKeon to take the 200m title in a time of 1:53.73. “I’m pretty sure that’s the closest I’ve come to throwing up in the middle of a race,” said a relieved Ledecky after collecting her second gold of the Games.
The American teenager then secured a third with a superb anchor leg in the 4x200m freestyle medley final, overhauling Australia’s last woman out to give the USA a commanding win in a time of 7:43.03. Ledecky was not done yet, however. Two days later, she completed a stunning individual hat-trick in the best possible style, swimming a world-record 8:04.79 to win the 800m final by fully 11 seconds from Great Britain’s Jazmin Carlin and become the first swimmer to land the freestyle treble since compatriot Debbie Meyer at Mexico City 1968. With her tally of four golds and one silver, Ledecky was the most successful female swimmer at Rio 2016 and the most decorated female athlete of the Games, eclipsing fellow American Simone Biles’s tally of four golds and a bronze in gymnastics. Yet perhaps the most remarkable thing about Ledecky’s exploits in Brazil was that she took it all in her stride, as if her amazing achievements were just another chapter in her ongoing success story.