Katie Ledecky is, quite simply, in a class of her own. The 19-year-old from Washington, DC, has raised the bar higher than ever for the women’s sport and her performance in Rio – which brought four gold medals and a silver – has elevated her towards the top of the list of greatest active Olympians.
Ledecky’s beaming features became one of the headline images at Rio 2016 – one that was repeated time and again as she took on all comers and, invariably, won. Her talent was never in question after winning 800m freestyle gold at London 2012 and five victories at the World Championships in 2015, and she lived up to her billing in spectacular fashion.
In fact, her Olympics got off to a relatively low-key start. Team USA could hardly be ashamed of silver in the 4x100m freestyle relay, losing out to Australia and still setting an American record, but it was the first defeat Ledecky had experienced in the Olympic final and she was hungry to put it right.
She did – and how. Her first individual race, the 400m freestyle, brought an astonishing performance: Ledecky, who had already set a world record in the heats, beat it by almost two seconds in recording 3:56.46 – a full 4.77 seconds faster than silver medalist Jazz Carlin, of Great Britain, whose time would have been enough to win the event four years ago in London.
A second gold followed in tougher circumstances. “The closest I’ve felt to throwing up” sums up perfectly the 200m freestyle final for Ledecky. She had been pushed to the wire by rival Sarah Sjostrom, but edged clear to show that she had the stomach for a tough, attritional battle too.
Next up was a victory for Team USA in the 4x200m freestyle relay in which Ledecky, swimming the anchor leg, swam the fastest split to overtake the Australians and avenge that defeat over the shorter distance. Her hat-trick of golds was assured, but there was more to come.
Last, and probably best, was Ledecky’s defence of her 800m freestyle title – and a display dominant enough to put even her previous feats into the shade. This time, a world record of 8:04.79 took her a staggering 11.38 seconds clear of Carlin, who again finished with silver, and beating her own personal best by nearly two seconds. It was one of the most exhilarating performances of the entire fortnight in Rio.
Watch more videos of Katie Ledecky on the Olympic Channel.