RIO DE JANEIRO — Katie Ledecky doesn’t cry often.
Since she won her first Olympic gold medal in London four years ago, she has seemed like a swimming machine, winning world titles in every race from the 200- to the 1,500-meter freestyle — and setting 13 world records in the process.
But after her final swim in Rio, where she successfully defended her Olympic gold in the 800-meter freestyle and shattered her world record, touching the wall in 8:04.79, Ledecky burst into tears as she talked to the media.
“It’s the end of a four-year journey,” she said, her face red with tears streaming down her cheeks. “I’ve had a lot of fun; I don’t know why I’m crying.”
Her journey on the world stage began four years ago in London, where she dove into the Olympic pool as a 15-year-old unknown and emerged as America’s first Olympic champion in the 800 free in a dozen years.
A year later, after the 2013 world championships (where she first broke the 800 world record), Ledecky and coach Bruce Gemmell set goals for the Rio Games. She wanted to win the 400 free in world-record time — check. She wanted to compete on the 4x100 freestyle team and help the U.S. win a medal — check. She wanted to win the 200 free and compete in the 4x200 freestyle as well — check and check. And she wanted to defend her 800 free title under 8:05. Check!
Ledecky, now 19, won the women’s 800 freestyle by open water — claiming her fourth Olympic gold medal and fifth medal overall. It was yet another remarkable swim during an amazing week, and on a surprising night for USA Swimming — where Ledecky’s world record was just one highlight. Two other U.S. swimmers won unexpected gold medals (Maya DiRado and Anthony Ervin), and Michael Phelps unexpectedly did not win gold, tying for silver in the 100 fly with two of his rivals.
Trailing behind Ledecky in the 800, Jazz Carlin from Great Britain and Boglarka Kapas from Hungary finished second and third, in 8:16.17 and 8:16.37, respectively. Leah Smith finished sixth in 8:20.95.
“I hit all my goals right on the nose this week, and I couldn’t be happier with how this whole week has gone,” Ledecky said — a couple of minutes before bursting into tears.
In winning the 200, 400 and 800 freestyles this week, Ledecky is now talked about in the same breath as freestyle legends Debbie Meyer, Shane Gould and Shirley Babashoff.
Meyer was the last American swimmer to win that freestyle trifecta at the 1968 Olympic Games. Going to the 1972 Olympic Games, Gould from Australia was the first swimmer, male or female, to simultaneously hold world records in every freestyle event from the 100 to the 1,500. And Shirley Babashoff won the 100, 200, 400 and 800 freestyles at the 1976 Olympic Trials and would have won golds in the 200, 400 and 800 had the East Germans been playing a fair game.
During the 2016 U.S. Olympic Team Trials, Meyer, Gould and Babashoff all expressed their admiration of Ledecky.
“She’s phenomenal, absolutely phenomenal,” said Meyer. “Where is she going to stop? How much further can she drop the times? And I know she can keep dropping them.”
Gemmell credited Ledecky’s work ethic as much as her talent for her many wins in Rio — and in London.
“The preparation is tremendous, and the preparation that she’s done for a long period of time,” he said after she won the 200 freestyle in Rio on Tuesday night. “The preparation includes the training, and it includes the taking care of herself away from the pool, and it includes the visualization of the race, and it includes making some adjustments from [prelims to the final]. Her preparation is top notch.”
Ledecky recalled nights where she would go to bed and think about winning the 800 in world-record time and would start crying in her bed.
“I just wanted to make this week count and have a lot of fun with it,” she said.
It was the first time that Michael Phelps ever recalled seeing Ledecky cry.
“What she’s doing in the sport is ridiculous,” said Phelps, shortly after he tied for the silver medal with two of his rivals in the 100 butterfly. It was both ironic and fitting that, in his final individual Olympic race ever, Phelps was outshined by Ledecky.
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“She gives every world record a scare when she’s in there,” he continued. “It’s incredible to watch. It’s the first time I’ve seen her in tears, the first time in my life I’ve seen true emotion really come out.”
Still an amateur swimmer, Ledecky will start college at Stanford this fall and move from training with Gemmell, her long-time coach, to competing for the Cardinal under Greg Meehan. When talking about Gemmell, she cried again.
“Bruce will always be a part of my swimming,” she said, putting her face in her hands. “I think of him as a great friend.”
But she is looking forward to college and being part of a team — with fellow 2016 Olympic gold medalist Simone Manuel and 4x100 free teammate Lia Neal, among others.
Ledecky will set new goals. But it is too early to say what they will be.
Can she break the 8-minute barrier in the women’s 800?
“Of course she can,” said U.S. women’s head coach David Marsh. “She could have broken it tonight, maybe. I don’t know if she’s going to, she can.”
Marsh hopes that she broadens her schedule to include other events.
“She could be a heck of a 400 IMer, 200 flyer,” he said. “She could be a lot of things.”
Looking back over the past four years, Ledecky said there were days when she doubted herself, but she always pushed through them.
“I always try to make the next day better than the last day, and I think if anything there were days where Bruce would look at our goals and say we might have to adjust those and make those a little faster.”
“It’s just been so much fun these past four years,” she added. “I’ve been saying it a few times here, but the memories here mean a lot more than the medals to me.”
A freelance writer based in Vermont, Peggy Shinn is in Rio covering her fourth Olympic Games. She has contributed to TeamUSA.org since its inception in 2008.