By Scott McDonald | Jan. 16, 2016, 1:19 a.m. (ET)
Katie Ledecky poses at the NBC/United States Olympic Committee promotional shoot on Nov. 21, 2015 in West Hollywood, Calif.


AUSTIN, Texas -- Katie Ledecky started this year like she finished the last — in high gear.

Ledecky wasted no time, literally, to prove she’s still one of the fastest swimmers in the world. She blistered the field in the 400-meter freestyle at the first Arena Pro Swim Series of 2016 at the Lee and Joe Jamail Texas Swim Center at the University of Texas.

Ledecky broke the 4-minute mark with a time of 3 minutes, 59.54 seconds, which is the fifth-fastest women’s time in the world — ever. Her time also set a pool record.

“I felt pretty good tonight,” Ledecky said. “It’s the first time I’ve ever swam under 4 minutes when I swam another event the same day.”

She also finished second in the 100-meter freestyle in a time of 53.75 seconds, just behind Sweden’s Sarah Sjostrom. Sjostrom also won the 100 butterfly on Friday night.

Ledecky, a Bethesda, Maryland, native who won gold at the London 2012 Olympic Games in the 800-meter freestyle at age 15, is coming off a 2015 season in which she captured five gold medals at the world championships in Kazan, Russia. The first person to win the 200-, 400-, 800- and 1,500-meter freestyles in a major competition, Ledecky established herself as a prohibitive favorite heading into the Rio de Janeiro 2016 Olympic Games.

“I feel good with where I’m at,” she said. “I had fun in Colorado training, and we took some time to rest before this meet.”

She said she will continue to work on breakouts and turns to trim her times down even more as she gets ready for June’s U.S. Olympic Team Trials to qualify for the Rio Games.

Her performance in Austin builds off her fast start to the season, when she won the 200, 400 and 800 free at the Arena Pro Swim Series last November in Minneapolis — the first leg of this series and the only one held last year.

Ledecky, who just graduated high school a year ago, took two classes at Georgetown University last fall as a visiting student. The 18-year-old said she’ll forego classes this spring to train for the Olympic trials, and then enroll at Stanford after the Games, though she said she hopes to get her driver’s license before then. She just recently got her permit.

Ledecky said she set goals for herself four years ago for 2016 — mostly certain times she wants to hit this year. She did say, though, behind her vibrant and youthful smile, that she would like to earn a spot on relay teams for Rio. That could potentially put her in position to compete for seven Olympic medals.

“I have a lot of friends on the U.S. team,” she said, “and I’ve enjoyed swimming the 4x200 the last couple of years.”

She said she’ll go back and watch the video of her swims and try to tweak things to make her faster. Ledecky will continue swimming on Saturday and Sunday at this event in Austin.

Michael Phelps, who came out of retirement to seek a berth in his fifth Olympic Games and try to add to his record 22 Olympic medals, also won on the opening night in Austin when he held off Tom Shields in the 100-meter butterfly in 51.94.

Phelps finished sixth in his other race, the 100 freestyle. Nathan Adrian, the defending Olympic champion, won the 100 free in 48.91 seconds.

Laura Sogar, who swam for Texas, won the women’s 200 breaststroke in 2:24.69, while Josh Prenot won the men’s 200 breast in 2:10.26.

The star-studded event continues through Sunday, with several U.S. Olympic champions expected to compete, including Ryan Lochte, Missy Franklin, Allison Schmitt and Natalie Coughlin.

Scott McDonald is a Houston-based freelance writer who has 17 years experience in sports reporting and feature writing. He was named the State Sports Writer of the Year in 2014 by the Texas High School Coaches Association. McDonald is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.