BUDAPEST, Hungary – Two down, four to go.
Katie Ledecky opened the 2017 FINA World Championships on Sunday with two gold medals in one night. She captured her third straight title in the women’s 400-meter freestyle, swimming the second-fastest time ever in the event and eclipsing her own meet record she set earlier in the day.
Ledecky clocked 3 minutes, 58.34 seconds, bettered only by her world record of 3:56.46 set at the Olympic Games Rio 2016. Teammate Leah Smith was second in 4:01.54 and China’s Li Bingjie took third in 4:03.25.
Ledecky’s time was .32 faster than her morning effort as eight days of competition began in the Danube Arena swimming pool.
The gold medal was the first of three for Team USA on Sunday night in the space of an hour. The men’s 4x100-meter freestyle team of Caeleb Dressel, Townley Haas, Blake Pieroni and Nathan Adrian won their first world championships gold since 2009. Ledecky then joined Mallory Comerford, Kelsi Worrell and Simone Manuel to reclaim the world title in the women’s 4x100-meter free.
“It was a good first night for Team USA and I’m happy with my two swims and how it all went,” Ledecky said. “It was a good start for the whole team and I think we have some good momentum going now for the rest of the meet.”
Ledecky, who won four golds and one silver medal in Rio, kept a straight face as she walked out on the deck between puffs of smoke in the elaborate introduction ceremony.
She had only a .05 lead over the field at 50 meters, but extended it to .71 over Smith by the 100 mark. She was more than a body length ahead at 150 as the crowd clapped and chanted. By 250, she had a cushion of more than 2 1/2 seconds. The crowd roared as she came down the final lap, but she couldn’t quite beat her world mark.
“It was my second-best time ever, so a really good swim for me and I know I can take a lot of positives away from it,” Ledecky said.
“Every year is not going to be faster and faster and faster, so I’m just trying to build towards 2020 and it’s a good first step.”
She called it a “great honor” to be on a relay. Ledecky was part of the team that won the silver medal in Rio, but this was her first time competing on the sprint relay at worlds.
In the first world championships without Michael Phelps or Ryan Lochte in 18 years, Ledecky is the main attraction from Team USA. Her performances will be measured against Hungary’s own “Iron Lady” Katinka Hosszu, who won three gold medals and a silver in Rio in the individual medleys and backstrokes.
Ledecky’s dominance in the 400 free is such that she has posted nine of the top 10 performances in the event. Her swim Sunday morning is eighth. Only Federica Pellegrini of Italy joins her on the list and she is falling fast, now at No. 9 with her 3:59.15 from 2009.
The medal was Ledecky’s 10th spanning three world championships. She won four gold in Barcelona in 2013 and five more in Kazan, Russia, two years ago. She is one shy of Missy Franklin’s record of 11 for a Team USA female swimmer.
Ledecky, 20, also has the 1,500-meter freestyle, the 200 free, the 800 free and the 4x200-meter free on her schedule – a total of 6,300 meters through heats, semifinals and finals. That’s more than any other swimmer.
In Kazan, she had the same schedule except for the 4x100-meter and sailed through with no problems.
“I have the confidence from two years ago,” Ledecky said, “knowing what that kind of schedule is like and knowing how to handle it and manage it so I can have good energy throughout the whole meet.