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Can Katie Ledecky Become A 10-Time Olympic Gold Medalist?

By Peggy Shinn | May 21, 2021, 10 a.m. (ET)

Katie Ledecky poses for a portrait during the Team USA Tokyo 2020 Olympic shoot on Nov. 23, 2019 in West Hollywood, Calif. 

 

Katie Ledecky heads to U.S. Olympic Trials for Swimming next month aiming to qualify for the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 in four individual events: the 200, 400, 800, and 1,500-meter freestyles. She also would like to compete in the 4x200-meter freestyle relay, giving her five chances to win Olympic gold medals in Tokyo.

Should the 24-year-old, two-time Olympian accomplish this feat, she would bring her Olympic gold medal count to ten (and 11 medals total, including one silver). With 10 gold medals, she would become the winningest female in Olympic history, surpassing Russian gymnast Larisa Latynina, who has held the record at nine Olympic gold medals since 1964. Ledecky would stand second—and counting—to Michael Phelps, who won 23 Olympic gold medals in his legendary career.

But the waters in Tokyo will not be entirely smooth for Ledecky, a gifted freestyle swimmer.

The women’s 1,500 makes its Olympic debut in Tokyo, and it’s Ledecky’s strongest event. But getting to the final will require that she compete in the 200 and 1,500 preliminary heats in the same evening session, Then assuming she qualifies, the finals of both events are in the same session a day later.

“I would point out that the men do not have that double, so any male swimmer who wants to compete in all [the freestyle] events does not have to double,” Ledecky stated during a Team USA Media Summit in April.

Further, should Ledecky qualify to compete in the 200, 400, 800, 1,500 and 4x200 freestyle relay in Tokyo, she will race a total of 6,200 meters over the course of seven days. When Michael Phelps won eight Olympic gold medals at the 2008 Beijing Games, he swam about half this distance (3,300 meters) in eight days.

Still, Ledecky is excited about her potential Tokyo Olympic program—to “really show my range” in freestyle, she said. 

To date, very few female Olympic swimmers have excelled in this span of distances. Only American Debbie Meyer had won Olympic gold medals in the 200, 400, and 800 in the 1968 Games until Ledecky matched this feat at the Rio 2016 Games. Ledecky also competed in the women’s 4x100 freestyle relay in Rio.

In Ledecky’s favor in Tokyo, the 200—her “weakest” event—is scheduled before the 1,500 in both prelims and the final. And Ledecky is currently the top-ranked swimmer for 2021 in the 200. 

Ledecky’s dominance in the 1,500 is astounding. Since she won her first of three world championship 1,500 titles in 2013, every other swimmer on the blocks has been competing for second place. She has broken the world record five times and held the world-leading time every year since then (except 2016 when she did not contest the 1,500). She set the current WR of 15:20.48 in May 2018.

A sign that Ledecky is gearing up for Tokyo, she swam a world-leading 15:40.55 at the TYR Pro Swim Series in Mission Viejo, California, in April 2021 and finished over 26 seconds ahead of Ashley Twichell in second place.

In the 1,500 at the Tokyo Olympics, Ledecky hopes to pay tribute to the long list of female distance swimmers who have come before her. The first world record in the event was set by American Helen Wainwright in 1922 at 25:06.6. Since then 14 U.S. women have broken the 1,500 world record, including Janet Evans and Debbie Meyer.

“I want to kick off the U.S. on a good note for [the 1,500],” Ledecky said. “There have been so many great female distance swimmers who have come through the U.S. that haven't had that opportunity [to swim the 1,500 at the Olympic Games]. So I want to take advantage of that opportunity and really get us started on a great note there.”

 

The Stanford Effect

Ledecky has been training for the past five years—since the end of the Rio Olympics—at Stanford University with coach Greg Meehan and a host of other great female swimmers, including Olympic medalists Simone Manuel and Lia Neal. 

Competing for the Cardinal for two seasons, Ledecky helped them win consecutive NCAA titles in 2017 and 2018. Then she turned pro, giving herself time to adjust to new sponsorship demands before the Tokyo Games. Still, she has remained with her Stanford group doing consistent long-course (50-meter) training.

Despite the uncertainty of the last year, Ledecky seems in a good place heading to U.S. Olympic Trials and Tokyo Olympics. A silver lining of the coronavirus pandemic, she finished her bachelor’s degree in psychology last fall about a year ahead of schedule. And her Stanford friends became her family during the pandemic. She said she has not seen her real family in over a year but hopes to celebrate with them next fall.

“I enjoy the process [of training] on a day-to-day basis,” she said, “and it doesn’t hurt to be able to do it with really great people like Simone, Brooke [Forde], Katie Drabot and a number of swimmers on the Stanford team who are really striving to try to make it to Tokyo. We have the same goal, and it really pushes us, and we have a lot of fun laughing and commiserating together in tough sets.”

 

Other Records to Set in Tokyo 

Besides the individual freestyle races, Ledecky will likely also headline the women’s 4x200-meter freestyle relay—an event the U.S. women have only lost once at the Olympic Games (in 2008). At the 2019 world championships, the U.S. finished second to Australia in a close race. But Ledecky was ill at those championships.

She is almost sure to qualify in the 400 and 800 freestyles, as well—and she will be a favorite to defend her Olympic gold medals in both races. She holds world-leading times to date in these distances.

Should she win three consecutive Olympic titles in the same event (800 free), Ledecky would become only the fourth swimmer to achieve this feat, and only the second American. The list includes Australia’s Dawn Frasier (100 freestyle), Hungary’s Krisztina Egerszegi (100 backstroke), and Phelps (100 butterfly). Only Phelps has won four consecutive Olympic titles in the same event (200 individual medley).

And then the Olympic Games Paris 2024 is only three years away.

Peggy Shinn

An award-winning freelance writer based in Vermont, Peggy Shinn has covered five Olympic Games. She has contributed to TeamUSA.org since its inception in 2008.

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