In truth there is no debate. By far the greatest DC-area athlete in history is Katie Ledecky of Bethesda.
She’s the greatest swimmer in history — also not a topic for debate. She extended her legacy last week at the World Championships in Budapest, winning gold medals in the 400, 800 and 1,500 meter freestyle. She added a fourth gold in the 4×200 freestyle relay and charged from behind on stage three to finally give USA the lead. The 200m is Ledecky’s “weakest” race, yet she managed the fastest split time of the 32 swimmers who competed in the relay finals.
Katie Ledecky completes a 4v4 World Championship with gold in 800
There are all sorts of numbers that attest to Ledecky’s brilliance: 10 Olympic medals, seven of them gold; 22 World Championship medals, 19 of which are gold. No one on the women’s side can touch those numbers. Only Michael Phelps on the men’s side surpasses them.
But there’s one simple note that encapsulates Ledecky’s remarkable legacy better than any numbers: She’s the youngest woman to ever win the 800-meter freestyle at an Olympiad, and came out of almost nowhere to finish the event 15th year olds to win. year in London. She is her too oldest Woman who has ever won the 800 Free – Gold in Tokyo at the age of 24.
Swimming is a burnout sport, perhaps tougher mentally than any other due to the hours that must be put in in the pool and the physical and mental toll a good swimmer must endure to stay on top. Ledecky is now 25 – and doing better. She’s a college grad – Stanford – and still trying to get better while pointing to her fourth Olympics in Paris in 2024. She will then be 27 years old, the same age as Phelps when he first retired after London. He returned to Rio de Janeiro to swim at 31, and while he wasn’t the same force who won eight gold medals in Beijing in 2008, he still amassed six more medals – including five golds.
If she wants, Ledecky can still swim through the 2028 games in Los Angeles. And she still seems to be enjoying the workout. “I love being in the water and seeing that line at the bottom of the pool,” she said after one of her wins in Budapest.
Most swimmers have nightmares about that line, seeing it lap after lap, day after day, for years. There is a monotony that can numb the mind. Those who swim in open water events must contend with various courses and conditions that help keep their spirits sharp. For competitors like Ledecky, all pools look the same once you step off the starting blocks or push off the wall.
One of the reasons Phelps was able to stay mentally fresh for most of his career was his versatility. He swam freestyle and butterfly and was brilliant at medley, which requires a swimmer to complete all four strokes.
Ledecky has always been a freestyler and the longer the race, the harder she is to beat. In London she was just a kid who came to herself as she swept the field at the 800. Now she’s the grand old master of the sport, constantly being challenged by younger swimmers.
In Tokyo, she was caught by Australia’s Ariarne Titmus in the final 100 meters of the 400-meter dash and placed fifth in the 200-meter dash, an event also won by Titmus, four years her junior – a lifetime of swimming . Last month, Titmus broke Ledecky’s long-standing 400 record by six-hundredths of a second.
Like many Australian swimmers, Titmus skipped the World Championships to prepare for next month’s Commonwealth Games. In her absence, 15-year-old Canadian Summer McIntosh took silver in the 400m and finished second behind Ledecky, and much swimming media heralded her as a potential breakout star in Paris.
Maybe. There’s no doubt that Ledecky will have plenty of competition in the 400 from Titmus and McIntosh and who knows who, as swimming is a sport where youngsters jump into the limelight almost overnight.
But she remains unrivaled in the 800 and 1,500. She won the 800 in Budapest in a staggering 10 seconds and the 1,500 in 15 seconds. Notable: She would undoubtedly have won two more Olympic gold medals if it hadn’t taken the swimming federation so long to add the women’s 1,500 to the Olympic program. The race eventually made its Olympic debut in Tokyo, with Ledecky easily winning.
Katie Ledecky is 25 and getting faster and faster and still reaching for another wall
Perhaps the most remarkable thing about Ledecky is the how normal She has remained a superstar even after a full decade. According to my colleague Dave Sheinin, who has been mentoring her for years, Ledecky remains approachable and approachable – she called him from Budapest last week – and never seems to complain about anything.
After losing to Titmus in the 400m, she hugged her rival in the pool and called Titmus’ win “good for the sport”. She’s a great teammate, able to come up with stellar relay splits when her teammates need them most – although she’s never been as dominant at shorter distances as she is at the longest.
After Tokyo, she decided to train with swimmers who would challenge her more, so she relocated to Florida to work with Florida coach Anthony Nesty and swim daily against men who have won Olympic medals. It seems to work; her times in Budapest were better than her times in Tokyo a year ago.
She believes the new training program will allow her to improve even further ahead of Paris. Regardless of what happens there, at future world championships, or even in Los Angeles in 2028, her attitude and approach to the sport remain amazingly fresh and her legacy untouchable.
It’s not at all disrespectful to the others mentioned in the debate about Washington’s greatest athlete to say: It’s Katie Ledecky. She should be enjoyed by all of us while she’s still having fun in the pool. Her ability to continue doing so might be her greatest achievement.