When the USA Swimming Olympic Trials concluded last weekend, Katie Ledecky had won all four events she entered: the 200M, 400M, 800M, and 1500M freestyle.
Ledecky has reigned as the freestyle despot for the better part of a decade. Her first taste of dominance came when she won gold in the 800M as the youngest member of swimming’s Team USA at the 2012 Olympics in London. She added four more golds and a silver in Rio, winning the 200M, 400M, and 800M (which no other swimmer had accomplished since 1968) and setting new world records in both the 400M and 800M, which still stand today.
The only reason she doesn’t yet have gold in the 1500M is because the distance wasn’t an Olympic event for women until this year. With her ticket to Tokyo punched many times over, let’s break down what she’s up against in each of her events.
Ledecky’s shortest distance is the only one in which she’s not the current world record holder. That belongs to Federica Pellegrini, whose time of 1:52.98 clocked in 2009 (when special swimsuits were permitted) has yet to be beaten. Ledecky’s fastest 200M time so far this year is a 1:54.40, but 20-year-old Australian Ariarne Titmus swam a 1:53.09 at Australia’s Olympic Trials, a pace Ledecky has never reached at this distance. Ledecky may be the reigning gold medalist from Rio, but she is heading to Tokyo as the underdog for what many are hoping will be a fiercely competitive 200M final.
Ledecky’s 400M world record time of 3:56.46 from Rio has been untouchable in the years since, but Titmus is suddenly breathing down her neck. Prior to last week, Ledecky held the seven fastest times ever in the event, but when Titmus clocked a 3:56.90 in the 400M final at Australia’s trials she came closer than anyone else has to Ledecky’s world record. Titmus now owns the second fastest time ever recorded and the best time of any swimmer this year. Ledecky’s fastest 400M time this year was a 3:59.25 in April. She could find herself the underdog in not one but two races heading into Tokyo.
If swimmers had jerseys for fans to rock, Ledecky’s number would be 800. It was the event of her first gold medal in 2012. She has set new world records at this distance five separate times, the latest being her gold medal swim in Rio, and she owns the 23 fastest times ever recorded. While her pace this year isn’t entering record-breaking territory, she’s still the fastest of all active swimmers. If she manages to win gold in the 800M this summer, she will be the first American woman to ever win three straight gold medals in the same individual Olympic swimming event.
The second iteration of a Ledecky jersey would be number 1500. The gap between her and her closest competition is bigger here than in any other event. Her current 1500M world record of 15:20.48 is eighteen seconds faster than the next best time. Eighteen seconds. At the Olympic Trials this year, she won the final by more than ten seconds.
It’s a good thing the IOC finally got around to adding the event on the women’s side before the greatest female miler ran out of chances to win gold. (Similar to the marathon, back in the dark ages the 1500M swim was deemed too taxing for women.) As John Lohm of Swimming World put it, “To see her anywhere but on the top step of the [1500M] podium would mean disaster struck.”
Between 2013 and 2016, Ledecky posted thirteen of her fourteen career world record breaking swims. There is no clear indication that new world records are on the horizon this summer, almost completely the fault of her own dominant prior self, but she is a gold medal contender, if not landslide favorite, in every single one of her events in Tokyo.