In truth, there is no debate. The greatest DC-area athlete in history — by far — is Katie Ledecky of Bethesda.
She is the greatest female swimmer in history – not a subject of debate either. She added to 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, charging from behind on the third leg to give the United States the lead for good. The 200m is Ledecky’s “weakest” race, yet it produced the fastest split time among the 32 swimmers who competed in the relay final.
With 800m gold, Katie Ledecky completes a 4-on-4 world championship
There are all sorts of numbers that prove Ledecky’s brilliance: 10 Olympic medals, seven of them gold; 22 medals at world championships including 19 gold. No one on the women’s side can touch those numbers. Only Michael Phelps on the men’s side surpasses her.
But there’s one simple note that sums up Ledecky’s remarkable legacy better than any number: she’s the youngest woman to win the 800-meter freestyle at the Olympics, coming out of almost nowhere to win the test at 15 years old. years in London. She is also the the oldest woman to ever win the 800m freestyle – winning gold in Tokyo aged 24.
Swimming is an exhausting sport, perhaps more mentally challenging than any other due to the hours required in the pool and the physical and mental strain a great swimmer must undergo to stay at the top. Ledecky is 25 now – and getting better. She is a college graduate – Stanford – and still trying to improve as she points to what would be her fourth Olympics, Paris in 2024. She will then be 27, the same age as Phelps when he was retired for the first time after London. He returned to swim in Rio de Janeiro at age 31 and, although not the same force that won eight gold medals in Beijing in 2008, he still collected six more medals, including five medals. gold.
If she chooses, Ledecky can probably continue swimming until the 2028 Games in Los Angeles. And she always seems to relish the workout grind. “I love being in the water and seeing that line at the bottom of the pool,” she said after one of her victories in Budapest.
Most swimmers have nightmares about this line, seeing it lap after lap, day after day for years and years. There is a monotony that can be mind-numbing. Those who swim in open water events face different courses and conditions that help keep their minds sharp. For competitors like Ledecky, all pools look the same once you step off the starting blocks or push 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 in the individual medley, which requires a swimmer to swim the medley.
Ledecky has always been a freestyler, and the longer the race, the harder she is to beat. In London, she was still just a thriving kid when she blew away the peloton in the 800. Now she’s the sport’s great former champion, constantly challenged by young swimmers.
In Tokyo, she was caught in the last 100 meters of the 400 by Australian Ariarne Titmus and finished fifth in the 200, an event also won by Titmus, who is four years younger – a life of swimming. Last month, Titmus broke Ledecky’s long-standing record of 400m 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 won silver in the 400m, finishing second behind Ledecky, and many swimming media have been singling her out as a potential star in Paris.
Maybe. No doubt Ledecky will face plenty of competition in the 400m from Titmus and McIntosh and who knows who else, with swimming being a sport where youngsters jump into the limelight almost overnight.
But she remains unmatched in the 800 and 1500. She won the 800m in Budapest by an astonishing 10 seconds and the 1500m by 15 seconds. Worth noting: she would undoubtedly have two more Olympic gold medals if swimming’s governing body had not taken so long to integrate the women’s 1500m into the Olympic programme; the race eventually made its Olympic debut in Tokyo, with Ledecky winning easily.
Katie Ledecky is 25 and getting faster, always hitting another wall
What is perhaps most remarkable about Ledecky is how Ordinary she remained even after a full decade as a superstar. According to my colleague Dave Sheinin, who has covered her for years, Ledecky remains approachable and approachable – she phoned him last week from Budapest – and never seems to complain about anything.
After her loss to Titmus in the 400m, she hugged her rival in the pool and called Titmus victory ‘good for the sport’ She’s an excellent team player, performing exceptional stints when her teammates need her most, although she’s never been as dominant over short distances as over longer ones.
After Tokyo, she decided she needed to train with swimmers who would push her harder, so she moved to Florida to work with Florida coach Anthony Nesty, swimming daily against men who won Olympic medals. It seems to work; his times in Budapest were better than a year ago in Tokyo.
She believes the new training regime 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, his attitude and approach to the sport remains incredibly fresh and his legacy is untouchable.
It is in no way disrespectful to the others who are mentioned in the debate over Washington’s greatest athlete to say this: It’s Katie Ledecky. She should be enjoyed by all of us while she is still having fun in the pool. His ability to continue to do so is perhaps his greatest achievement.