The classic American striving of Katie Ledecky
2:08 | Olympics
The classic American striving of Katie Ledecky
Wednesday August 10th, 2016

RIO DE JANEIRO – Once in a while, after his daughter adds another vivid chapter to her oh-so-normal, oh-so-extraordinary existence, David Ledecky will shake his head and say, “Disney should make a movie about Katie.” The idea doesn’t get much traction. “Tell dad that would be the most boring movie of all time,” her brother, Michael, always responds. “Just winning from beginning to end.”

He’s right, of course. Tuesday night, the Bethesda, Md.-based freestyler again walked onto a pool deck for a long-course international final—her 14th since 2012—and again walked off with the title, finishing in a furious, personal-best 1:53.73 to edge Sweden’s Sara Sjostrom for the 2016 Olympic 200-meter championship and enable the talk about her place among all-time greats to officially start. Now the first woman since Australia’s Shane Gould in 1972 to win both the 200- and 400-meter races at one Olympics, Ledecky need win only her wheelhouse 800-meters on Friday to become the first since the U.S.’s Debbie Meyer in 1968 to sweep all three.   

“It’s pretty cool,” Ledecky said. “Usually I don’t really think about the history like that, but I’m just really honored to be part of American freestyle swimming and I want to make them proud. I’ve seen Debbie, and she told me she wanted me to do it. I don’t want to let her down.”

Nobody believes that is possible. Ledecky owns the top 10 times in the 800 and an 11-second margin over her closest competition; it seems only a rogue illness can stop her—and after Tuesday you’d have to bet on her beating that, too. Muscles screaming and heaving for breath, Ledecky was churning down the final 50 meters when she burped and felt her lunch rise. “I came close to throwing up,” she said. “Everything was hurting and I knew I wouldn’t be able to see most of the field on the last 50, so I just had to dig deep and do my own thing. I had no idea whether I touched first.”

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In other words, though on paper—or film—Ledecky’s run here has followed every pre-Olympic forecast, the 200 provided far more drama than meets the eye. First off, arguably no race features more talent or is more unpredictable, and no distance stresses her more. “One mistake and you’re done,” Ledecky said. “It just feels good that it’s over, almost.”

Maybe for her: Swim fans would line up tomorrow for a rematch. There was world-record holder Federica Pellegrini, who would finish fourth behind bronze medalist Emma McKeon; Ledecky, the reigning 200-meter world champion; and Sjostrom, a newcomer to the event who came into Rio holding the fastest time—1:54.34—of the year. Better still, on Sunday Sjostrom had broken her own world record to win the 100-meter butterfly, and Ledecky savaged her own world record to win the 400. After circling each other for a year, the two were in top form, and meeting in the middle in a classic showdown.

Clive Rose/Getty Images

Oddly, Ledecky had more to prove. She mounted the blocks as the reigning world champ, but her win in the 200-meters last year in Kazan gave swim-wonks plenty to play with. Sjostrom didn’t even compete in the individual race at those 2015 World Championships, but her time (1:54.31) in the leadoff leg of the 4x200 there was actually faster than Ledecky’s triumphant 1:55.16—the fastest 200 in four years, in fact. Ledecky then posted a striking 1:54.43 last January in Austin, but a month ago the 22-year old Swede replied with a 1:54.34.

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It’s easy to think that Ledecky doesn’t pay heed to such back and forth; she rarely speaks about competitors, and the party line always has her focused on her lane, her times. But last Friday, while watching the Opening Ceremony in their hotel lobby in Rio, Ledecky’s family was talking about Ledecky’s Olympic one-race debut in 2012, and the packed Olympic schedule this time that would soon fill their days.

“I don’t think she’s ever looked back for these four years,” said Michael, who led his sister into the sport when they were kids. “It’s always chasing her goals or chasing the person who’s in front of her in the world rankings. The 200 free: I think that’s what appeals to her about that event.”

“She enjoys the challenge,” said her mom, Mary Gen Ledecky. “And the 200 is certainly a challenge here.”

“I wouldn’t even call her the favorite,” Michael said.

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​It’s hard to say whether Ledecky ever agreed; she talks strategy and goals only with her coach, Bruce Gemmell. But that Ledecky was honed in, savagely, on the 200 quickly became clear in Rio. Pivoting from Sunday night’s 400-meter final to Monday’s 200 heats was never going to be easy, but warm-down, the 400 medal ceremony, press and drug-testing kept her moving until 3 a.m. Ledecky then jolted awake just a few hours later, mind racing: Trouble for anyone else. She uncorked a pace-setting 1:55.01 in Monday’s early afternoon heat. Rest is overrated. 

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After, the media mixed zone provided proof that London, indeed, happened long ago. First came Missy Franklin, winner of four gold medals at the 2012 Olympics, trying to figure out why, at 21, she had become so slow. Franklin’s 1:57.12 was just enough to make the semifinals, but no one expected a sudden drop. (Indeed, she would finish even slower—1:57.56—in the semis, 13th out of 16, and declare herself “heartbroken.”) Franklin had just started comparing her mindset in Rio to London—“It’s really different…”—when Ledecky arrived. And the reporters crowding the old Olympic princess streamed away to hear the new.

“My hardest swim of the week,” Ledecky said. “I’m glad it’s over with.” She wasn’t too interested in talking; the mass of journalists were blocking the TV feed of Sjostrom’s heat, and Ledecky kept rising on tip-toe to scan the result: 1:56.11. Right on her tail. Someone asked if she was particularly “dialed-in” for the 200. Ledecky set her heels back down.

Richard Heathcote/Getty Images

“It feels good,” she said. “I feel like, every year at the big championship meet, my stroke just feels better than it ever has. And once I get going, it’s kind of hard to stop.”

That last sentence shows, yet again, that Ledecky came to Rio fully primed. She hadn’t been one to appraise her work so openly before these games but, then, maybe you can’t ignore the obvious forever. Monday night’s semifinal set up a near-exact preview of Tuesday’s final: Ledecky flanked by Sjostrom and Pellegrini. She finished second—by the width of this clause— behind Sjostrom’s 1:54.65; Pellegrini finished third. One reporter, a veteran of 17 Olympic games, tried asking if that foretold anything about the final. Ledecky cut her off.

“Semifinals,” she said. “It’s the third round that counts.”

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Of course, she was right; these are her Olympics, after all. U.S. male swimmers like Conor Dwyer have been speaking of how Ledecky sparked the American team roll in Rio; 400-meter bronze medalist Leah Smith cheerily told of how she heard the crowd’s cheers for Ledecky and pretended they were for her. But no one predicted that even Ledecky’s top rival would be drafting off her success.

“She’s the queen of freestyle,” Sjostrom said after Tuesday’s final. “I didn’t have anything more to give the last 50 meters, I was exhausted. I was lucky that I had Katie Ledecky’s wave to swim on the last 50 meters because I was just, like, standing still….I got some extra speed for free.” 

Clive Rose/Getty Images

The only ones left out, for the moment, are her family. It’s a remarkably close unit; along with her parents and brother, a small cadre of cousins from Mary Gen’s side and David’s brother, Islanders owner Jon Ledecky, also flew down to cheer every race. But they haven’t visited the Athletes Village and won’t until after the competition ends. Texts and phone calls have been exchanged, but they’ve only seen Katie the three times she has circled the pool with her medals.

“She went to training camp in San Antonio on July 12, then to Atlanta,” Mary Gen said, sitting in the stands during the 400-meter heats last Sunday. “By the time we see her it’ll be a month. We waved to her last night.”

Told that Ledecky had been in the mixed zone under the stadium after, Mary Gen said, “Did you talk to her? How is she?”

With this race over and won, Mom, it’s safe to say that she’s doing just fine.

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