Katie Ledecky was born on St. Patrick’s Day, 1997. To say she’s lived a charmed swimming life wouldn’t be cliche, but it would be dead on accurate. Even without the adornment of Olympic medals, the 19-year-old stands out in a crowd. She’s six-foot-tall and has the infectious smile of a carefree teenager. She surprised the world in London by winning gold, leading wire-to-wire in the 800m freestyle as a 15-year-old. Now she holds the ten fastest times in the history of the event. Her closest competitor in the 800m is 12 seconds slower.
Expectations are high for Ledecky in Rio, and they should be. At the World Championships last year, she did something that has never been done before. She won gold in the 200m, 400m, 800m and the 1500m. The feat has become known as “the Ledecky slam”. No swimmer has swept those events in the same Olympics since Debbie Meyer in Mexico City in 1968.
Ledecky was a surprise addition to the sprinters relay. Known more for her middle distance achievements, she’s proving to be the most versatile swimmer on this year’s team. Ledecky not only anchored the 400×1 to a silver medal, she beat the rest of the team with a split time of 52.6 seconds. On eight hours sleep, she set an Olympic record and the second-fastest in history in the 400m freestyle semi-finals with what she called a “lackadasical” stroke.
The stroke has been perfected by the swimmer and her coaches over the past five years. According to the Washington Post’s Dave Sheinin, during a practice in 2011, she was challenged to swim laps in fewer strokes and often had to lunge at the wall to complete the lap. The result was a “gallop” or “hitch” stroke, similar to how male swimmers like Michael Phelps swim. It allows her to use legs more and requires increased coordination from her arms through her hips and legs to prevent drag.
How’d she wrap up the 400m, her first solo final of these games? At the 100m mark, she was a full body length and 1.53 seconds ahead of her closest competitor. When she touched the wall, Ladecky broke, smashed and destroyed the world record by finishing in 3:56:46—almost five seconds ahead of the field. “I was really confident. The 3:58 this morning felt really easy, and I knew if I could just push the back half really hard, I could… I could make it happen tonight,” said the aquatic assassin from Bethesda, Maryland.
Ledecky won’t turn pro after the Olympics. She’ll join teammate Simone Manuel and swim for Stanford in the fall. The scary part is that she could compete in two, maybe three more Olympics. Even with all of her accomplishments, there’s more to come from Ledecky, and that’s a really big deal for U.S. competitive swimming.