August 13, 2016 12:53:35 pm
Katie Ledecky came into the Rio Olympics facing enormous expectations. Some athletes might’ve buckled under the pressure. She seemed to thrive on it. The 19-year-old from suburban Washington capped off one of the greatest performances in Olympic history with her fourth gold medal and second world record, shattering her own mark in the 800-meter freestyle Friday night.
“I just wanted to lay it all out there,” Ledecky said. She certainly did that. And more. Ledecky and Debbie Meyer are now the only female swimmers to sweep the three longest freestyle races. Meyer took the 200, 400 and 800 at Mexico City in 1968.
In recent days, Meyer’s been texting with Ledecky’s’ mom, Mary Gen. Before the 800, the former swimming great sent along a video message that was forwarded to Katie. “I try not to think about the history much,” Ledecky said. “But joining Debbie in that history is incredible.”
She also followed fellow swimmers Amy Van Dyken and Missy Franklin as the only American women to win as many as four golds in a single Olympics. Along with her individual golds, Ledecky also topped the podium with the 4×200 free relay. For good measure, she earned silver anchoring the 4×100 free relay, showing the sort of speed that has only recently become part of her repertoire but bodes well for her branching out even more in the future.
“I hit all my goals right on the nose this week,” Ledecky said.
Four years ago, she seemingly came out nowhere to capture gold as a 15-year-old at the London Games. Then, after her coach moved to the West Coast, Ledecky hooked up with Bruce Gemmell and never missed a beat.
She called it “a testament to the vision that Bruce and I had three years ago when we set these goals, and we weren’t going to stop until we met them.”
As was the case in the 400 free, where she crushed her own world record, Ledecky was merely racing the clock as she powered away from the field to touch in 8 minutes, 4.79 seconds, eclipsing the mark of 8:06.68 that she set at a grand prix meet in Texas back in January.
“The goal was 8:05 or better,” she said.
Naturally, she was better.
Then, Ledecky played the waiting game, hanging on the rope for a while to let the rest of the field finish.
Jazz Carlin of Britain finally touched in 8:16.17 to claim silver, just ahead of Hungary’s Boglarka Kapas grabbing bronze in 8:16.37.
“It’s tough when you’ve got such an incredible athlete in your event and someone who breaks world records every time she swims,” Carlin said.
Some 23 seconds after Ledecky touched the wall, the last of the eight finalists chugged to the end of the grueling race.
Ledecky was barely breathing hard.
“What she’s doing in the sport is ridiculous, it’s insane,” said Michael Phelps, the 22-time gold medalist who plans to retire again after his final race on Saturday. “She’s obviously someone I’m very excited to look forward to watching race.”
Ledecky rarely shows her emotions, maintaining the sort of even keel that works so well in the pool.
On the medal stand, though, she finally broke down in tears.
She was surely thinking about all the work she put in to make it there, not to mention all the changes to come as she gets ready to head off to college.
“I think it’s the first time in my life I’ve ever seen true emotion come out,” Phelps said.
But Ledecky is eager to get on to the next phase of her life.
After putting off college for a year to focus on the Olympics, she’ll head to Stanford in the fall and join fellow U.S. teammates Simone Manuel and Leah Smith. Ledecky is not sure yet what she’ll study, but she’s looking forward to being just another college freshman.
“It’s going to be exciting,” Ledecky said. “I am heading home in a couple of days and I’ll have to get all my stuff for my dorm and get everything ready. It’ll be tough leaving home, but I’m excited for the next chapter.”
She shared some tears with Gemmell, the coach who stepped in so seamlessly after the London Games and was so instrumental to her success.
“He doesn’t cry very often and I don’t cry very often,” Ledecky said. “It was just a very happy moment and it’s been incredible to share that journey with him.”
She’s in no hurry to turn professional and cash in on her success.
“I’ve really enjoyed being an amateur,” Ledecky said. “I think there are some pressures that come with being a professional swimmer, and I don’t think I am ready for that.”
She was sure ready for Rio, though.
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