Katie Ledecky won her fourth gold in the Rio Olympics with a world-record time in the 800-meter freestyle. She is the first woman since 1968 to sweep the 200-, 400- and 800-meter freestyle events in a single Olympics.
In 1968, a teenager in North Dakota watched transfixed as Debbie Meyer won the 200-, 400- and 800-meter freestyles at the Mexico City Olympics. The next time the teenager, already a competitive swimmer, got in the pool, she cut through the water repeating to herself, “I am Debbie Meyer.”
The teenager would grow up to become the mother of Katie Ledecky, who on Friday night became the first Olympian since Meyer to win the 200, 400 and 800. Ledecky completed the trifecta with a flourish, breaking her world record in the 800 with a clocking of 8 minutes, 04.79 seconds. It’s her fourth gold medal in the Rio Olympics.
Her 400 split of 4:01.98 would have won the bronze in the 400 final last Sunday.
She finished 11.38 seconds ahead of the runner-up, Jazz Carlin, of Britain, who clocked an 8:16.17. That was two-tenths of a second better than the bronze medalist, Boglarka Kapas, of Hungary. The slim margin separating second and third threw into sharp relief the dominance of Ledecky, who owns the 13 fastest performances in history.
In 2012, a 15-year-old Ledecky won the 800 freestyle in 8:14.63. That was her only event. Four years later, Ledecky raced in three individual events and two relays, totaling 3,400 meters. She won five medals and became the third American swimmer, after Amy Van Dyken and Missy Franklin, to win four golds.
Before the Games began, Ledecky was asked if breaking the eight-minute barrier was within her reach. She said she did not believe so. “I don’t know if that’s achievable,” Ledecky said. And then, almost as an afterthought, she added, “I still say anything is possible.”
Ledecky did not have the best night’s sleep. It was all because of her roommate, Simone Manuel. After Manuel’s upset victory Thursday in the 100-meter freestyle, Ledecky stayed awake to congratulate her. Manuel said she was shocked when she cracked open the bedroom door at about two in the morning and was swallowed in an embrace by Ledecky.
“She said I’m not going to sleep until I give you a hug,” Manuel said. “That really meant a lot to me.”
Ledecky is a student of the sport. She has been known to politely correct journalists when they get their facts wrong.
Ledecky’s coach, Bruce Gemmell, said, “Her biggest internal motivator is getting better, it’s raising the bar. It’s not winning an Olympic medal, it isn’t setting a world record, it wasn’t becoming the best in the world. It’s about setting goals and going after them.”
Where does Ledecky go from here? To Stanford, to begin her freshman year, which she put off to train for the milestone that all that hard work made look easy. Her growing legion of admirers includes Kevin Durant, who asked to take a photograph with her after her 200 freestyle victory, and the all-time greatest Olympian, Michael Phelps.
“She’s doing times that women have never done before because she’s not afraid to think outside the box,” Phelps said. “She’s not afraid, and her mind is open to everything.”