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Katie Ledecky Closes Tokyo with Signature Gold, and There's More to Come

Lela MooreFeatured Columnist IJuly 31, 2021

Kathleen Ledecky, of United States, poses after winning the gold medal in the women's 800-meter freestyle final at the 2020 Summer Olympics, Saturday, July 31, 2021, in Tokyo, Japan. (AP Photo/David Goldman)
David Goldman/Associated Press

It was Katie Ledecky's final swim in Tokyo. The woman who has not lost an 800m freestyle race on a world stage since her 2012 Olympic debut won her third Olympic gold medal in the event that has become her signature. She is the fourth swimmer in history to three-peat in a single event. It brings her Olympic medal count to 10 and is her fourth medal and second gold from Tokyo. She now has the most individual gold medals—six—of any female Olympic swimmer.

And it seems like we will see Ledecky vie for more shots at 800m gold, contrary to earlier speculation that this was her final Olympics. In her post-race interview, she politely corrected NBC's Michele Tafoya when Tafoya asked how Ledecky felt after her last Olympic swim. "That wasn't my last swim," Ledecky said, laughing, and declared her intent to try for Paris 2024 and maybe Los Angeles 2028 into the camera.

The 800m has long been Ledecky's sweet spot. As the swims get shorter, so too does the distance between Ledecky and the rest of the field. She was bested Monday in the 400m, eight laps to the 800m's 16, by Ariarne Titmus, who took silver Friday night in the 800m.

Jeff Roberson/Associated Press

There is something special about Ledecky in the 800m. She excels, too, in the 1500m, in which she won gold Wednesday in the event's Olympic debut for women. But the 800m was her first Olympic race in 2012, the first time we realized we were watching something truly special in a race many previously considered a good excuse to go get a drink.

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She has broken her own world record four times and still maintains it. She holds 24 of the top 25 times, and 50 of the top 200 times, in the event (in comparison, Michael Phelps holds just 22 of the top 200 times in his best Olympic event, the 200 IM). Ledecky can win the 800m by body lengths, plural, as she did here, but any race with her in it is still a pleasure to watch.

Jae C. Hong/Associated Press

Ledecky swam in Lane 4 as the top qualifier in the final. Titmus swam in Lane 7, so the two were not face-to-face as they had been during the 400m. Ledecky pulled ahead of the field by a body length three laps in and held off Titmus' occasional surges. With two laps left, she had a nearly four-meter lead; she won in 8:12.57, nearly three seconds over her time in the qualifying swim and more than a second ahead of Titmus, who finished in 8:13.83. Simona Quadarella of Italy took bronze in 8:18.35.

The future of American distance swimming, regardless of whether Ledecky keeps swimming through the next two Olympic cycles, swam next to her tonight in Lane 5. Katie Grimes, 15, is the second-youngest American swimmer to compete at the Olympics after Amanda Beard. The Olympics are her first international meet; the flight to Tokyo her first trip out of the U.S.

Grimes did not flinch in the face of greatness tonight, pulling off a strong swim to finish just off the podium in fourth. Ledecky demonstrated some of her legendary good sportsmanship with a hug for her teammate.

And despite the new challengers, including Titmus and Grimes, whom she has faced in Tokyo, Ledecky is still on top of her game. Don't let her mellow personality fool you; we saw a certain fierceness and competitive edge emerge when Tafoya misstepped in assuming this was Ledecky's final Olympic swim. She's still got it.

Ledecky's impact on swimming is far-reaching. She is a legend, but her star power is built less on flash than on stamina. Can she continue to rule the distance-swimming world through to Paris and Los Angeles? To succeed in distance swimming, you must put in countless hours of training and conditioning, and by all accounts, she enjoys that type of mundane work, the reps, the laps upon laps.

She dominates quietly, by reputation and results more than brash statements. But to watch her glide through the water is to recognize you are in the presence of greatness.

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