It’s time to pencil Katie Ledecky’s name into the record book.
The 19-year-old superstar freestyle swimmer turned in perhaps her most impressive race of these Olympics, taking gold in her weakest individual event of the week, the women’s 200-meter freestyle.
Ledecky won in 1:53.73, a bruising time in a bruising race. She edged out Sarah Sjostrom of Sweden, who finished in 1:54.08. Australia’s Emma McKeon took the bronze. What was perhaps most impressive was the final 25 meters or so, as Ledecky dug deep to fend off Sjostrom’s final push.
“I did come pretty close to throwing up during that last 50,” Ledecky said, admitting that she let a burp escape. “I knew I just needed to get my hand on the wall and be done. Everything was hurting. … I just had to dig deep and do my own thing. I had no idea whether I touched first. … I was done when I touched the wall. I knew I’d given it everything I had to.
“I wasn’t surprised, but kind of relieved (to touch the wall). The 200 is more stressful for me than the 400 and the 800 because I can’t really settle into my rhythm. It’s just, one mistake and you’re done.”
That’s why this 200 freestyle event was so important, so critical, and such a source of pride for Ledecky. It’s basically a long sprint, and Ledecky began her swimming career by dominating distance events, showing a mastery not seen in decades. She’s undefeated in major international competition in individual events; she’s won 14 gold medals in 14 attempts. Ledecky is the current world record-holder in the 400, 800 and 1,500 freestyles. And she’s worked on going down from there, to the 200 and even at times the 100 (she anchored the women’s 4×100 silver medal-winning relay on Saturday).
“She’s the queen of freestyle,” said Sjostrom, the silver medalist. “I feel like I really need to be 100% ready mentally and everything before I go to a race (against her).”
So far these Games, Ledecky is 2-for-2 in individual events. With just the 800 free remaining, Ledecky will likely become just the second female Olympian in history to win three individual freestyle gold medals in the same Games. Only Debbie Meyer (1968) has accomplished the feat.
Ledecky is the third woman and sixth swimmer to win gold in both the 200 and 400 freestyle at the same Olympics. The other two women were Meyer and Australia’s Shane Gould in 1972.
“I’m just honored to be part of the tradition of American freestyle swimming, and I want to make them proud,” Ledecky said. “(Debbie) told me she wanted me to do it. I don’t want to let (her) down.”
“We set some goals three years ago,” said Bruce Gemmell, Ledecky’s personal coach. “Seeing that we’re two-thirds of the way there, that’s very, very rewarding.”
Ledecky will next swim Thursday afternoon in her 800 free preliminary heat, an event that likely will not bring with it the risk of vomiting. Not that the feeling is a bad thing — at least not for Ledecky. Her comments Tuesday night reminded Gemmell of a funny story that illustrates not only her tireless work ethic, but also how hard she pushes herself physically every day to prepare for magical moments like this.
“We were in the Olympic Training Center in the fall or winter, and one of the male athletes was training with her,” Gemmell said. “He turned to her and said something like, ‘That was so hard I feel like I’m going to throw up.’ Her reply was, ‘I feel that way about three times a week.’
“So, that’s not surprising,” he said.