Katie Ledecky has powered her way to five Olympic gold medals with laser-like focus on her goals, and an intensifying rivalry with Aussie Ariarne Titmus is not about to change the US freestyle great’s approach.
Ledecky heads to the pandemic-delayed Tokyo Games targeting an astonishing range of freestyle titles: 200m, 400m, 800m and 1500m, the last an Olympic event for women for the first time.
It is not just the scope that will be a challenge Ledecky but also the rise of Australia’s Titmus, who has thrown down top times in the world this year in the 200m and 400m free to signal her readiness to take on the American.
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As talk of Titmus’s times buzzed through the US Olympic trials, Ledecky insisted she remained focused only on her own performances.
It is the strategy she has used ever since she sprang an upset 800m freestyle victory as a 15-year-old at the 2012 London Olympics.
She added gold in the 200m, 400m, 800m and 4x200m free relay in Rio four years later along with a 4x100m free relay silver.
Lececky has appeared dismissive when asked about Titmus in the past, seemingly making a point not to even use the Australian’s name. She pointed out before Titmus’ stunning performances in Adelaide that “medals aren’t won at trials”.
She insists she won’t be worrying about what her rivals might produce but clearly has great respect for her Australian rival, nicknamed The Terminator’.
“I can’t control if someone has some really fast swims and beats me and things like that,” Ledecky said. “So I just tried to focus on my goal times and how I want to swim each of my races.”
As the hype builds up around them, Ledecky and Titmus remain more than respectful, Titmus saying she is “still the hunter” despite posting the second-fastest 200m free in history at the Australian trials and a sizzling 3min 56.90 in the 400m.
That was just outside Ledecky’s world record of 3:56.46, and more than two seconds faster than Ledecky’s best this season.
“It was so awesome to see,” Ledecky said of Titmus’s blistering trials. “It’s always great to see the sport continue to move forward and she’s definitely doing that for our sport.”
Owner of the 23 fastest 800m free times in history, Ledecky remains a heavy favourite in that event and in the 1500m — in which she owns the 10 fastest times ever.
Ledecky is acutely conscious of the place in history a 1500m free victory would bring, noting that former distance greats including American Evans never had the chance for gold in the event which was previously only swum by men at the Games.
“Hopefully we can do her proud in Tokyo,” Ledecky said of Evans, who held the 1500m free record from March 1988 through June 2007.
But the addition of the 1500m free pushes Ledecky’s Olympic programme almost to breaking point, with the 200m and 1500m free finals coming in the same session.
It’s the kind of challenge that has long fueled Ledecky, who recalls liking the punishing 1500m “right from the get-go” even though many young swimmers shy away from the demanding training it requires.
“I just like the work that you have to put in to be good at that race,” Ledecky said. “It requires really good pacing, probably more so than the 800, just being cautious up front and knowing how much you can push it.”
23-time Olympic gold medallist Michael Phelps said Ledecky was stll recreating what’s possible.
“She’s challenging her imagination and that’s awesome to watch.”
Ledecky’s stunning victory over home favourite Rebecca Adlington in the 800m in 2012 launched an era of dominance, but Ledecky had long been at ease among sports greatness.
In 2020 she tweeted a “family video” of herself as a toddler, as NBA great Michael Jordan played peek-a-boo with her in the owner’s box of the NHL’s Washington Capitals, which her uncle Jon Ledecky co-owned until 2001.
“My family always laughs at the fact that I’ve always been relaxed in those environments … not fazed by anything,” Ledecky told the New York Post.
Coach Greg Meehan said attention to detail is key for Ledecky as she strives to stay ahead of the chasing pack.
“We’re trying to find the little things that she can constantly get better at and use that as a good motivating tool,” Meehan said.
And amid talk of rivalries and potential record gold medal hauls, Ledecky says the goals she has set herself remain paramount.
“The most important expectations are the ones that I have for myself,” she said. “I do a pretty good job of sticking to those and not seeing what kinds of medal counts or times that people are throwing out about what I could accomplish if everything goes perfectly.”