Katie Ledecky

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Katie Ledecky swims to AP Female Athlete of the Year honors

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Katie Ledecky got her start in swimming because she just wanted to make friends. Her brother was eager to join a team at a pool near their house and as a 6-year-old, she tagged along.

By summer’s end, the Ledecky siblings had made 100 friends ranging in age from 6 to 18. Some of them remain good friends with Katie, who went on to become the world’s best swimmer in the post-Michael Phelps era.

She earned five golds and a silver at this year’s world championships in Budapest, maintaining the upward trajectory she first established as a surprise gold medalist at the 2012 London Olympics.

Her dominant performance in Hungary earned Ledecky Associated Press Female Athlete of the Year honors.

In balloting by U.S. editors and news directors announced Tuesday, Ledecky received 351 points, edging out Serena Williams with 343. Williams won the Australian Open for her Open era-record 23rd Grand Slam tennis title. Olympic track star Allyson Felix finished third in voting, with 248 points.

Last year, Ledecky was second to gymnast Simone Biles in the balloting.

The AP Male Athlete of the Year will be announced Wednesday.

MORE: Ledecky earns USOC’s Athlete of the Year honors

Ledecky is the eighth female swimmer to win and the first since Amy Van Dyken in 1996. Among the others is 1969 winner Debbie Meyer. At last year’s Rio de Janeiro Games, Ledecky equaled Meyer’s feat of sweeping the 200, 400 and 800 freestyles in a single Olympics.

“It’s a really great history of women swimmers and freestylers,” Ledecky said of the AP honor roll. “I really look up to a lot of those women.”

She is the first active college athlete to win since UConn basketball player Rebecca Lobo in 1995.

Ledecky is a sophomore at Stanford, still debating whether to major in psychology or political science, and enjoying life in the dorms, where she lives with five other swimmers.

“Just being in the college environment has kind of added another layer of fun,” she said. “Being with teammates and working toward NCAA championships and having that team goal, that’s another thing that is fun.”

Ledecky heads to Colorado Springs, Colorado, for high-altitude training with her Stanford team this week. Her focus is on the collegiate season through the NCAAs in March.

MORE: Rising star says she’s getting closer to Ledecky

In moving cross-country from her home in Bethesda, Maryland, to attend college in California, Ledecky left behind longtime coach Bruce Gemmell. But like some of those old summer league teammates, Ledecky has stayed in touch. She trains with Gemmell when she returns to visit her family.

She was a star to them in 2012 but a little-known 15-year-old to the rest of the world when she won the 800-meter freestyle in world-record time in London.

In 2013, Ledecky won four golds at the worlds in Barcelona, setting a pair of world records. Two years later in Kazan, she swept every freestyle from 200 to 1,500 meters, setting two more world records. Another two world records fell last year in Rio.

In her typically understated way, Ledecky said: “I really pride myself on the consistency I’ve had over the past couple years. Just being able to compete at the international level and come away with some gold medals each year.”

Ledecky didn’t set any personal bests or world records in Budapest, something she’s done with such frequency that people expect to witness something spectacular anytime she dives in the pool.

Her loss in the 200 free in Hungary was considered an upset.

“If they’re disappointed with me not breaking a world record, it’s an honor because it’s representative of what I’ve done in the past and a benchmark for myself,” she said. “I don’t focus on what anyone thinks of my goals or wants to see me do.”

Not yet halfway toward the 2020 Tokyo Games, Ledecky already is thinking ahead. Like Phelps, she never publicly reveals her target times or placements.

“I set big goals for myself and that’s always what has motivated me,” she said.

Despite living in a results-focused world, Ledecky enjoys the journey, something she learned between London and Rio.

“Trying to find those little things to improve on and the process of getting better,” she said. “Doing everything in practice to set yourself up well each year.”

Her sunny smile and friendly demeanor belie the competitor who is always plotting ahead and moving forward ever faster.

“I know the four years goes by very quickly,” Ledecky said, “and I want to do everything I can to prepare.”

MORE: Ledecky, Dressel lead Golden Goggles winners

Katie Ledecky, Kyle Snyder named U.S. Olympic athletes of the year

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Katie LedeckyKyle Snyder and the women’s national hockey team earned best-of-the-year honors at the Team USA Awards on Wednesday night.

NBC will air coverage of the awards Dec. 23 from 5-6 p.m. ET.

Ledecky won Female Athlete of the Year for the third time after marking her largest medal haul ever at a major international meet — five golds and one silver at the world championships in Budapest in July.

She beat out finalists Mikaela Shiffrin (first World Cup overall title), Helen Maroulis (won her five world matches by a combined 53-0 en route to repeat gold), Lindsey Jacobellis (fifth world snowboard cross title) and Heather Bergsma (two golds, one bronze at speed skating worlds).

Snyder became the fourth wrestler to earn Male Athlete of the Year after repeating as world champion by beating Russian Abdulrashid Sadulayev in the 97kg freestyle final, dubbed the Match of the Century.

Snyder handed the Russian Tank, the Olympic 86kg champion, his first loss in nearly four years in August.

The other men’s finalists were swimmer Caeleb Dressel (seven golds at worlds), pole vaulter Sam Kendricks (world title, undefeated year), biathlete Lowell Bailey (first American to win an Olympic or world biathlon title) and skier McRae Williams (world gold, X Games silver in slopestyle).

The women’s hockey national team earned Team of the Year for the first time since it won the first Olympic women’s hockey title in 1998.

The U.S. women nearly boycotted the world championship due to a pay dispute. They reached an agreement with USA Hockey three days before the tournament. Despite little prep time, they went undefeated in Plymouth, Mich., beating rival Canada 3-2 in overtime in the April final.

The other team finalists were women’s water polo (fifth world title) and bobsledders Elana Meyers Taylor and Kehri Jones (world champions).

Paralympic Athletes of the Year went to track and field athletes Tatyana McFadden and Mikey Brannigan and the men’s sled hockey team.

Coaches of the Year went to national freestyle wrestling coach Bill Zadick and Para Nordic skiing coach Eileen Carey.

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MORE: ‘I’m getting closer to Ledecky,’ new teen swim star says

‘I’m getting closer to Ledecky,’ new teen swim star says

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We’re used to Katie Ledecky pulling away from swimmers by lengths of the pool in distance races, but one new rival sees the opposite.

“I think I’m getting closer and closer to Ledecky right now,” China’s Li Bingjie said at a FINA World Cup event in Singapore last weekend, according to the New Straits Times.

Li, who was born in 2002, took silver in the 800m freestyle and bronze in the 400m free behind Ledecky at the world championships in July.

Her 800m time — 8:15.46 — was the second-fastest ever for a swimmer other than Ledecky. Ledecky holds the 14 fastest times ever.

Next is Brit Rebecca Adlington‘s gold-medal-winning time from the 2008 Olympics, followed by two more Ledecky times and then Li.

Ledecky beat Li by 2.78 seconds in the world championships 800m.

It marked Ledecky’s smallest margin of victory in a race of 400 meters or longer at a major international meet since 2013 — a run of 10 races among the 2014 Pan Pacific Championships, 2015 World Championships, 2016 Olympics and 2017 World Championships.

In that world 800m final, Li cut five seconds off her personal best and outsplit Ledecky over the last 200 meters. Afterward, she told Chinese media that Ledecky didn’t swim as fast as Li thought she would, according to TeamUSA.org.

“My time wasn’t as fast as I’ve been, but it’s still faster than anybody else has ever been,” Ledecky responded when told of Li’s comments, according to the website. “And it was the end of a really long week for me, a lot of ups and downs. I was happy to just get the gold, and that’s all I really wanted to do in this race tonight, going out and swimming the best race I can. You don’t know what anybody else was going to do. If she was going to come up and challenge me, I would have had to respond.”

Then in September, Li broke Asian records in the 400m and 1500m frees at the Chinese National Games. She is ranked third in the world in both events this year.

“As for [whether I can surpass Ledecky], that’s not for me to say,” Li said last weekend, according to the newspaper.

Ledecky and Li have not met since worlds, and they might not again until 2019.

The major international meet of 2018 is August’s Pan Pacific Championships in Japan, an event that the top Chinese swimmers often skip.

Li reportedly said her next focus is on the Asian Games, which open five days after Pan Pacs.

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MORE: Ledecky wins race by 54 seconds, breaks record