Katie Ledecky capped the most successful (by medals) major meet of her career with her fifth gold and sixth medal overall in the world championships 800m freestyle on Saturday.
She won in 8:12.68, nearly eight seconds slower than her world record in Rio. China’s Li Bingjie took silver, 2.78 seconds behind, followed by American Leah Smith. Li, who was born in 2002, lowered her personal best by more than five seconds.
Ledecky surpassed her medal totals from the 2015 Worlds — five golds, five overall — and 2016 Olympics — four golds, five overall. Only Missy Franklin and Michael Phelps have won more golds at a single worlds.
However, she was not as dominant as the last two years. Before Saturday, Ledecky was usually between one and two seconds slower per event in Budapest than at her otherworldly Rio Games.
“If that was my bad year for the next four years, then next couple of years are going to be pretty exciting,” Ledecky told media in Budapest.
She set no world records at a major meet for the first time since the 2012 Olympics, when she won her only event, the 800m free, at age 15. Ledecky lowered at least two records at the 2013 Worlds, 2014 Pan Pacific Championships, 2015 Worlds and 2016 Olympics.
Remember, Ledecky faced new challenges in the post-Olympic year, moving from the Washington, D.C., area for the first time, enrolling at Stanford and completing a full NCAA season under a new coach. To expect her to be faster in 2017 than in 2016 would arguably be unrealistic.
“Hasn’t been the best meet for me, but I’m still happy with my swims,” Ledecky said on NBC on Saturday, adding later, “I always wish there was more. … Knowing that I didn’t really set as high of goals this year and have that same motivation I had last year, always being on and on and on. Going through a lot of transitions and changes this year. Knowing that I’ve gone through that year now, I can really take what I learned this year and apply it moving forward.”
Ledecky remains unquestionably the world’s greatest female distance swimmer. The questions going into next year center on her newer events.
Can she return to the top of the world in the 200m freestyle?
The woman who relegated Ledecky to silver in Budapest, veteran Italian Federica Pellegrini, said she’s finished with that event on the major international level.
The woman who was Ledecky’s biggest rival in the 200m free in 2015 and 2016 — Swede Sarah Sjöström — did not swim the 200m free in Budapest and may not contest it again at a major international meet.
The new 200m free challenger is Australian Emma McKeon, the 23-year-old who tied Ledecky for silver in Budapest. Ledecky and McKeon could go head to head at the 2018 Pan Pacific Championships, a meet for the world’s best swimmers outside of Europe.
However, Australia will be focusing on hosting the Commonwealth Games in April ahead of Pan Pacs in Tokyo in August.
Then there’s Ledecky’s place on the U.S. 4x100m free relay. Ledecky was sixth in the 100m free at nationals but certainly deserved a place on the relay in Budapest given her strong Rio relay effort.
But she went 1.04 seconds slower on her relay leg than in Rio (albeit after swimming the 400m free final earlier in the session). Ledecky was the slowest of the six U.S. swimmers (prelims and finals, factoring in flat starts).
The U.S. is so strong in the 100m free that it doesn’t need to lean on Ledecky in the relay, and she may not be an automatic for the final quartet moving forward in an event that is nowhere near her specialty. Simone Manuel and Mallory Comerford traded American records in the event this week and are in a class of their own.
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Women’s 800m Freestyle Results
Gold: Katie Ledecky (USA) — 8:12.68
Silver: Li Bingjie (CHN) — 8:15.46
Bronze: Leah Smith (USA) — 8:17.22
4. Mireia Belmonte (ESP) — 8:23.30
5. Boglarka Kapas (HUN) — 8:24.41
6. Zhang Yuhan (CHN) — 8:26.06
7. Simona Quadarella (ITA) — 8:26.50
8. Holly Hibbott (GBR) — 8:38.63