Katie Ledecky rallies to win signature event after week of illness

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Katie Ledecky‘s rough week at the world championships in Gwangju, South Korea, ended Saturday with an inspirational win in the 800m freestyle, rallying to beat Italy’s Simona Quadarella.

Ledecky went out fast and led by 1.14 seconds after 200 meters. But her form seemed to slip, and Quadarella, who won the 1,500m freestyle in Ledecky’s absence on Tuesday, took a slim lead at 450 meters that she extended to 0.84 seconds at the 600-meter mark. Ledecky seemed to be a battle for silver at that point.

But Ledecky chipped away. She was within 0.55 seconds at 650 meters. Then 0.12. Quadarella defended her lead for another length of the pool, but then Ledecky simply took off, swimming the final 50 in 29.19 seconds and finishing 1.41 seconds ahead of Quadarella.

“Knowing that I can pull out the last 50m like that, I kind of knew I had a little more speed than Simona and kind of just trusted that I could rely on that at the end,” she said.

Her time of 8:13.58 was nowhere near her world record of 8:04.79, but given the illness that wiped out much of her week, it hardly matters.

Katie Ledecky smiles with her gold medal Saturday
Katie Ledecky poses during the medal ceremony for the 800m freestyle Saturday in Gwangju, South Korea. (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)

“Just kind of relieved to end on a good note,” Ledecky said. “Not a good time, but I just gutted it out. It was a tough week for me physically, mentally, emotionally and all of it, but I had great support from my friends, family, coaches and medical staff. Never imagined I’d have this kind of week. I’m excited for the next year of work.”

Australia’s Ariarne Titmus, who upset Ledecky in the 400m freestyle before the American’s illness was made public, took bronze in the 800 final. She also took silver in the 200m freestyle, from which Ledecky withdrew. Germany’s Sarah Kohler was fourth, ahead of U.S. swimmer Leah Smith.

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In a career full of world and Olympic titles, Ledecky has always been particularly strong in the 800m freestyle, an event she first won in the 2012 Olympics. She has won every world and Olympic title since then, a total of six straight major wins.

But in Gwangju, her week started Sunday with a stunning loss to Titmus in the 400m freestyle, breaking a string of world championship wins dating back to 2013. She posted the fastest time in Monday’s 1,500m freestyle heats, by a typical margin of 2.69 seconds, but later revealed that she nearly dropped out because she was feeling unwell. She withdrew from the 200m heats and 1,500m final on Tuesday.

She returned Thursday for the 4x200m freestyle relay, taking the lead in the second leg with a time of 1:54.61 — the third-fastest time of any swimmer in the race — and earned another silver medal.

In between, Ledecky said she spent seven hours in the hospital Tuesday with she believes was a viral illness but hasn’t gotten an exact diagnosis.

Her symptoms included insomnia (on Saturday morning she didn’t fall asleep until 3), an elevated heart rate, headaches and an inability to keep food down. She plans to visit doctors upon landing in the U.S.

Even Saturday morning, she felt nauseous and hot soon after arriving at the pool, but thankfully splashing into the water, where she has looked most comfortable the last seven years, cooled her off. She said she thought about withdrawing from the 800m final “for about a minute.”

Ledecky was antsy Friday night watching teammates Caeleb Dressel and Regan Smith break world records. She texted coach Greg Meehan that she badly wanted to have a strong swim in her last race of an abbreviated meet, knowing she had the best training of her three years at Stanford — by far — going into this competition.

Ledecky came to Gwangju hoping this would mark a checkpoint en route to the Tokyo Olympics. Instead, it turned out to be the most difficult major meet of her dazzling career, one that, along with a gold and two silver medals, will give her a story to bring back to Stanford.

“One I’ll be telling for a while,” she said.

OlympicTalk editor Nick Zaccardi contributed to this report.

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Simone Biles returns to the gym, going from mental drain to physical pain

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For Simone Biles, this was supposed to be the stretch run of a legendary career.

Instead, she returned to her gym on May 18 with long-term thoughts of waiting 14 months until the Tokyo Olympics. And the immediate aches of a world-class gymnast who just missed nearly two months of regular training.

“After that amount of time off, it kind of sucks because your body hurts and then you get really sore,” Biles said in a pre-recorded ESPNW interview that aired Thursday. “So you just have to get back into the swing of things. But it felt nice to see my coaches, my teammates, and just to be back on the equipment and in the environment.”

In that same Texas gym three months ago, Biles had a far different outlook. One that would have put fear into any gymnast who still harbored ambition of ending her near-seven-year win streak.

“I never felt more ready this early in the season,” she said. “I was so ready for the Olympics to be this year.”

Biles repeated in interviews the last two months that the Olympic postponement to 2021 was devastating. Thoughts zig-zagged: How do I go on another year, at age 23, in a sport recently dominated by (but not limited to) teenagers?

“I’m getting pretty old,” she said in the interview published Thursday. “Will I be at the top of my game?”

Biles proved the last two years — after a year off — that she can win — and comfortably — while not at her best. She grabbed the 2018 World all-around title by a record margin — with two falls. Last year, she became the most decorated gymnast in world championships history. In Tokyo, she can become the first woman to repeat as Olympic all-around champion, and the only one older than 20, in more than 50 years.

This for a gymnast whose early goal was to earn a college scholarship. Biles did, to UCLA, but had to give it up by turning professional.

“So I’ve exceeded that,” Biles said. “And then I wanted to go to world championships and Olympics, and I’ve been to five worlds and one Olympic Games. So, I’d be more than happy [to walk away].”

After gymnastics, Biles has another goal — to be a voice for foster kids. She was in foster care multiple times before being adopted at age 6 by grandparents Ron and Nellie.

Those plans, along with so much else for Biles and so many others, have been pushed back a full year.

“I was already being mentally drained and almost, not done with the sport, but just going into the gym and feeling tired and being like, OK, I’m going to get my stuff [done], get out,” she said. “We have this one end goal, and now that it’s postponed another [year], it’s just like, how are we going to deal with that? We’re already being drained, and so it’s to keep the fire in the sport within yourself alive.”

MORE: Top U.S. gymnasts disagree with Tokyo Olympic age rule

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2022 Pan Pacific Championships canceled as swimming calendar shifts

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The Pan Pacific Swimming Championships, a quadrennial major international meet, will not be held in 2022 “out of respect for the recent changes to the international sporting calendar,” according to a press release.

The Pan Pacs’ charter nations — the U.S., Australia, Canada and Japan — agreed to the move. The 2026 event will be held in Canada, which was supposed to be the 2022 host.

The decision came after the 2021 World Championships were moved to May 2022, following the Tokyo Olympics moving from 2020 to 2021 due to the coronavirus pandemic. The quadrennial multi-sport Commonwealth Games — which includes Australia and Canada, but not the U.S. or Japan — are scheduled for July 27-Aug. 7, 2022.

“Organizing a third major championships in that window presented several challenges,” according to the Pan Pacs release.

Pan Pacs mark the third-biggest major international meet for U.S. swimmers, held in non-Olympic, non-world championships years.

MORE: Caeleb Dressel co-hosts a podcast. It’s not about swimming.

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