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.
“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.
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.
World champion Shoma Uno of Japan leads after the short program at the Grand Prix Final, the biggest figure skating competition of the fall. Ilia Malinin, an 18-year-old American, is fifth out of six skaters after struggling on jumps on Thursday.
Uno, bidding for his first Final title after two silvers and two bronzes, landed a quadruple flip and quad toe loop-double toe combination en route to 99.99 points at the Palavela, the 2006 Olympic venue in Turin, Italy.
He takes a 5.13-point lead over countryman Sota Yamamoto going into Saturday’s free skate.
Malinin is fifth, 19.89 points behind, after stepping out of the landing on the back end of a quad toe-triple toe combination and spinning out of a triple Axel landing, putting a hand on the ice.
“It was a performance that I wasn’t really expecting,” said Malinin, who did not mention a left foot injury that affected him at his last competition (a win) two weeks ago. “We put a lot of effort trying to perfect all these movements in the program with all these jumps. The jumps didn’t go so well, but I think that my performance and my spins definitely have improved. … I just have to stay confident and look forward to the free skate.”
Malinin rallied from smaller short program deficits to win his first three competitions in his first full senior season, becoming the first skater to land a quad Axel in September and repeating it in October and November.
Uno, the world’s top returning skater after Yuzuru Hanyu retired and Nathan Chen went back to Yale, didn’t compete against Malinin at those earlier events.
“It wasn’t up to the levels of my best performance,” Uno said of Thursday’s short program, according to a translation. “But I think I was able to show what I’ve done this season up until this competition. I’m genuinely happy.”
The quad Axel is not a point-scoring element in short programs, but it is in free skates.
Malinin, the son of Olympic skaters from Uzbekistan, was second at last January’s U.S. Championships but left off the three-man Olympic team due to his relative inexperience. He went to senior worlds in March and finished ninth, then won the world junior title in April.
The Grand Prix Final, which takes the top six per discipline from the six-event Grand Prix Series, is the most exclusive figure skating competition. It was canceled the last two seasons due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Earlier, Japan’s Riku Miura and Ryuichi Kihara topped the pairs’ short program with 78.08 points, edging world champions Alexa Knierim and Brandon Frazier by 43 hundredths of a point.
Miura and Kihara, ranked No. 1 in the world this season, are bidding to win the biggest title ever for a Japanese pair.
Knierim and Frazier, who in March became the first U.S. pair to win a world title since 1979, recorded a personal best score with their first clean program since those worlds. Frazier put his hand on the ice on their side-by-side triple toe landings, but judges still barely graded it positively.
“We’ve made a big improvement from our [fall] Grand Prix [starts],” Knierim said. “I am elated with the outcome.”
Pairs experienced the biggest change of the four figure skating disciplines since the Olympics with none of the top five teams from the Winter Games competing internationally this fall. Russian pairs, traditionally the best in the world as a group, are ineligible due to the war in Ukraine. China’s pairs, including gold medalists Sui Wenjing and Han Cong, didn’t skate in the Grand Prix Series.
The Grand Prix Final continues Friday with the pairs’ free skate, rhythm dance and women’s short program, all live on Peacock.
OlympicTalk recently caught up with Katie Ledecky to discuss life since moving from Stanford to Florida 15 months ago, her meticulous mindset, and the legacy she continues to build.
*This interview has been edited for length and clarity. You can also catch an encore presentation of Ledecky’s performance at the 2022 U.S. Open this Saturday at 4:30 pm ET on NBC.
What does a typical day look like for you Gainesville? Walk me through a full day starting from the minute your alarm clock goes off.
Ledecky: A typical day would be waking up at 5 o’clock in the morning and swimming from 6 to 8. Then I have weights from 8 to 9:15. I get breakfast, have lunch and then take a nap. Then I have practice again at 2 or 3 in the afternoon for another two hours.
Wow, that sounds incredibly busy! Have you had a chance to find any new favorite places to eat in Gainesville?
Ledecky: I’m still kind of finding my spots. There is a breakfast spot pretty close to campus that a lot of the swimmers like, so I go there quite a bit, but I’m still looking. I haven’t gone to very many places more than once.
What are you doing in your free time? Are you coaching?
Ledecky: Yes, I’m volunteering with the [University of Florida] team, but I think of myself more as a teammate. I have a lot of other things going on with sponsorships, but aside from that, I enjoy spending time with my family and friends. I have a piano and enjoy playing that!
How often do you get to see your family?
Ledecky: My parents, David and Mary, still live in the D.C. area, and then my brother, Michael, lives in New York, so I’m a lot closer to home [than at Stanford]. I see them around the holidays, and they come to a lot of my swim meets.
I know how much you love to stay academically engaged. Are you taking any classes at the University of Florida?
Ledecky: I’m not taking any classes right now. I’m taking a break, but I’m still trying to learn as much as I can just in other areas, reading a lot and watching the news, following different things that I’m interested in. I think at some point, I’ll probably go to grad school, but I’m still figuring out what area that would be in right now.
There’s a quote, “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.” I feel like that only scratches the surface of describing your work ethic and mindset. You demand excellence in every area of your life, not just from yourself, but from others around you. Can you talk about where that mindset comes from?
Ledecky: I’ve always had that kind of a mindset. I’m very driven, and I’m always setting new goals for myself no matter what I’ve achieved in the past. I’m always looking forward, I don’t take very many breaks, and so it’s always on to the next goal and making sure I’m doing the little things right and doing the things I need to do to reach my goals.
To be able to perform at the level that you do every single day takes a lot of mental toughness. What do Katie Ledecky’s inner thoughts look like? What do you tell yourself? Any affirmations?
Ledecky: I try to stay positive no matter how well or how poorly a practice or a race is going. When I’m swimming, I give myself positive mental pep talks along the way throughout a race. I’ll say “keep it up,” “hold pace” or “hit this turn.”
I just want to read you a few tweets…
I know we frequently talk about how dominant Katie Ledecky is but I somehow still feel like we don’t talk about her enough.
You idolized Michael Phelps when you were younger, and now you’re that person for a lot of people. You’re the GOAT. You’re Katie Ledecky. Someone’s idol. What does that feel like?
Ledecky: It’s an honor to have young swimmers look up to me, and I don’t take that lightly. I try to be a good role model and reach out to young kids and sign autographs and take photos if people approach me at swim meets. I hope that there are some young swimmers out there that will grow up to be champions or maybe they’ll just continue to love the sport or find other things that they’re passionate about, but it’s an honor.
Have you had any memorable interactions with young swimmers?
Ledecky: Yeah, actually the World Cup in Indianapolis [in November]. We were given those giant checks at the end of the meet that you really can’t travel with, so I was able to sign it and give it to one of the basket carriers at the meet. They were thrilled, and it was fun to be able to put a smile on their face.
Give me just one word to describe each of these milestones in your life, starting with the 2012 Olympics.
Ledecky: The first. It was my first international competition and my first gold medal, so that’s the one that’ll probably be the most special for me forever.
2016 Rio Olympics.
Ledecky: Consistency. I was swimming in multiple events at the Olympics for the first time and I just got into a really good rhythm and felt so comfortable in the pool deck. So confident. That was just a very unique feeling.
Ledecky: Tokyo was different with all the COVID protocols. Nobody in the stands. No family there. But it was a lot of fun still, so a lot of great memories with my teammates there.
What kind of legacy do you want to leave behind at the end of your career? What do you want to be remembered for?
Ledecky: I’d like to be remembered as somebody that worked really hard and gave my best effort every time I got up on the blocks and represented Team USA. Hopefully, I can continue to inspire young kids to work hard in whatever it is that they are passionate about, whether that’s something academic, athletic, or something else. If you find something that you really love, you should go all in on it and try to be the best you can be at it.
You’ve achieved so much in life already personally and professionally, I just want to ask: Are you genuinely happy? Are you satisfied in this season of life right now?
Ledecky: Oh yeah, I’m very happy. I love the sport more and more every year. I get a little sad thinking about the day I will eventually retire–which isn’t anytime soon. I love the sport. I’m trying to just enjoy every day of training and racing and trying to be the best that I can be.
I say this all the time, I never imagined I would even make it to one Olympics and so to be training now to try to qualify for a fourth Olympics is it’s all just icing on the cake at this point and something that I truly enjoy. I enjoy doing it with my teammates, striving for similar goals, and getting to do it with really great people.
Knowing all that you know now, what advice would you give to your younger self — the little Palisades Porpoise?
Ledecky: I don’t have very many regrets or anything in my career, so I think I would just continue to tell myself to have fun and enjoy every moment. Maybe, write down a little bit more early on. I’ve done a better job of journaling and writing down different things so that I can remember them down the road, but I didn’t do as good of a job in 2012 and 2013.
Finish this sentence: I’m not ready for a meet without …
Ledecky: My suit, cap and goggles.
Did you have AIM back in the day? What was your embarrassing screen name?
Ledecky: I didn’t. I didn’t even have a cell phone until before the London Olympics. I think I actually borrowed my brother’s phone for that, and then we went out and bought an iPad so that I could FaceTime my family from London. I didn’t have an email account either until high school.
Your life is on the line. You need to sing one karaoke song to save it. What are you picking?