Katie Ledecky breaks female record for most swimming worlds medals

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BUDAPEST — Katie Ledecky decided last fall to drop the individual 200m freestyle from her program, at least for one year. In a recent interview, she added one line to the end of her explanation about focusing on longer events in 2022.

“I still feel confident in my 200m free and my ability to step up on that relay,” said Ledecky, who swam the 200m free from 2014 through 2021.

As usual, Ledecky backed that up in the pool.

The greatest distance swimmer in history posted the third-fastest 4x200m free relay split in history, and the fastest of her career, as the U.S. quartet took gold on Wednesday.

Claire WeinsteinLeah Smith, Ledecky and Bella Sims clocked a championship record 7 minutes, 41.45 seconds to distance rival Australia by 2.41 seconds. The U.S. took silver in the event at the previous Olympics and worlds.

“It’s so easy to get up for these relays and just not think and go,” Ledecky said. “I had so much trust in these three. I think we’re always counted out, and we always deliver.”

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Ledecky earned her 21st career world swimming championships medal, breaking her tie with Natalie Coughlin for the most by a woman in worlds history. Two men have more medals: Michael Phelps (33) and Ryan Lochte (27).

She also tied Lochte for the second-most gold medals (18), trailing only Phelps (26). Ledecky has one more event this week, her trademark 800m free, and then two more world championships before the 2024 Paris Olympics to chase Phelps. She has said she may try to swim through the 2028 Los Angeles Games, which would put Phelps’ records in real jeopardy.

Ledecky’s split on Wednesday was 1:53.67, trailing only Federica Pellegrini‘s 1:53.45 from the 2009 World Championships, where records fell everywhere due to since-banned high-tech swimsuits. And Sarah Sjostrom‘s 1:53.64 from the 2014 European Championships.

In Tokyo, Ledecky was fifth in the individual 200m free on the same night she had the final in the 1500m free, which she won. Two days later, she had the fastest split of the 32 swimmers in the 4x200m free relay final, 1:53.76.

Ledecky said before worlds that re-adding the 200m free “would be more on the table” if the to-be-announced 2024 Olympic swimming schedule, with one more day of swimming than in 2021, puts more time between the women’s 200m and 1500m frees. The men’s 200m and 1500m frees have traditionally been on different days.

Also Wednesday, 15-year-old Canadian Summer McIntosh became the youngest individual world championships gold medalist since 2011 (Ye Shiwen), taking the 200m butterfly in a world junior record 2:05.20. American Hali Flickinger earned silver, just as she did at the 2019 Worlds.

(Weinstein, a younger 15 than McIntosh, became the youngest world champion since 2007 with her relay gold, according to Bill Mallon of Olympedia.org.)

Romanian 17-year-old David Popovici became the first swimmer to sweep the 100m and 200m frees at a worlds since the very first edition in 1973. Popovici won the 100m in 47.58, edging Frenchman Maxime Grousset by six hundredths.

“I’m a bit prouder of the 200m win,” said Popovici, the Chlorine Daddy who went faster in the 100m free semis with a world junior record 47.13. “You know, my neck is quite heavy because of the medals – so I need to strengthen that part for the next meets.”

The race lacked reigning Olympic and world champion Caeleb Dressel, who withdrew from the meet a day after scratching the 100m free semis on unspecified medical grounds.

French 20-year-old Leon Marchand completed a sweep of the individual medleys, taking the 200m by .49 over American Carson Foster, who also bagged silver in the 400m IM. Marchand competes at Arizona State under Bob Bowman, the longtime coach of Michael Phelps.

American Katharine Berkoff earned silver in the 50m backstroke, eight hundredths behind Canadian Kylie Masse.

Worlds continue Thursday with finals in the men’s 200m back (Ryan Murphy, Shaine Casas), 200m breaststroke (Nic Fink) and 4x200m free relay and the women’s 100m free (Claire Curzan, Torri Huske) and 200m breast (Lilly King, Kate Douglass).

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