On Aug. 8, 2011, a high school freshman named Katie Ledecky won the U.S. Junior Championship in the 800m freestyle in 8:36.05, knocking 7.45 seconds off her personal best.
Ledecky, then 14, would rank No. 55 in the world in the 800m free for 2011. The time was very impressive, but she was not on the radar for the 2012 U.S. Olympic team just yet.
She made the U.S. Olympic team 11 months later. Then, on Aug. 3, 2012, Ledecky swam in the Olympic 800m free final and clocked the fastest time in the world for the year, an 8:14.63 to beat British champion Rebecca Adlington for gold in London.
On Aug. 8, 2015, the great Ledecky finished another perfect World Championships with an 800m freestyle title, becoming the first swimmer to sweep the 200m, 400m, 800m and 1500m frees at a single Worlds in Kazan, Russia, on Saturday.
She did so in her usual fashion, by breaking one of her world records. Ledecky clocked 8:07.39 to win by 10.26 seconds. She chopped 3.61 seconds off her 800m free world record from 2014 of 8:11.00.
“I kind of figured the next step would be under 8:10, kind of thought it would be 8:08,” Ledecky told media in Kazan. “So to see the 8:07 was great. It’s August 8th, I was swimming the 800 and, believe it or not, it would’ve been my grandpa’s 88th birthday.”
Ledecky’s reaction was to slam her right arm into the pool twice while other swimmers were still stroking into the finishing wall.
Why so excited?
“Just a combination of things, being done, swimming so well and finishing on a good note,” Ledecky said. “Couldn’t be happier with how that swim went or how this whole week went.”
Ledecky, coming off a high school graduation and without a driver’s license, also became the third swimmer to win four individual gold medals at a single Worlds. She joined Michael Phelps and Ryan Lochte in that category.
“I didn’t realize how fast Katie was going, 8:07 is absolutely incredible,” said Jaz Carlin, the British bronze medalist 10.76 seconds behind Ledecky and six years older than Ledecky, on Eurosport. “She’s getting faster every time she races. She’s younger than me. She’s quite a bit younger. So, obviously, yeah, it’s tough. But I think it’s definitely given us girls something to aim for. And it’s really moving the distance events along. And obviously she’s won the 200 now as well, so we all need to work on our speed as well.”
Ledecky has entered 10 Olympic and World Championships events over 2012, 2013 and 2015 and won gold in all of them.
Olympic sports are measured in four-year cycles. It’s hard to come up with strong enough descriptors of Ledecky’s rise in that time.
“It gives you a headache as a coach,” French coach Romain Barnier said on Eurosport before Saturday’s races. “World record in the morning without training [in the 1500m freestyle Monday]. … She doesn’t seem to plateau, and she’s pushing the barriers again and again. … She’s special. She’s the breed of Michael Phelps.”
Ledecky is finished swimming in Kazan. She goes into the Olympic year hoping for four gold medals in Rio de Janeiro, possibly more if she adds the 100m freestyle, and just may be the biggest star of U.S. swimming.
Phelps and Lochte are in their 30s, though both are still arguably the best in the world in one event each. Missy Franklin, who won zero individual gold medals in Kazan, is not quite in the form that saw her take six overall golds at the 2013 Worlds.
“I set very high goals a couple years ago,” Ledecky said. “I’ve a little bit of a ways to go still. I’m chipping away at those goals.”
Also Saturday, Franklin and Nathan Adrian earned silver medals in the 200m backstroke and 50m freestyle, respectively. Franklin won 2011 and 2013 World titles and the 2012 Olympics in the 200m back, along with holding the world record.
The U.S. has 18 medals with one day left in the eight-day meet. Its fewest medals won at a Worlds or Olympics in the last 50 years was 21 at the 1994 World Championships.
NBC and NBC Sports Live Extra will have coverage of the World Swimming Championships on Saturday from 3-4 p.m. ET.
Franklin took silver behind Australian Emily Seebohm in the 200m backstroke, failing to win a third straight World title in her trademark event. Franklin led Seebohm by 1.31 seconds after 150 meters, but Seebohm ended up prevailing by .53 with the fastest final 50 meters in the field by 1.45 seconds. Hungary’s Katinka Hosszu placed third.
“I put up a fight, and I’m proud of that,” Franklin said on Eurosport. “That’s all that matters.”
Franklin, after winning three individual golds and six overall at the 2013 Worlds, will go into the Rio Olympics without a major international meet individual title since 2013.
She took one individual medal (bronze in the 100m back) at the 2014 Pan Pacific Championships after suffering back spasms two days before the competition.
Franklin earned silver, bronze (200m freestyle), fifth (100m back) and seventh (100m free) in her four individual events in Kazan. All of her finals times were at least a half-second slower than in 2013.
“Trying to come back from that [back injury], gaining confidence again in my swimming and really getting back to the shape I want to be in,” Franklin said. “This meet, even though the results weren’t where I wanted them to be, they’re exactly where I need them to be right now. I’m going to be much better when I come back next summer.”
Australia swept the men’s and women’s 100m and 200m backstrokes with Seebohm and Mitch Larkin. The U.S. had swept the backstrokes at the 2012 Olympics and 2013 Worlds.
In the 50m free, French Olympic champion Florent Manaudou took back the title of world’s fastest swimmer in 21.19 seconds. U.S. Olympic 100m free champion Adrian was .33 behind for silver, followed by Brazil’s Bruno Fratus for bronze.
South African Chad le Clos repeated as 100m butterfly World champion, clocking an African record 50.56. Phelps, the three-time Olympic 100m fly champ who is swimming the 100m fly at the U.S. Championships in San Antonio on Saturday, had a best time in 2014 of 51.17.
Earlier this week, le Clos said Phelps has been “talking a lot of smack about how slow the butterfly is,” around the world. Phelps said this spring he was open to re-adding the 200m butterfly to his schedule because the world’s best times were not that much more impressive than 15 years ago.
On Saturday, le Clos again mentioned Phelps.
“I just did a time that [Phelps] hasn’t done in four years, so he can keep quiet now,” le Clos said on Eurosport, incorrectly, actually, since Phelps hasn’t clocked 50.56 or better in the 100m butterfly since 2009, when he set the world record of 49.82.
Hungary’s Laszlo Cseh, who upset le Clos for 200m fly gold, took silver in the 100m behind the South African. He was followed by Joseph Schooling of Singapore, a nation whose four Olympic medals are in table tennis and weightlifting. American Tom Shields was fourth.
On Friday, Phelps clocked a 200m butterfly time at the U.S. Championships that would have beaten Cseh’s 200m butterfly winning time at Worlds by .54.
“I saw his time,” Cseh said on Eurosport. “It’s quite good, but it doesn’t matter because I won the World Championship.”
Sweden’s Sarah Sjostrom won the 50m butterfly, which is not an Olympic event, in 24.96. Sjostrom also won the 100m butterfly and took silver in the 100m freestyle at Worlds.
Sjostrom skipped the 200m freestyle, but her time leading off the 4x200m free relay was faster than Ledecky’s gold medal-winning time in the individual 200m free. Sjostrom said she will most likely swim the 200m free at the Rio Olympics, which could pose the biggest competition for Ledecky in the American’s four individual events.
Sjostrom came back for the 50m freestyle semifinals an hour after the 50m fly final in Kazan and qualified third into Sunday’s final along with 100m free champion Bronte Campbell, 2013 World 100m free champion Cate Campbell and defending World champion Ranomi Kromowidjojo. American Simone Manuel qualified sixth into the 50m free final.
U.S. Olympic 100m back champion Matt Grevers was the No. 2 qualifier into Sunday’s 50m back final. The 50m back is not on the Olympic program. Grevers took bronze in the 100m back earlier in the meet.
Lochte, Franklin, Adrian and Manuel combined to win the first-ever World Championships 4x100m freestyle mixed relay to cap the night.
Men’s 50m Freestyle
Gold: Florent Manaudou (FRA) — 21.19
Silver: Nathan Adrian (USA) — 21.52
Bronze: Bruno Fratus (BRA) — 21.55
4. Vladimir Morozov (RUS) — 21.56
5. Andrii Govorov (UKR) — 21.86
5. Marco Orsi (ITA) — 21.86
7. Kristian Gkolomeev (GRE) — 21.98
8. Ben Proud (GBR) — 22.04
Women’s 200m Backstroke
Gold: Emily Seebohm (AUS) — 2:05.81
Silver: Missy Franklin (USA) — 2:06.34
Bronze: Katinka Hosszu (HUN) — 2:06.84
4. Daria Ustinova (RUS) — 2:07.64
5. Jenny Mensing (GER) — 2:08.49
6. Dominique Bouchard (CAN) — 2:08.51
7. Hilary Caldwell (CAN) — 2:08.66
8. Eyglo Osk Gustafsdottir (ISL) — 2:09.53
Men’s 100m Butterfly
Gold: Chad le Clos (RSA) — 50.56
Silver: Laszlo Cseh (HUN) — 50.87
Bronze: Joseph Schooling (SIN) — 50.96
4. Tom Shields (USA) — 51.06
5. Mehdy Metella (FRA) — 51.24
6. Konrad Czerniak (POL) — 51.28
7. Pawel Korzeniowski (POL) — 51.46
8. Li Zhuhao (CHN) — 51.66
Women’s 800m Freestyle
Gold: Katie Ledecky (USA) — 8:07.39 WR
Silver: Lauren Boyle (NZL) — 8:17.65
Bronze: Jaz Carlin (GBR) — 8:18.15
4. Jessica Ashwood (AUS) — 8:18.41
5. Lotte Friis (DEN) — 8:21.36
6. Boglarka Kapas (HUN) — 8:22.93
7. Sarah Kohler (GER) — 8:23.67
8. Sharon van Rouwendaal (NED) — 8:24.12