Sports

For Katie Ledecky, the Longer the Race the Better

Entering the Tokyo Games, Katie Ledecky had never lost an individual race at the Olympics, swimming everything from the 200-meter to the 800-meter freestyle. But a new generation of swimmers is catching up with her, and even overtaking her, especially in the shorter races.

In the 200 free, Ledecky placed fifth. Ariarne Titmus of Australia won the gold, beating Ledecky’s time by 1.71 seconds. And in the 400-meter freestyle, Ledecky took the silver, finishing 67 hundredths of a second behind Titmus.


Joe Ward/The New York Times

Ledecky’s strength has always been in the distance races: the 800 and the 1,500, which is a new Olympic event for women this year. Ledecky claimed gold in both of those races.

She dominated in the pool five years ago at the Rio Games, winning the 800-meter race by an astonishing 11 seconds. But in Tokyo, she bested Titmus by only 1.26 seconds. The world seems to be gaining on Ledecky across all her distances.

Ledecky has won six gold medals in individual finals, the record among female swimmers at the Olympics.

Here’s a look at her decorated career.

200-Meter Freestyle



Rio 2016

Rank: 1st
Won by 0.35 seconds

Tokyo 2021

Rank: 5th
Lost by 1.71 seconds



Larry Buchanan/The New York Times

The 200 has long been Ledecky’s weakest race, and her gold medal in the event at the 2016 Olympics was a surprise — and her narrowest margin of victory. She was considered a long shot to retain her title in the event in Tokyo, where she ended up missing the podium for the first time in an Olympic event. She finished nearly two seconds behind the winner.


400-Meter Freestyle



Rio 2016

Rank: 1st
Won by 4.77 seconds

Tokyo 2021

Rank: 2nd
Lost by 0.67 seconds



Larry Buchanan/The New York Times

Ledecky raced the 400 knowing she was not the fastest swimmer in the pool. She dominated the first 250 meters, a strategy to try to shake Titmus’s confidence early on.

It worked, and then it didn’t. Titmus said she was worried at the halfway mark that Ledecky was too far ahead, but in the last 150 meters Titmus erased her deficit. In 2016, Ledecky won this race by 10 meters. This year, she was at least a half-body length behind.


800-Meter Freestyle



London 2012

Rank: 1st
Won by 4.13 seconds

Rio 2016

Rank: 1st
Won by 11.38 seconds

Tokyo 2021

Rank: 1st
Won by 1.26 seconds



Joe Ward/The New York Times

In her final performance of the Tokyo Games, Ledecky got a measure of revenge against Titmus.

From the start, she worked to build a lead so large that Titmus would not have gas left in the tank to chase her down over the final 200 meters.

The Ledecky who won the 800 in Tokyo would have been about 10 meters behind the Ledecky of 2016, though she would have beaten her 2012 London self by two seconds. This year, though, Titmus was three seconds closer than the second-place finisher in 2016.


1,500-Meter Freestyle



2017 World Championships

Rank: 1st
Won by 19.07 seconds

Tokyo 2021

Rank: 1st
Won by 4.07 seconds



Joe Ward/The New York Times

The 1,500 has historically been Ledecky’s most dominant race. She began setting world records in the event in 2013, when at age 16 she smashed Kate Ziegler’s world record by six seconds. Ledecky has set the world record six times, and when she lowered her mark to 15 minutes 20.48 seconds in 2018, it was 22 seconds faster than the record she first broke.

Those numbers made her victory in the event on Wednesday that much more interesting. She finished in 15:37.34. In other words, the record-setting Ledecky and the 2017 world champion Ledecky would have crushed the Ledecky who raced in the 1,500 in Tokyo.


Gasping for breath after her final event on Saturday, she knew her Olympics was over. But her career, she said, was not: After the race, Ledecky, still only 24, announced that she intended to continue competing, and to qualify for the 2024 Games in Paris.

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