One of the most preposterous streaks in sports remained active Saturday morning in Tokyo: Katie Ledecky is undefeated in every 800-meter freestyle race she's competed in for 11 years.
The most dominant female swimmer in history cemented her status and immortalized her legend in her final race of 2021 with her signature discipline. Ledecky touched the wall in 8:12.57, giving her the sixth individual gold and 10th Olympic medal of her career.
Her six individual gold medals are now the most by any female U.S. Olympian ever and second-most in swimming to one person: Michael Phelps may forever hold an untouchable number with 13.
But for as phenomenal as Phelps' five-Olympiad career was, it's Ledecky who commands a dominance in certain parts of swimming we've simply never seen before. Her supremacy specifically in the 800-meter freestyle might represent the most inevitable any athlete has been at anything ... ever? Sounds like hyperbole? It's not. It's not that she always wins, it's that she has defined the parameters of what success is in the women's 800-meter freestyle. Ledecky owns the 22 best times in the history of the event.
This is obscene authority. Her latest gold also meant achieving a three-peat in the 800 free. It marks just the fourth time in history a swimmer has won gold in an individual discipline in three consecutive Olympics. (Phelps' four straight in the 200-meter individual medley has never been matched.)
Katie Ledecky is the fourth swimmer to win the same individual swimming event at three straight Olympics!— Paul Carr (@PaulCarr) July 31, 2021
🇦🇺 Dawn Fraser
1956-64 - 100m Free
🇭🇺 Krisztina Egerszegi
1988-96 - 200m Back
🇺🇸 Michael Phelps (4)
2004-16 - 200m IM
🇺🇸 Katie Ledecky
2012-21 - 800m Free
Saturday's 8:12.57 pace was ho-hum by Ledecky standards; it was merely the 16th-fastest time she's logged. Ledecky, 24, beat out rival Ariarne Titmus, 20, who was not the same swimmer in the 800 as she was when Titmus beat Ledecky earlier in the week in the 200- and 400-meter freestyles. The Aussie hung close the entire race but never truly threatened Ledecky. Titmus touched in 8:13.83.
Consider this: Titmus' silver-winning swim on Saturday was the fastest non-Ledecky time in the history of the women's 800-meter freestyle. It barely bested the 23rd-best time of Ledecky's career. Laughable!
And now these two will almost certainly get to meet again in three years, when the Games will head to Paris. With that, it's likely there will be no bigger storyline for the 2024 Summer Olympics than Ledecky vs. Titmus. That's right: Ledecky's Olympic career isn't over. While there wasn't too much speculation over this, it's nonetheless news that Ledecky went on record for the first time at these Games to state she is not retiring.
"That was not my last swim -- I'm at least going to '24," Ledecky said on NBC. "Maybe '28, we'll see. But I knew [the 800] was going to be my last swim here. You never take anything for granted, you don't know if you're going to be back at the next Olympics, so just try to soak it all in."
Ledecky and Titmus wound up splitting their four head-to-head meets in Tokyo, with Titmus taking gold in the 200 and 400 free, while Ledecky won in the 800 free and easily cruised in the first-ever Olympic 1,500-meter freestyle for women. (Titmus did not swim in that event.) In the 4x200 free relay, Ledecky swam the fastest leg (1:53.76) of any swimmer to lift the U.S. to a silver -- and edge Titmus and the Australians (bronze) in the process.
"It's awesome," Ledecky said on NBC. "I just wanted to finish on a really good note, and I'm just so happy."
With Ledecky's Tokyo action now complete, a recap of what she went through in a six-day stretch. These are only the finals; we're not even accounting for the prelims and semifinal heats she had to swim in as well. No swimmer logged more laps in the pool in Tokyo than Ledecky.
- July 26: Wins silver in 400 free; first time ever Ledecky doesn't win gold in an individual Olympic event
- July 28: Finishes fifth in 200 free
- July 28: Less than 90 minutes after the 200 free, wins gold in 1,500 free
- July 29: Wins Team USA silver by swimming final leg -- and fastest split among all swimmers -- in 4x200 free relay
- July 31: Wins third straight gold in 800 free
Four medals in a six-day span. Ledecky was the only swimmer to compete in a "sprint" race (the 200 free) and the 1,500. Think of it this way: You don't see track athletes compete in the 100- or 200-meter dash and also run the 1,500, or 5,000, or 10,000 meters.
She's different from any Olympian we've ever watched.
It's been Ledecky's successes, in addition to her not taking gold in two of the five events she competed in, that's helped remind us that Olympic greatness can be about transcendent dominance -- but also shortcomings that humanize these athletes. An important facet of the Olympics is that they allow for non-binary results (not just one winner and all losers, but three medals to hand out) and make sports fans -- American sports fans in particular -- reconsider what elite achievement is. Katie Ledecky is not undefeated in the pool; no one ever is. But she's special and unlike anyone we've seen before. She's beatable, but she's unique. And with this showing in Tokyo -- two more golds, two more silvers -- Ledecky has unequivocally elevated herself to her own tier of Olympic greatness.
She didn't need to sweep and take five golds to get there. A lesson to be applied.
The best part is it's not over. Ledecky wasn't the force of nature in Tokyo that she was in Rio in 2016, which was clearly her peak. But in the presence of a true foil in Titmus, and with a race regimen that was viciously grueling, Ledecky proved she has no analog.