Katie Ledecky can already be regarded as one of the world’s best ever swimmers but at Tokyo 2020, the American will likely have an opportunity to make Olympic history.
With five gold medals to her name already from London 2012 and Rio 2016, she is four short of gymnast Larisa Latynina, who won nine golds for the Soviet Union at Games from 1956-1964.
In all probability, Ledecky will compete in five disciplines in Tokyo, giving her the possibility of becoming the outright record holder with 10 golds, but with an insurance event to at least move level with Latynina.
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We will know more for sure after next month’s US Olympic trials, but the freestyle specialist is targeting the 200m, 400m, 800, 1500m and the 4x200m relay. That range of distances only showcases the sheer range of talent Ledecky has - think of the likelihood of Usain Bolt challenging as a gold medal contender in track and field’s 1500m. Ledecky is both a sprint and an endurance specialist, making her something of a freak athlete.
Now 24, she started to make global waves at just 15 when at London 2012, she unseated Britain’s Rebecca Adlington as Olympic champion in the 800m freestyle. Team GB’s Beijing 2008 gold medallist was the favourite going into that event, and the pressure was on from home fans to grab a second medal.
Since then, Ledecky has claimed gold in the 200m, 400m, 800m and the 4x200m freestyle relay in Rio, and won an incredible 15 world titles. She also has her name to three world records, in the 400m, 800m and 1500m.
So how likely is it that she can claim a clean sweep in Tokyo? The addition of the 1500m to the Olympic programme is going to be of huge benefit to Ledecky. But, she faces a huge challenge.
Because it is so rare that a swimmer can have the range she has, the 200m and 1500m heats and finals will be held in the same session. Those are two completely different skills - essentially the equivalent of running flat out for a mile before chasing down a 5k PB a matter of hours later.
Should she come through that, you would have to bet on Ledecky achieving all five golds. She knows how big an achievement that would be, after speaking to the media in April.
“I want to kick off the U.S. on a good note for [the 1,500],” Ledecky said.
“There have been so many great female distance swimmers who have come through the U.S. that haven't had that opportunity [to swim the 1,500 at the Olympics]. So I want to take advantage of that opportunity and really get us started on a great note there.”
Ledecky has started the season on fire, posting the fastest times in the world this year over 200m, 400m, 800m and 1500m at a Pro Swim Series event in Mission Viejo, California, last month. The only doubt heading into Tokyo is probably her performance at the 2019 World Championships, pre-Covid, when she ‘only’ came away with one gold.
Image credit: Eurosport
Her biggest rival in the shorter distances is likely to be Australia’s Ariarne Titmus, the world champion over 400m, who will challenge up to 800m, while China’s Wang Jianjiahe has also been laying down some fast times in some of the longer distances.
Whatever happens, it looks like Ledecky will eventually overhaul Latynina’s nine golds. Even though she will be 27 at Paris 2024, considered to be ‘old’ for the sport, she looks set to compete in France. Major sponsorship deals she has continue until the conclusion of the next Games, so if she does not make history this year, it is likely she will eventually.
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