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Katie Ledecky’s historic dominance in the Olympic pool, explained

Ledecky won five gold medals before the age of 20. Now she’s back in the Olympic pool in Tokyo.

2021 U.S. Olympic Trials - Swimming - Day 7 Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

The world of swimming thought it was free of the grip of U.S. dominance with the retirement of Michael Phelps. They were not prepared for Katie Ledecky. The freestyle specialist enters her third Olympic games a more mature, complete swimmer looking to cement herself in history.

Ledecky’s legend preceded her in London. A 15-year-old swimming for the United States was unheard of, and for many her inclusion in the team was more a fun story rather than a legitimate medal threat. However, there were stories about the young phenom ready to shock the world, if you listened closely enough. Ledecky was given a light schedule in London, qualifying to compete in the 800 meter freestyle. What happened next was the stuff of legend. Ledecky not only shocked the world, but obliterated the competition — beating her nearest competitor by 4.13 seconds, and narrowly missing the world record.

Suddenly everyone was learning about the phenom from Washington D.C. ready to take the next step and cement herself alongside Phelps as one of the greatest of all-time. Sure, there was trepidation putting so much pressure on a 15-year-old, but Ledecky proved she was up to the challenge.

The Rio games were going to be her time to shine. A full slate on her shoulders, and the world now watching, she won four gold medals, setting two world records in the process and winning silver with USA in the 4x200m relay. Now with five gold medals to her name before the age of 20, the comparisons to Phelps were apt.

Ledecky’s Stanford career was profoundly unfair and hilarious

The year is 2017. Ledecky just got done demolishing the greatest swimmers in the world at the Olympic level, now she’s enrolled in college — competing for Stanford in the NCAA. As a freshman, she broke 12 NCAA records, and embarrassed her competition so badly it felt unfair.

In one event, the women’s 1000m, Ledecky beat her competition so badly they still would have lost with a 30 second head start.

The 35-second win was proof Ledecky was still here, still dominant, and ready to resume being the best in the world when the Olympics returned in 2020.

In Tokyo there’s a chance to cement her legend, but Australia is throwing down the gauntlet

At 24 years old, it’s likely Ledecky can continue competing for a couple more Olympic games, but a big showing in Tokyo would already put her with the greatest of all-time.

Ledecky currently has five gold medals. If she were to match her haul from Rio she would tie the record for most golds, second only behind Michael Phelps.

However, Australia thinks it has the answer in 20-year-old Ariarne Titmus. Nicknamed ‘The Terminator,” Titmus beat Ledecky in the 2019 World Championships, and believes she can best the legend. Entering her first Olympics, Titmus has everything to prove and poses the biggest threat to Ledecky’s reign.

How to watch Katie Ledecky at the Olympics

We’ll assume Ledecky makes the finals in each of her events, because honestly — it’s going to happen.

  • Women’s 4x100m freestyle finals: Saturday, July 24 at 10:45 p.m. ET
  • Women’s 400m freestyle finals: Sunday, July 25 at 10:20 p.m. ET
  • Women’s 200m freestyle finals: Tuesday, July 27 at 9:41 p.m. ET.
  • Women’s 4x200m freestyle finals: Wednesday, July 28 at 11:31 p.m. ET
  • Women’s 800m freestyle finals: Friday, July 30 at 9:46 p.m. ET