Bethesda’s Katie Ledecky sets world record in 800-meter freestyle, wins fourth gold medal of world championships

This is how Katie Ledecky, 16, described her performance in the 800-meter freestyle Saturday at the world swimming championships in Barcelona. She won gold, her fourth of the meet. She set a world record, her second in five days. And she said it all came because of — of all things — patience.

Patience, for a kid.

“That’s definitely something I did a lot better this year, or this week, than I’ve ever done in the past is staying patient,” Ledecky said during the press conference that closed her phenomenal meet Saturday. “I’m usually really excited, and sort of spin my wheels up front, and never am really able to really close hard.

“I definitely have put in the training to be able to finish hard and swim well at the end, so it was just a matter of staying patient and knowing what I can do.”

What she can do now seems almost limitless. In a meet in which Colorado 18-year-old Missy Franklin tied a record by winning her fifth gold medal Saturday — a victory that came in the 200-meter backstroke, and she still has the medley relay to go on Sunday — Bethesda’s Ledecky stood out. The rising junior at Stone Ridge School of the Sacred Heart backed up the world record she set in the 1,500-meter freestyle on Tuesday by closing out Lotte Friis of Denmark — who led with 200 meters to go — over a powerful final four lengths of the pool.

“I really knew I had to push the last 200,” said Ledecky, who trailed Friis by more than a second at the race’s midway point. “It doesn’t really matter what’s going on in the middle of the race. It’s all about getting my hand on the wall first. My coach wanted me to really push the last 200 and I just stayed patient throughout the race like I did the other day, and made my move where I knew I had to.”

Her final 50 meters, which she swam in 29.79 seconds, was her fastest leg of the race. She finished in 8 minutes 13.86 seconds — nearly 21 / 2 seconds faster than Friis, who was runner-up in the 1,500 as well. Ledecky shaved nearly a quarter of a second off the old world record of 8:14.10, set by Great Britain’s Rebecca Adlington at the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

Ledecky’s performance came a year after she beat Adlington and others for gold in the 800 freestyle at the London Olympics, and gave a glimpse of what could be her full potential. Her gold medals came in the 400-, 800- and 1,500-meter freestyles as well as the 4x200-meter freestyle relay. She qualified to swim in the 200 freestyle as an individual event, but scratched it because of scheduling conflicts.

She said Saturday, though, that she intends to compete in that event in the future if there’s a more forgiving schedule. That could occur, for instance, at the 2016 Olympics, where the 1,500 meters is not held for women.

But even as Franklin dazzled — overcoming her fourth-place finish in the 100 freestyle a day earlier by beating Australia’s Belinda Hocking in the 200 backstroke — Ledecky showed once again that, even as a teenager, she is remarkably focused, able to set goals and blow right past them. She said she and her coach, Bruce Gemmell — who took over at Ledecky’s Nation’s Capital Swim Club only last October — had set goals for this world championships of three gold medals with one world record.

She outdid herself.

“I’m thrilled,” she said. “I exceeded my expectations for this year.”

Franklin could be close to exceeding hers, too. By winning the backstroke, she joined American Tracy Caulkins (Berlin, 1978) and Australia’s Libby Trickett (Melbourne, 2007) as the only females to win five golds at the same world championships. Should she take another in the medley relay on Sunday, the final day of the meet, she’ll join Michael Phelps, Mark Spitz and Kristin Otto as the only swimmers with at least six golds at a worlds or Olympics.

“I couldn’t have ever imagined this coming into the meet,” Franklin told reporters afterward.

Ryan Lochte, though, couldn’t say the same. After swimming a personal best in the semifinal heats of the 100-meter butterfly Friday — a night on which he also won two gold medals — he struggled to a sixth-place finish in the butterfly finals, a half second behind South Africa’s Chad le Clos, who won the gold.

Brazil’s Cesar Cielo also dashed American hopes in the men’s 50-meter freestyle, winning his third straight world title. Americans Nathan Adrian and Anthony Ervin were fourth and sixth, respectively.

Entering the meet’s final day, the United States leads all nations with 26 total medals and 13 golds; Ledecky has had a hand in four of them.

“It’s a pretty amazing feeling right now,” Ledecky said. “It’s good to finish off on a great note. I exceeded all expectations that I had going into this meet. I met all my goals.”

Barry Svrluga is the national baseball writer for The Washington Post.
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