And so by most measures, her busy week at the world championships was an unqualified success: five gold medals, a silver and, by most indications, a week of fun. She now has 14 world titles, more than any other female swimmer and trailing only Michael Phelps (26) and Ryan Lochte (18).
But as her competition came to a close Saturday with a dominant win in the 800 freestyle, even Ledecky was aware there was room for improvement. Her loss earlier in the week in the 200 free marked the first time she had finished second in a major international competition. There were no world records set in Hungary. And she fell short of tying Missy Franklin’s mark of six gold medals at a single world championships. Of course, that any of this was even on the table speaks to Ledecky’s standing in the sport.
“If that was my bad year for the next four years, then the next couple of years are going to be pretty exciting,” she told reporters Saturday following her final race.
The 20-year old Bethesda native won four gold medals and a silver at the Rio Olympics last summer and was taking on an even heavier workload at these world championships. Swimming in four individual races and two relays, Ledecky tackled a total of 6,300 meters in seven days.
While she will bring new hardware back home when the world championships conclude Sunday, she will have plenty of video to study, too, trying to find fractions of seconds she might have left in the pool. All of her times in Budapest were slower than what she posted last August at the Rio Games. For example, even though she won Saturday’s 800-meter race by nearly three seconds, finishing in 8:12.68, she was well off her world record mark from the Olympics — 8:04.79.
“I always wish there was more,” she said Saturday. “I’ve never walked away from a season completely satisfied — even last year. You’re just always thinking about moving forward. This year knowing that I didn’t really set as high of goals and having that same motivation as last year, just always being on and on and on. Going through a lot of transitions and changes this year. Knowing that I’ve gone through that year now, I can take what I’ve learned this year and apply moving forward.”
Though the Tokyo Olympics are still three years away, many around the pool deck felt last week’s program could foreshadow what Ledecky will attempt in 2020. With the addition of the 1,500-meter race to the Olympic slate, Ledecky has plenty of options and showed again in Budapest she’s a strong contender at most distances.
She opened the week with a dominant win in the 400 free, finishing in 3:58.34. She touched the wall more than three seconds ahead of anyone else but was also nearly two seconds slower than her world record time. She made clear on the meet’s first day that there would be no frustration over not toppling her previous marks.
“There’s no disappointment. It’s a world championship gold medal and there’s nothing to complain about there,” said Ledecky, who also helped the United States win gold in the 4×100 relay on the meet’s opening night.
Two days later, she defended her 1,500-meter title and reminded everyone that she’ll be the overwhelming favorite when that race makes its debut at the Tokyo Games. She finished in 15:31.82, more than 19 seconds ahead of any other swimmer.
On Wednesday came the week’s biggest surprise. The 200 is Ledecky’s toughest race and she knew she would have a challenge. Italy’s Federica Pellegrini caught Ledecky on the final lap to claim victory with a time of 1:54.73. Ledecky tied for second, touching the wall in 1:55.18. Her mark was slower than she had posted in the qualifying heats one day earlier when she posted a time of 1:54.69.
“It happens,” Ledecky said calmly after the race. “It happens to every athlete at some point.”
She already was talking about what lessons she would take from the defeat and showed no signs that any pressure was weighing on her.
“I’m still learning over the years and over the months how to manage those expectations, but I don’t think any of that had any effect on me,” she said.
She bounced back a night later and anchored the U.S. victory in the 4×200 free relay, and then capped the week Saturday by winning the 800, beating second-place Li Bingjie, a promising 15-year-old from China, by nearly three seconds.
Ledecky will begin her sophomore year at Stanford in September. She’s still three years away from the Tokyo Games, but each big meet provides a glimpse of what to expect in 2020. While she says she has yet to set 2020 goals, her busy Budapest schedule — and the lessons learned in victories and defeat — will help shape her path going forward.
“Just taking it step by step and just kind of laying the groundwork this year and seeing where I can go from here,” Ledecky said. “The first year of the quad is more relaxed. It’s good to take that first step toward 2020 but not really think about it too much.”