In her first race as a professional, Katie Ledecky made quite the splash Wednesday night, putting on the kind of blistering performance that sends a message to both potential sponsors and any swimmers hoping to take aim at her crown between now and the Tokyo Olympics.
Competing in the TYR Pro Swim Series meet in Indianapolis, Ledecky smashed her own record in the 1,500-meter freestyle, posting a time of 15:20.48, shaving exactly five seconds off her previous mark, which was set at the world championships nearly three years ago. Ledecky is the current world leader in three distances, but this marks her first world record since the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.
“It’s a feeling that never gets old,” she told reporters following the race. “Each one is unique and special.”
The women’s 1,500 has long been Ledecky’s most dominant distance and will be added to the Olympic program at the 2020 Games in Tokyo. Ledecky first set the 1,500 record at the 2013 world championships (15:36.53) and since then has set a new record in the distance four more times, lowering the record by more than 16 seconds in the process.
Competing with a Stanford swimcap Wednesday, Ledecky knew from the first lap the race was never in doubt. She finished well ahead of the field and slapped the water in excitement when she saw her time.
“I knew I was going to have a good swim. Just been training really, really well, doing some things I haven’t done before,” she said of her recent practice times.
She won the 1,500 world title last year in 15:31.82, and her goal for this season was to just break 15:30, which she did by nearly 10 seconds Wednesday. “Might have to re-calibrate some goals now,” she said with a laugh.
“I knew as it was going on, it was a great swim,” she said. “Maybe it was going to be 24, 25, 26, somewhere around there. Something under 15:30, I would say. When I saw the 20, I was pretty shocked.”
Ledecky is now the owner of the eight fastest 1,500 times any female swimmer has ever posted, and as she has shown so many times before, she is an ocean ahead of most other distance swimmers. Wednesday’s second-place finisher was 17-year-old Erica Sullivan, who finished in 16:09.88, a full 49 seconds behind Ledecky.
Ledecky hadn’t competed this year since the NCAA championships two months ago and had been training back at Stanford since early April.
“My confidence level is just really high right now. I didn’t know if the good training that I put in these past six weeks was going to translate immediately here or if it was going to be down the road,” she said.
Aside from the world record — the 14th time the 21-year-old Ledecky has set one — Wednesday’s win is particularly noteworthy for a couple of reasons. While she still piled up plenty of wins and enjoyed an unparalleled college career swimming at Stanford, Ledecky had been in a personal drought of sorts and since the Rio Olympics hadn’t posted the other-worldly times that distinguished her from every other female swimmer in the world as a teenager.
She won five gold medals at last year’s world championships, but for the first time at a major international meet, she failed to break any records or set a single personal-best mark. It’s relative, of course, but there were questions around the pool deck whether Ledecky — or anyone — could best her impossibly low marks in the 400-, 800- and 1,500-meter events.
Wednesday’s race seems to be an early indication that Ledecky is still capable of making big waves when she needs to, and it couldn’t have come at a better time. In late March, she announced her decision to forgo her final two years of college eligibility and turn professional. She has yet to announce any major endorsement deals and hasn’t signed with a swimwear company. A performance such as Wednesday’s will only serve to remind potential sponsors what she is capable of heading into next summer’s world championships and the 2020 Tokyo Games.
This entire Indianapolis meet, in fact, could serve as a preview of sorts. Ledecky is poised to take on a program this week that could be similar to what she might attempt next July at worlds in South Korea. In Indianapolis, she is scheduled to compete in the 400- and 100-meter freestyle races on Thursday, the 400 individual medley and 200 free on Friday, and both the 200 IM and 800 free on Saturday.
“It’s always nice to have a great swim like that on the first day,” she said. “Kind of gets the adrenaline and confidence going.”
Already the owner of five Olympic titles, Ledecky’s career is mostly pointed toward Tokyo in two years. She showed Wednesday that she will have plenty of opportunities before then to add to her legacy.
Indianapolis marks her first meet of the season, which means that Ledecky’s best times this year are likely ahead of her. “I guess I don’t need to taper ever again,” she joked.
“I need my confidence to be skyrocketing to swim fast. It’s not really about the rest for me, it’s about how I feel my training’s been,” Ledecky explained. “I think if that means I don’t rest as much and keep working hard through some of these meets, that’s the way to go.”