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Still golden: Katie Ledecky continues her dominance in 1,500 meters

Katie Ledecky won the 17th world championship gold medal of her career. (Francois-Xavier Marit/AFP/Getty Images)
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Gold medals at the FINA world championships should never be taken for granted, not even when the swimmer is Katie Ledecky and the race is the 1,500-meter freestyle — a point underscored Monday by the fact Ledecky was not even the defending champion at Budapest’s Duna Arena, having scratched out of the 1,500 because of an illness three years ago in Gwangju, South Korea.

But once Ledecky, 25, walked onto the pool deck and took her place on the starting blocks Monday, the race was all but over, the only remaining questions being how low she would go and how far ahead of the field she would finish. The answers: 15 minutes 30.15 seconds (the sixth-fastest time in history) and half a pool length.

Ledecky’s gold medal was her second in two races at this meet and the 17th of her career at world championships, the most of any female swimmer and third ever behind Michael Phelps (26) and Ryan Lochte (18). With the 800 free and 4x200 free relay remaining, she could pass Lochte by the end of the meet.

Katie Ledecky is 25 and getting faster, still reaching for another wall

American teammate Katie Grimes, a 16-year-old who is part of the generation of young distance swimmers inspired by Ledecky, took the silver medal in 15:44.89, with Australia’s Lani Pallister (15:48.96) claiming bronze.

“It’s pretty wild,” Ledecky said to NBC during a poolside interview after the race when asked about her career haul of medals, “because I feel like it was just yesterday I was in Barcelona at my first worlds [in 2013].”

At the wall after the race, Ledecky punched at the water in celebration, then greeted Grimes in the next lane over with a high-five and a hug.

“Just to see how far she’s come in a year and the maturity she has and how much energy she brings to the team — I don’t think I was like that when I was her age,” Ledecky said of Grimes. “It’s just awesome being on the blocks next to her, and to share this moment with her is really awesome.”

Ledecky hasn’t lost in the 1,500 in more than a decade, and she owns the top 13 times in history at that distance. Though her time Monday was nearly 10 seconds off her world record of 15:20.48 from 2018, it was significantly faster than her winning time last year at the Tokyo Olympics (15:37.34) — more evidence that her move last fall to Gainesville, Fla., and Coach Anthony Nesty is paying off.

“It takes a lot of hard work,” Ledecky told reporters of her continued dominance a full decade after her breakthrough gold medal in the 800 free at the 2012 London Olympics. “You have to put in the work, and put in the work outside the pool in terms of recovery, especially as you get older. To have that longevity, you can’t get complacent.”

The 1-2 finish for Ledecky and Grimes headlined a six-medal haul for Team USA on the third day of the world championships. Regan Smith won gold in the women’s 100-meter backstroke, with Claire Curzan taking bronze; Ryan Murphy and Hunter Armstrong took silver and bronze in the men’s 100 backstroke.

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