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The debate about Washington’s greatest athlete is over: It’s Katie Ledecky

Katie Ledecky won four more gold medals at the world championships in Budapest. (Petr David Josek/AP)
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One of the fallbacks for radio hosts when the local teams aren’t performing well — which is almost always nowadays — is to raise this question: “Who is the greatest athlete to represent the Washington area?” Or, as the pundits now like to call it, “the DMV.”

It is a subject guaranteed to light up the phone lines. Old-timers will call in to say it must be Walter Johnson or Sammy Baugh. Hockey fans know it’s Alex Ovechkin, and Wizards/Bullets fans will chime in with Wes Unseld. Because this was once an NFL town, names such as Sonny Jurgensen, John Riggins and the Hogs as a group will get some play. Sugar Ray Leonard and Kevin Durant will be mentioned, too.

In truth, there’s no debate. The greatest D.C.-area athlete in history — by far — is Bethesda’s Katie Ledecky.

She is the greatest women’s swimmer in history — also not a subject for debate. She added to her legacy this past week at the world championships in Budapest, winning gold medals in the 400-, 800- and 1,500-meter freestyle. She added a fourth gold in the 4x200 freestyle relay, charging from behind on the third leg to give the United States the lead for good. The 200 is Ledecky’s “weakest” race, yet she produced the fastest split among the 32 swimmers competing in the relay final.

With gold in 800, Katie Ledecky completes a 4-for-4 world championship

There are all sorts of numbers that prove Ledecky’s brilliance: 10 Olympic medals, seven of them gold; 22 world championship medals, 19 of them gold. No one on the women’s side can touch those numbers. Only Michael Phelps on the men’s side surpasses her.

But there is one simple note that sums up Ledecky’s remarkable legacy better than any of the numbers: She is the youngest woman to win the 800-meter freestyle in an Olympics, emerging from almost out of nowhere to win the event as a 15-year-old in London. She is also the oldest woman to win the 800 free — claiming gold in Tokyo at 24.

Swimming is a burnout sport, perhaps tougher mentally than any other because of the hours required in the pool and the physical and mental pounding a great swimmer must take to stay at the top. Ledecky is 25 now — and improving. She is a college graduate — Stanford — and still trying to get better as she points toward what would be her fourth Olympics, Paris in 2024. She’ll be 27 then, the same age Phelps was when he retired for the first time after London. He came back to swim in Rio de Janeiro at 31, and while he wasn’t the same force who won eight gold medals in Beijing in 2008, he still collected six more medals — including five golds.

If she wants to, Ledecky can probably keep swimming through the 2028 Games in Los Angeles. And she still seems to savor the grind of training. “I love being in the water and seeing that line at the bottom of the pool,” she said after one of her wins in Budapest.

Most swimmers have nightmares about that line, seeing it lap after lap, day after day for years and years. There is a monotony to it that can be mind-numbing. Those who swim in open water events deal with different courses and conditions that help keep their minds alert. For competitors such as Ledecky, all pools look the same once you leave the starting blocks or push off the wall.

One of the reasons Phelps was able to stay mentally fresh for most of his career was his versatility. He swam freestyle and butterfly and was brilliant in the individual medley, which requires a swimmer to swim all four strokes.

Ledecky has always been a freestyler, and the longer the race, the tougher she is to beat. In London, she was still a kid coming into her own when she blew away the field in the 800. Now she’s the sport’s grand old champion, constantly challenged by younger swimmers.

In Tokyo, she was caught in the final 100 meters of the 400 by Australian Ariarne Titmus and finished fifth in the 200, an event also won by Titmus, who is four years younger — a lifetime in swimming. Last month, Titmus broke Ledecky’s long-standing 400 record by six-hundredths of a second.

Like a lot of Australian swimmers, Titmus skipped the world championships to prepare for next month’s Commonwealth Games. In her absence, 15-year-old Canadian Summer McIntosh took silver in the 400, finishing a second behind Ledecky, and many in the swimming media anointed her a potential breakout star in Paris.

Perhaps. There’s no doubt Ledecky will face plenty of competition in the 400 from Titmus and McIntosh and who knows who else, swimming being a sport where youngsters jump into the limelight almost overnight.

But she remains peerless in the 800 and the 1,500. She won the 800 in Budapest by an astonishing 10 seconds and the 1,500 by 15 seconds. Worth noting: She would undoubtedly have two more Olympic golds if swimming’s governing body hadn’t taken so long to make the women’s 1,500 part of the Olympic program; the race finally made its Olympic debut in Tokyo, with Ledecky winning easily.

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

What may be most remarkable about Ledecky is how normal she has remained even after a full decade as a superstar. According to my colleague Dave Sheinin, who has covered her for years, Ledecky remains accessible and approachable — she got on the phone with him last week from Budapest — and never seems to complain about anything.

After her loss to Titmus in the 400, she hugged her rival in the pool and called Titmus’s victory “good for the sport.” She’s a great teammate, coming up with outstanding relay splits when her teammates need her most — even though she has never been as dominant at shorter distances as she is at the longest ones.

After Tokyo, she decided she needed to train with swimmers who would push her harder, so she moved to Florida to work with University of Florida Coach Anthony Nesty, swimming daily against men who have won Olympic medals. It seems to be working; her times in Budapest were better than her times a year ago in Tokyo.

She believes the new training regimen will allow her to improve even more before Paris. Regardless of what happens there, in future world championships or even in Los Angeles in 2028, her attitude and approach to the sport remain amazingly fresh, and her legacy is untouchable.

It is in no way disrespectful to the others who get mentioned in the debate over Washington’s greatest athlete to say this: It is Katie Ledecky. She should be enjoyed by all of us while she’s still enjoying herself in the pool. Her ability to continue to do that may be her greatest achievement.

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