ATLANTA — In the summer of 1996, at the open-air Georgia Tech Aquatic Center, swimmer Amy Van Dyken became the first American woman to win four gold medals in a single Olympic Games. At the same time, in Bethesda, Md., a former collegiate swimmer named Mary Gen Ledecky was pregnant with a girl who would be born the following March, named Kathleen after the baby’s maternal grandmother. But everyone would call the girl Katie.
Nearly two decades later, Katie Ledecky, now 19, has come to the same pool — now renamed, enclosed, streamlined and modernized — in the southwest corner of the leafy Georgia Tech campus for what could be her final tuneup meet before making her own bid for history this summer.
Over the first two days of the three-day Atlanta Classic Swim Meet, Ledecky, the 2012 Olympic champion in the 800-meter freestyle and a five-time gold medalist at the 2015 World Championships, has provided a tantalizing taste of what is to come. On Friday, she cruised to victory in the 200 freestyle in 1 minute 54.82 seconds, the second-fastest time in the world this year — less than a half-second off her own 1:54.43 from January. [At Mesa meet, Katie Ledecky dominates in 800-meter freestyle]
[At Mesa meet, Katie Ledecky dominates in 800-meter freestyle]
On Saturday, she won the 400 free by nearly 9½ seconds, clocking a 4:00.31, which ranks as the second-fastest this year, behind only her 3:59.54 in January, and the eighth-fastest of all-time – with Ledecky herself claiming six of the seven faster times.
On Sunday, she is expected to wrap up the meet with her signature event, the 800 free, as well as the 100 free, a still-developing event for her that mostly serves her as a path onto the 4x100 freestyle relay for the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics. She holds the best time by an American in the 100 this year with a 53.75 in Austin in January, a time that would have won the U.S. Olympic Trials in 2012 but that ranks just 10th in the world overall.
“I’m feeling really good about where I’m at and where I’ve been all year,” Ledecky said. “I’ve been able to pop some good times.”
What Ledecky is aiming to do in Rio, now, is to deliver nothing short of the greatest performance in history by an American woman in a single Olympics.
Since Van Dyken won her four golds in ’96, Missy Franklin matched the feat in the 2012 London Games (and added a a bronze). But they remain the only American women to do so, in any sport. Ledecky could go beyond even that in Rio. As the overwhelming favorite in the 400 and 800 — where the only drama is expected to be whether she betters her own world records — and a narrow favorite in the 200, she could join an even more select club.
The list of American women who have won at least three individual gold medals in a single Olympics is short: swimmers Janet Evans, who won three in 1988, and Debbie Meyer (1968). (Both Van Dyken and Franklin won two individual golds and two relay golds.) The list of men who have pulled it off is longer,, including names such as Mark Spitz (four in 1972), Michael Phelps (four in 2004, five in 2008), Carl Lewis (three in 1984) and Jesse Owens (three in 1936).
With additional medal chances in the 400 and 800 freestyle relays — though the path to golds will be difficult in the latter and near-impossible in the former, given the talent and depth of the Australians, in particular — Ledecky could find herself departing Rio for her Bethesda home around the middle of August, realistically, with a haul of five medals, including as many as four golds. Among American women, only Franklin has won five medals with four golds at a single Games.
A potential sixth medal opportunity, in the 100 free, would seem to be a stretch at this point — in part because it isn’t even clear she will swim the event in Rio. But because of the sizzling time she put up in Austin in January, and also because she is Ledecky, it cannot be completely dismissed.
“Hopefully I’ll make the [4x100] relay and contribute to the relay,” she said. “I’ve surprised myself how much my speed has come along this year. You never know. We’ll just see how far we can take it.”
[In Orlando, Katie Ledecky focuses on the sprints to break monotony]
Naturally, Ledecky is trying her best to keep her mind clear of any grand thoughts of history and carry-on bags weighed down by gold. Great athletes, in the moment, are better served focusing on simple goals in individual events — a personal-best time, a benchmark target — and that is what Ledecky is doing. She is keeping it simple, in the words of her coach, Bruce Gemmell. “And simple,” Gemmell said, “is good.”
“I don’t think with that big-picture mind-frame,” Ledecky said Friday. “I don’t set goals that ‘I want to win this many medals.’ I have goals for each event, and when I get up on the blocks for each event I’m going to try to reach my goal in that event. Whatever the total is, whatever you want to say about it, when it comes down to it, I’m just focused on my goals.”
But as Olympic Trials in Omaha draw near, and Rio draws near beyond them, there are outward signs that Ledecky is rounding into form — and Ledecky in top form, without question, would equal history being made.
Though Ledecky will not begin “tapering,” a process in which swimmers reduce their practice workloads and begin resting for a major meet, until later this month — following a 10-day stint of high-altitude training at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colo., and after attending her brother’s graduation from Harvard — Gemmell has already reduced the frequency of top-effort practices to a few times a week.
“And she’s responded as I’d hoped — as I expected,” he said. “She’s in a good place. I don’t know how else to say it. If all of a sudden the bell rang, and they said, ‘We’re going to move the Olympics, and they’re going to start Tuesday,’ we’d be fine. She’d be absolutely fine.”
Gemmell is still considering a local D.C.-area meet in late May, or a bigger national meet in Indianapolis in early June, as a final tune-up for Ledecky before Omaha.
But that decision would partly depend on how she looks here — and halfway through this meet, the answer is becoming clear: ready.
Notes: Four-time Olympic medalist Nathan Adrian, the top-ranked U.S. sprinter, held off a loaded field to win the 50-meter freestyle in 21.93 seconds, just off the 21.69 he swam in Mesa, Ariz. in April -- which ranked fourth in the world this year. Brazilians Marcelo Chierighini and Bruno Fratus finished second and third, respectively, and University of Florida’s Caeleb Dressel, the NCAA and American record-holder in the short-course 50-yard, finished fourth, at 22.68.