RICHMOND — The star attraction on the opening night of the TYR Pro Swim Series stop at Richmond Aquatic Center did more or less what she came several thousand miles to do.
Katie Ledecky, five-time Olympic gold medalist and the biggest star in her sport, won her only race of the night, posed for some pictures, signed some autographs and hustled off to watch some playoff hockey.
In the 800-meter freestyle, Ledecky finished in 8 minutes 14.24 seconds, the fastest time in the world in 2019, to beat seven rivals, some of whom, mostly the ones who trailed Ledecky by half a minute or more, appeared thrilled just to be in the same pool as her.
But despite keeping alive a lifetime unbeaten streak in the event that has been the bread-and-butter of her acclaimed career, it is mostly the opponents Ledecky couldn’t see Wednesday night who keep her hungry some seven years into her stay on the international stage and keep her in the pool for six hours and 10,000 yards a day in Palo Alto, Calif., where she trains.
Eleven days before Wednesday night’s race — which took place just two hours from Ledecky’s birthplace of Washington and hometown of Bethesda — a 16-year-old Chinese girl named Wang Jianjiahe became just the third female swimmer in history to go under 8:15 in the 800 free, posting an 8:14.64 in the Chinese national championships.
It was a reminder, not that Ledecky needed it, that there are kids all over the world coming after her with the 2020 Tokyo Olympics approaching — trying to do, in effect, what Ledecky did herself as a 15-year-old in London in 2012, when she took down 23-year-old defending champ and world record holder Rebecca Adlington of Great Britain for her first Olympic gold.
“It wasn’t a focus of mine,” Ledecky said when asked whether it was important for her to get under Wang’s time and claim the top spot in the 2019 world rankings at this early stage in the season. “I should be better than that [time] at a meet like this, just based on what I’ve done. [But] I’m aware of what everyone else in the world is doing.”
On a deeper level, Ledecky’s toughest opponent, at age 22, remains the 18-year-old and 19-year-old Ledecky, the one who set six world records — all of them lowering her own marks — in a 12-month period from August 2015 to August 2016, culminating at the Rio de Janeiro Olympics, in the most dazzling display of freestyle swimming the world has seen.
It was in Rio that Ledecky last lowered the world record in the 800 — to 8:04.79. Since then, she has swum the event 13 times, including Wednesday night, without coming within two seconds of that time.
Since the start of 2018, in fact, Ledecky has produced a personal best in any event just twice — in the 400-yard individual medley as a Stanford sophomore in 2018 and in the 1,500-meter freestyle last May in Indianapolis.
“I know it’s in there,” Ledecky said of her potential to keep lowering her own records.
Historically, swimmers in their 20s have had a difficult time keeping up with the teenage versions of themselves. Both Adlington and Janet Evans — the latter, before Ledecky came along, the most decorated American distance swimmer in history — were essentially finished as elite-level international swimmers by age 23. But the folks in Ledecky’s inner circle say that doesn’t have to be the case anymore, given the advances in training, video analysis and sports science in the years since those other swimmers had their peaks.
“The sport has changed,” said Greg Meehan, the Stanford coach who has continued to train Ledecky even after she turned pro last year. “And Katie would never want to settle and be okay with not going a best time. . . . One of the great things about Katie is she constantly wants to move that bar, move that needle, and the work we’re doing, hopefully, is going to do that this summer.”
If Ledecky needed a reminder of what is still possible at her seasoned age, it appeared in the lane next to her Wednesday night. Leah Smith, a 23-year-old University of Virginia product and a two-time Olympic medalist, rode Ledecky’s heels for the entirety of the 16-lap race — actually beating Ledecky over the race’s second half — to post a personal-best 8:16.33.
“I looked up [at the scoreboard] and said, ‘Oh, that’s Katie’s time,’ ” Smith said of her mark. “Then I was like, ‘No, wait, that’s my time!’ ”
Smith, too, has heard that distance swimmers in their 20s, like her, are not supposed to be able to set personal bests anymore, and it gave her no small measure of satisfaction to prove that theory wrong.
“That’s what they want you to think, that your best swimming is behind you,” she said. “I don’t think that’s true. . . . I do feel like people are pushing the narrative of, ‘Look at what these young swimmers are doing,’ and I’m like, ‘I’m still here. I didn’t go anywhere.’ I know I still have a lot more ahead of me, and so does Katie. You can’t count out the old ladies.”