Katie Ledecky Is Chasing History, Again, in the Women’s 800 Freestyle

Katie Ledecky has already achieved enough in her illustrious swimming career to achieve all-time legend status. Even if she never won another race in her career, she would still be spoken of for generations among the greatest to ever dive off a block.. 

There are few standards by which Ledecky’s age of 24 is considered “old,” but by the historical standards of World Record-setting women’s distance swimming, it is just that. If Ledecky goes a best time again in her specialty event, the 800 free, it would, in fact, be historically old for her to do so (being that those best times would also be World Records).

Ledecky first came on the scene at the 2012 London Olympics with an upset victory in the 800 free over the defending Olympic champion Rebecca Adlington. At 15 years old, she was one of the youngest swimmers in London and would set her first world record in the 800 a year later at the 2013 World Championships with a time of 8:13.86. Over the next three years, she would break the record four more times, bringing the current record down to 8:04.79.

Ledecky’s 8:04 came at the 2016 Rio Olympics and was notable because she set that record at the age of 19. Why is this notable? Because it has been nearly 68 years, yes 68 years since a non-teenager has set the world record in the 800 freestyle.

Time to check to see who knows their swimming history. We have to go all the way back to 1953 and Valéria Gyenge of Hungary to find the last time a non-teenager set the record. Gyenge swam 10:42.4 on June 28, 1953 at the age of 20 years and 86 days to break the 12-year old record of 10:52.5 from Ragnhild Hveger of Denmark. Coincidentally, Hveger was 20 years and 246 days when she set the record. 

For those who had Valéria Gyenge on your bingo cards, please stand up.

Since setting the current record at the 2016 Rio Olympics, Ledecky has swum the 800 free 19 times. Her fastest time during that span was  8:07.27 in May 2018 at the TYR Pro Swim Series in Indianapolis. Her slowest time was 8:20.24 at the 2017 World Championships in Budapest where she took gold.

Looking at Ledecky’s recent results, she swam 8:13.64 in March at the TYR Pro Swim Series in San Antonio right before she turned 24 on March 17. In May at the Longhorn Aquatics Elite Invite, she put up an 8:14.48 shortly after swimming a 1:55.47 in the 200 free.

We all know that Katie Ledecky is currently the greatest female distance swimmer and has transformed the limits of the events she swims. We also know that female swimmers, particularly distance swimmers, tend to peak at younger ages. At the same time, the sport is significantly more professional than it has ever been and we’ve seen both men and women swim fast through their 20s and into their 30s.  

To set a new WR in the 800, Ledecky will need to drop 9 seconds from her time in March. If we look back at her lead-up to the Rio Games, we see that she swam a 8:13.20 in April 2016. She swam two 8:10’s at the Olympic Trials in July. In the prelims at Rio she swam a pedestrian 8:12.86 before dropping the 8:04.79 in Finals. If we compare her 800 times in the Spring of 2016 and 2021, the times are nearly identical. 

Additionally, Ledecky has recently shown that she has speed in her. She put up a 1:54.40 in the 200 free in April. This swim is the second fastest 200 that Ledecky has ever swum, just behind the 1:53.73 she swam in Rio to win gold. If we throw in the 1:54.59 she swam in March 2020, two of her five fastest 200s have come in the past 14 months.

At the Longhorn Invite, Ledecky finished first in the 100 free in 53.83, edging out Simone Manuel by .01 seconds. This was Ledecky’s second fastest flat-start 100 free ever, just behind her 2016 PSS Austin swim of 53.75. Between the 100 and 200 times this spring, Ledecky’s speed is right where she needs to be. 

We also know that Katie Ledecky is extremely goal focused. Prior to Rio, her goals were to win the 200 free (check), swim under 3:56 in the 400 free (check), and to swim under 8:05 in the 800 free (check). While we do not know her goals for Tokyo, with her training acumen, and focus on goal-driven results, if she has a chance to make history, it will be hard to bet against her.  

If Ledecky goes on to set a new world record in the 800 free, it will be a truly historical feat. All the historical data shows that the 800 free is an event dominated by teenagers. It is not unreasonable to suggest that Ledecky has swum her best time in the event.

‘Historical feats’ and ‘rewriting the rules,’ though, is what Ledecky has done throughout her career. For her to do so again shouldn’t surprise anybody at this point, but it would highlight another chapter in her legacy in the sport.

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Mr Piano
3 months ago

She’s definitely been looking a lot more like her 2016 self. If she is in peak shape at the Olympics, she still probably won’t end up breaking the 800 wr again because that’s at the end of the week, and she has the 400, 200, and 1500 before.

Smith-King-Dahlia-Manuel
Reply to  Mr Piano
3 months ago

The world record that Katie Ledecky is most likely to break is the women’s 400 meter freestyle, since the women’s 400 meter freestyle is the first individual event on her schedule at the Tokyo 2021 Olympics.

tnp101
3 months ago

Just Amazing!!!
She probably set her sight to break 8-min barrier (I that is possible). It might be a tall task to achieve. But never say never…

Yozhik
Reply to  tnp101
3 months ago

She was ready to challenge 8min barrier in Rio should 800 race was the first one in her 3400 m racing program. Now it’s gonna be almost twice longer.

JimSwim22
Reply to  Yozhik
3 months ago

I agree, adding the mile has to hurt her in the 800. The prelims 1500 will just be a warm up set but in finals she will have to spend some real energy. But it would be awesome to see a 7:59!

Last edited 3 months ago by JimSwim22
Mr Piano
Reply to  tnp101
3 months ago

She hasn’t even been close to her 8:04.7 since it was set, and that time is already super optimized. Going from 8:09 to 8:04 is much easier than 8:04 to 7:59. Dropping time from optimized WRs gets exponentially harder.

PK Doesn't Like His Long Name
3 months ago

Prior to Rio, her goals were to win the 200 free (check), swim under 3:56 in the 400 free (check), and to swim under 8:05 in the 800 free (check)

2 for 3! Very close on the middle one.

tea rex
Reply to  PK Doesn't Like His Long Name
3 months ago

She said “3:56 or faster” in the 400, so made that one also.
She made those goals in 2013. Can you imagine just breaking the WR, going 8:13 at age 16, and thinking “I bet I could go 8:05” ???

Bill
Reply to  tea rex
3 months ago

Good coaching.

Yabo
Reply to  tea rex
3 months ago

If I broke a wr at 16 id definitely be setting some mighty ambitious goals for when the next quad

Honest Observer
3 months ago

There are a lot of criteria that go into the title of “greatest woman swimmer ever.” How many world records did she set, how many Olympic gold medals in individual events did she win, how many different Olympics did she win gold at, what was her margin over her competitors, how versatile was she, what was her career longevity, and what was the longevity of her records? Right now there are only two women who’ve won gold at three different Olympics (Dawn Fraser and Kristina Egerszegi), and Janet Evans and Mary T. Meagher are the swimmers whose records lasted the longest. Ledecky has these swimmers beat in most of the other categories, and only time will tell how long her… Read more »

Smith-King-Dahlia-Manuel
Reply to  Honest Observer
3 months ago

Amongst female swimmers, Katie Ledecky has won the most individual gold medals at the FINA World Aquatics Championships.

Let’s not forget the 14 World Records (LCM), either.

Yozhik
Reply to  Honest Observer
3 months ago

You can add to this list of criteria the level of dominance. She just regained this title recently taking it from Adam Peaty. And also some other factor that cannot be expressed in numbers but maybe the most important one. That is her influence on the next generations of swimmers inspiring them to target achievements that were unimaginable just yesterday.

Crawler
Reply to  Honest Observer
3 months ago

Her claim to GOAT status, besides the needed collection of titles and medals, is how dominant she has been throughout her career.

Dawn Frazier won gold in 3 successive Olympics in the 100 and could have won a 4th, but she didn’t dominate like Ledecky. Indeed, the only one who dominates like her is Adam Peaty.

Fraser Thorpe
Reply to  Crawler
3 months ago

How do you qualify that Fraser wasn’t as dominant as ledecky?

Crawler
Reply to  Fraser Thorpe
3 months ago

Margin of victory, her times vs. the times of the silver medalists.

Smith-King-Dahlia-Manuel
Reply to  Fraser Thorpe
3 months ago

One event.

Smith-King-Dahlia-Manuel
3 months ago

What’s the hang up with the world record?

The mark of 8:14.63 set in the final of the women’s 800 meter freestyle at the 2012 Summer Olympics still stands today for every female swimmer not named Ledecky.

Two additional swims under 8:14.10, Katie Ledecky will own the Top 25 All-Time Performances in the women’s 800 meter freestyle according to USA Swimming.

https://www.usaswimming.org/times/data-hub/all-time-top-performers

swimapologist
Reply to  Smith-King-Dahlia-Manuel
3 months ago

I think this is probably a response to the constant debates in the comments about whether KL is going to go PBs in Tokyo.

PBs for KL = WR. And, the reality is, she probably won’t.

If she does, then great – she’s just grown her legacy even greater, and now we know why. If nobody tells us “it’s never been done,” then we won’t know how impressive it is if it happens.

Smith-King-Dahlia-Manuel
Reply to  swimapologist
3 months ago

What is amazing is the mark of 8:14.63 in the final of the women’s 800 meter freestyle has stood since 03 August 2012. It’s a threshold for every female swimmer not named Ledecky.

Research how many other women’s world records, events contested at the Summer Olympics, have been broken since the aforementioed date:

W 50 FR
W 100 FR
W 400 FR
W 1500 FR
W 100 BK
W 200 BK
W 100 BR
W 200 BR
W 100 FL
W 200 IM
W 400 IM

Dave
3 months ago

After the Olympics , I understand that Ledecky might return to Stanford for either an MBA or JD. since she only swam for Stanford for two years, does Katie have TWO more years of eligibility available? That might be an entertaining way to train for the next Olympics in 2024.

sadfasddsa
Reply to  Dave
3 months ago

She’s already a pro so I dont think so

Walter
Reply to  Dave
3 months ago

No.

Thomas
Reply to  Dave
3 months ago

Professional athletes forfeit NCAA eligibility. Hopefully this helps more than just “no”

Greg Brance
Reply to  Thomas
3 months ago

Isn’t the NCAA changing eligibility rules for Pro Athletes? CA has already passed a law allowing College Athletes to be compensated starting in 2023.

Smith-King-Dahlia-Manuel
Reply to  Dave
3 months ago

Katie Ledecky turned professional after the 2017-2018 NCAA Season.

THEO
3 months ago

Great article. I think she goes PBs in the 200 and 400 and 1500. The 800 is a toss up.

THEO
Reply to  THEO
3 months ago

I’m surprised by the downvotes. Didn’t think I’d need to defend my thesis here but I’m bored at work so why not:
She’s clearly got as good of speed as ever. A PB in the 200 seems likely. The 400 also v possible since she’s danced around her PB there a few times but def not a given. As for the 1500, I hardly believe for a second that her 15:20 is her max potential there given that it happened in January. She never had a reason to focus on that long of a distance and frankly STILL doesn’t because there’s no competition in it for her. I saw someone say Simona was a threat recently but I mean… Read more »

Troyy
Reply to  THEO
3 months ago

So you think she’s gonna PB in both the 200 and 1500 in the same session?

Yozhik
Reply to  THEO
3 months ago

15:20 happened in May along with 3:57. That was a time when Ledecky went pro and was on the Market. There is no doubts that she was tapered for this PSS meet. Her previous record in 1500 (15:25) wasn’t inline with her Rio form (she didn’t have a chance to race in this event then). From the splits prospective the 15:20 is pretty much corresponds 1:53.7, 3:56 and 8:04. She may go under 15:20 but not much. And only in the case if there would be the meet completely dedicated to this goal. Only one race for the meet in the winter when she is fully tapered.
The 1500 final is in between 200 final and 4×200 relay next… Read more »

Andy Hardt
3 months ago

This article makes the good point that for Ledecky, setting the world record is “just” setting another PB. As well as comparing her against past world records, let’s compare her against the rest of the top 10 list, and the ages they set their PBs (from Wikipedia):

1) Katie Ledecky, 19 (now 24)
2) Rebecca Adlington, 19 (now 32)
3) Wang Jianjiehe, 16 (now 18)
4) Simona Quadarella, 20 (now 22)
5) Li Bingjie, 15 (now 19)
6) Jazmin Carlin, 23 (now 30)
7) Ariarne Titmus, 18 (now 20)
8) Lotte Friis, 21 (now 33)
9) Janet Evans, 17 (now 49)
10) Leah Smith, 23 (now 26)

Of the 8 swimmers… Read more »

RUN-DMC
Reply to  Andy Hardt
3 months ago

The record breakers peak at age 19 because they are so goal-driven. Others peak at later ages because they are less goal-driven, or it takes them some time to mature mentally before making the commitment that it takes to reach a physical peak.

In 2016, I thought she was capable of an 8:03. The 8:04 was an amazing swim.
But 5 years have passed and Katie’s ability to recover has dropped. Her speed has increased, but I bet her endurance has dropped some.

Katie should consider an 8:09 to be a great swim this year.

DC swim fan
Reply to  RUN-DMC
3 months ago

Imagine what she could do in 2024 if she switched her focus to the 200

RUN-DMC
Reply to  DC swim fan
3 months ago

I hope her focus is on the 200 now.

pvdh
Reply to  RUN-DMC
3 months ago

its probably 200 and 400 free as thats where the closest competition is. Shes going to smoke the field in the 800 and 1500

JimSwim22
Reply to  RUN-DMC
3 months ago

Only the teenagers on the list are World or Olympic champions. For 7 decades that’s the only path to the top (record setter) we have seen

Smith-King-Dahlia-Manuel
Reply to  Andy Hardt
3 months ago

Lauren Boyle (University of California, Berkeley by the way) set her personal best time (15:40.14) in the women’s 1500 meter freestyle at the age of 27.

https://www.fina.org/swimming/rankings?gender=F&distance=1500&stroke=FREESTYLE&poolConfiguration=LCM&year=all&startDate=&endDate=&timesMode=BEST_TIMES&regionId=all&countryId=