Chasing Katie Ledecky

The 19-year-old Olympic champion and world-record holder is redefining women's freestyle swimming, winning by unprecedented margins, on her own terms.

It is repetition that defines Katie Ledecky. You see it when she stands on the starting block, waiting for the signals that begin a race, pushing and pulling on her swim cap several times, using her hands and elbows and the crook of her arm to fiddle with her goggles. It is why, for reasons she cannot remember, she claps her hands three times just before the beep to dive into the pool, a ritual that has always worked and therefore stands as its own reason.

There is comfort in doing things the same way. At critical moments, it removes the confusion of change. And yet, at the moment the world first saw the record-breaking swimming that would become the emblematic definition of Ledecky, it also saw a 15-year-old with the presence of mind to realize there was a time to let the ritual go.

It was just before the 800-meter freestyle final at the 2012 London Olympics. Ledecky could barely hear the starter given the noise from a crowd determined to will the Brit, Rebecca Adlington, to a second straight Olympic gold medal in the race. Ledecky worried about being late to take her mark if she clapped, worried that everyone else would leave her behind at the start. She was the youngest of 532 athletes on the U.S. team, in many eyes a very unexpected qualifier, so why wouldn't she feel a little uncertain?

She thought about the karmic consequences of breaking the routine and the value of playing it safe. Then she gave in to a bit of teenage angst.

"I was like, 'I don't want to embarrass myself and not go when everyone else does,'" she said.

A little more than eight minutes later, the crowd would do the clapping. Beating the field (including the favored Adlington, who finished third) by more than four seconds, Ledecky was Olympic champion. She also broke the U.S. record set 23 years earlier by Janet Evans, the four-time Olympic champion and multiple world-record setter who remains a standard against whom all women's distance swimmers are judged.

And it was Ledecky's first international event.

It was the beginning of the pattern with which Katie Ledecky has defined herself in a sport where doing something over and over again is necessary to succeed, where she has had one stunning swim after another. World record after world record, world title after world title.

"What I've done over the past couple years has been pretty great, but even that doesn't define my swimming," she said. "Working hard and doing everything I can to be successful should be my identity."

That self-portrait captures much of the big picture of a now 19-year-old who can blend intellectual curiosity with the tunnel vision to train in an unchanging environment that has little visual or aural stimulation. Pools are different, but in all of them a swimmer sees gallons of water divided by lane lines. Strength, stroke efficiency and aerobic capacity all help make champions, but none of those is what separates Ledecky from her rivals.

"It's not physical, it's between the ears," said her coach, Bruce Gemmell. "It's the absolute, burning desire to get better, and the not being afraid of failure."

"What makes Katie so remarkable is just how insatiable she is," said Connor Jaeger, the United States' best active male distance swimmer who is set to compete in his second Olympics. "You can see it. Every race she does, she wants more."

That drive has helped Ledecky redefine the parameters of women's freestyle swimming. She has won seven individual world titles at an unprecedented range of distances, by unprecedented margins in the longer races. She has set 11 world records in pools on three continents, two in a club-level Texas meet when she swam 5,300 meters in 15 races of 100 to 1,500 meters over just four days. She won the 200, 400 and 800 at the recent U.S. Olympic trials in Omaha, Nebraska.

"If Katie does what she has been doing the past four years, we are all swimming for second and third place," said Denmark's Lotte Friis, a bronze medalist in the 800 at the 2008 Olympics and fifth when Ledecky won gold in 2012.

Beginning in Rio on Sunday, Ledecky has a chance to match Debbie Meyer as the only woman to win the 200, 400 and 800 freestyles in the same Olympics, which Meyer did in 1968. The competition is wider and deeper now: In 1968, the top eight finishers in the 800 were from four countries, but in 2012 they were from eight countries.

Yet in the longer distances, Ledecky has made victory as much a part of her routine as checking her cap and goggles. The 200 should be close, the outcome not guaranteed, but it would be wise not to bet against her.

"She never loses," said teammate Maya DiRado, an individual medley and backstroke specialist who also qualified for three individual events in Rio. "Her off days are winning by a lot but not setting the world record. It's a totally different standard than everybody else is working on."

But it will be much harder at these Games. Ledecky is swimming not only against the competition, but also against the standard she has set for herself. She soon will be in a position like that of Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt, trying to chase world records he set seven or more years ago, times that neither he nor anyone else has approached since. Most people won't care how fast Bolt runs if he wins either the 100 or 200 for a record third straight time. At this point in her career, Ledecky has made defying the clock a big part of her growing celebrity.

In Rio, she no longer will be the rookie overshadowed in her own sport by Michael Phelps, Ryan Lochte and Missy Franklin. Phelps, about to retire, is no longer dominant in his events. Lochte and Franklin are not expected to win individual events as they did in London. Ledecky is the present and future of U.S. swimming, perhaps of world swimming.

"She doesn't think in those terms of being the biggest thing in the sport," said her father, Dave. "I don't get the sense of her feeling any pressure at all."

She breaks into a wry grin when evading media insistence that she be specific about goals shared only with her coach. She is determined not to share much more about herself on social media. It is what you learn in her presence for parts of several days: She expresses who she is mainly by what she does.

"I guess even we haven't wrapped our heads around who she is now," her father said.

How to be Katie Ledecky

Hannah Storm talks to 19-year-old Olympic champion Kate Ledecky about training with the guys and why she tells herself she's the fastest woman in the world.REUTERS/Michael Dalder

ONE WEEKDAY MORNING late last year, after giving a visitor a tasty slice of apple pumpkin bread she had made, Kathleen Genevieve Ledecky perched her nearly 6-foot, 155-pound body on the arm of a couch in the sunroom of the two-story home in Bethesda, Maryland, her parents bought a year before she was born. Her hair fell in bangs over her high forehead. She was wearing jeans, a red, white and blue striped sweater and blue low-cut Keds.

She had graduated from Stone Ridge School of the Sacred Heart in June 2015, two months before becoming the first to win the 200, 400, 800 and 1,500 freestyles (plus a 4x200 relay gold) at the world championships. It became known as the Ledecky Slam, which she cannot repeat in Rio because the 1,500 is not on the women's Olympic swimming program, depriving her of another near-certain gold medal.

Ledecky deferred matriculation at Stanford until the start of the 2016-17 school year, allowing herself to concentrate completely on getting ready for the Olympics after last fall, when she took comparative political systems and history of China at Georgetown University. Her extra free time would be devoted to naps and assiduously following the presidential races.

"She has become a news nerd," her father said.

Dave, an attorney, and Mary Gen, a former hospital administrator, had been recounting some oft-told family history. Katie smiled and occasionally laughed, seemingly as delighted by the anecdotes as when she had heard them for the first time.

The narrative almost always begins with the swimming creation story, which comes from Mary Gen's side, the Hagans of Williston, North Dakota, best known as the place where 13-time NBA champion player and coach Phil Jackson went to high school.

A Hagan family vacation in the northern reaches of Glacier National Park almost ended in tragedy when Mary Gen's older sister, then 4, fell from a dock and nearly drowned. The girls' father, Bud, immediately insisted that all his kids -- Mary Gen was fourth of seven -- would learn to swim.

Mary Gen took to the competitive side of the sport, winding up on the team at the University of New Mexico. She later signed up both her children, Michael and his three-years-younger sister, Katie, for the swim team at a pool near Bethesda, an upscale suburb of Washington. Both kids soon were in full immersion. Michael continued until he went to Harvard, graduating magna cum laude this past May. He wrote for the school newspaper, mainly covering hockey but doing one story on his experience rooting for Katie at last summer's worlds in Kazan, Russia.

"Despite all the yards I have logged in the pool, I can only imagine how Katie feels," Michael wrote.

Michael and Katie's mom, Mary Gen, took to competitive swimming, and later signed up both her children. Courtesy Michael Ledecky

Feel. It is a magical element in swimming, the intangible you can't define and few have, but coaches know it when they see it. It's the like-a-duck-to-water thing, with the duck often struggling to get around on land.

"I might be clumsier than some non-swimmers, but not embarrassingly so," Katie said.

Yet she became disinclined to continue the other sports she played, notably basketball, after breaking an arm in a fourth-grade gym class when she fell after slipping on a sweaty spot on the floor and another girl toppled onto her. She can take a bike apart and put it back together, something she learned as a high schooler in a service group called Bikes for the World, but she never really became an experienced rider.

"That's kind of when I started thinking, 'I really like swimming. I'm going to not risk playing other sports,'" she said. "It was a really gradual thing, more of a realization I was picking swim practice over basketball practice when the two conflicted."

Two years after the basketball mishap, she moved into her former coach Yuri Suguiyama's elite group at what then was the Curl-Burke Swim Club and now is the Nation's Capital Swim Club. From the time she began racing, in 25-yard events at age 6, Ledecky had the idea to motivate herself by writing what she called "want times" on slips of paper.

"Goal setting has definitely stuck with me," she said. "Those 'want times' were always very ambitious. That part has carried on. I try to set goals that seem kind of unreasonable at first. As I work toward them, the more reasonable they look."

After Ledecky set her first two world records and won three individual freestyle gold medals (400, 800, 1,500) in her long course world championship debut at Barcelona in July and August 2013, she and Gemmell sat down to establish goals through the 2016 Olympics. Those goals are still out there, notwithstanding her having set nine more world records since then.

Not reaching them is something she doesn't think about. When the possibility is mentioned, she responds, in a matter-of-fact tone, "If I do fall a little short, chances are it still will be something great."

At the trials in Omaha, Ledecky won the 400 with a time that missed her own nearly 2-year-old world record by just 0.61 seconds. She won the 800 in the third-fastest time (behind two of her own; she now has the top 11 times in history) and the 200 in a time slower than three she had recorded earlier this season, her fastest leading the world.

The most interesting part of her performances in Omaha was the uncharacteristic bravado she showed while talking about her 800-freestyle heat, when she recorded what then was the third-fastest time (until the final) while barely using her legs. With 50 meters to go and an enormous lead, Ledecky began to engage her six-beat kick and sprint.

"Around the 550 mark, I was like, 'We'll practice my 100 free finish for tonight,'" she said with a big grin.

Not so fast. Ledecky was noncompetitive in the 100 final, finishing seventh at a distance she rarely practices but plans to focus on down the road. That she did not set another world record in her favored distances, the 400 and 800, was somewhat disappointing to the sellout crowds but no surprise to her coach, who did not have Ledecky do a full taper to rest for the trials, preferring to save that for the Olympics.

"People shouldn't expect a world record every time I swim," she said, "but the fact people do means I've swum fast in the past, so they expect something special."

In March, Ledecky gave everyone a frisson of anticipation for the Rio Olympics when she assessed her previous six weeks of training as probably her best ever. Two months later, during the Atlanta Classic Swim Meet, Gemmell told me Ledecky had just completed her best six months of training in the nearly four years they have worked together. When I asked her about it, she went even further.

"I think I've had my best six weeks every six weeks," she said. "I've probably had my top 200 practices all this year."

Erich Schlegel/USA TODAY Sports

LEDECKY QUICKLY CAME to terms with the unvarying schedule not uncommon for elite swimmers. But beating the clock in distance swimming, as she has, requires enduring tedium few athletes experience. Hour after hour, a swimmer sees little but the black lane line on the bottom of a pool, hears little other than innermost thoughts and the muffled sound of a coach demanding more effort.

The 4:05 a.m. wake-ups; the 20-minute predawn drives to the pool with one of her parents; the two pieces of toast with peanut butter and a banana she uses as fuel for 4 miles of swimming in 90 minutes beginning at 5 a.m.; the chocolate milk immediately after practice; the bacon-cheese-tomato omelet she eats in the car on the way home, a breakfast her mother has ordered so frequently from the same local restaurant, Ize's, that its owners have named it Katie's Gold Medal Omelet; then swim another 5 miles in the afternoon after school.

Day after day, year after year.

"I don't think it's monotonous," Ledecky said, "because Bruce does a great job of mixing up the workouts, and it's a very competitive training atmosphere every day."

Gemmell, 55, who has a perpetually wry expression, gave up a 15-year career as a mechanical engineer to coach swimming. He took over as head coach at Nation's Capital after Suguiyama moved to Cal-Berkeley as an assistant coach two months after the 2012 Olympics. Gemmell insists that there was no anxiety in suddenly being in charge of an Olympic champion whom his Michigan mentor, Jon Urbanchek, had raved about. The timing also worked in his favor.

"With the Olympic cycle, everything is a little down right afterwards, so there was no immediate pressure for her to perform," Gemmell said.

Except Ledecky always wants to perform, especially in practice. To her, being very competitive means training with men and giving them no quarter. Other elite female swimmers, going back to Meyer, have flourished in similar environments where they held their own or more against men. Meyer's measuring stick was Mike Burton, the 1,500-meter Olympic champion in 1968 and 1972.

"I used to race Mike in practice all the time," Meyer said. "I wanted to beat him. I see that in Katie -- the challenging, the wanting to work hard all the time, the pushing yourself every day."

Yet what Ledecky does against some of the top male swimmers in the United States leaves many awestruck.

Before going to a late winter training camp at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colorado, where Ledecky also would be present, Olympic gold-medal freestyler Conor Dwyer may or may not have been joking when he said, "I'm a little worried. I don't want to be getting my butt kicked by a 19-year-old girl."

Michael Phelps, the greatest swimmer in history, has gone to several of those OTC camps at the same time as Ledecky. He swears the stories of her taking down the men there are true. "She'll literally beat all the guys in the workout, and it looks like it's nothing, like she is barely breathing," Phelps said.

No one suggests she could win races against top men. But there are beatdowns in practice, especially if she senses the guys are struggling, and she shifts into predator mode.

"You see that in high-level competitors," Phelps said. "If there's an ounce of blood in the water, they're going to try to destroy you as much as they can."

Ledecky's brother, Michael, who was a top-10 finisher in the 100-yard freestyle at the National Catholic High School Championships, was one of her first prey. She began beating him occasionally when she was 11, and he was 14. The key thing is Katie never was afraid to try, and there never was a question of hurting some guy's feelings.

"I never really pay attention to their emotions," she said. "I try not to let that get to me at all. I know it can be hard on them. I take it just as hard if they beat me."

That pitiless attitude is a stark contrast from the relentless generosity that seems to mark the rest of her life. "In the water, she is a stone-cold racer," Suguiyama said. "Out of the water, she is as sweet as she can be."

In the water, Katie is relentlessly competitive, but outside the pool, she's well liked and respected by her teammates. Quinn Rooney/Getty Images

From signing autographs and taking selfies with kids to visiting wounded warriors at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, to the appreciative look and thank-you she gave Gemmell after setting her first world record in 2013, Ledecky also impresses friends, rivals and strangers out of the pool.

"Katie Ledecky is the student that takes 20 credits a semester at Harvard and gets a 4.0 every semester -- and nobody likes that person," said Elizabeth Beisel, a 2012 Olympic silver and bronze medalist. "But everybody loves Katie Ledecky. You just love to love Katie."

"So calm, so reserved, so humble," teammate DiRado said. "She's a goofy, sweet, smart girl."

She keeps the goofy side for good friends and teammates. She is close to sprinter Simone Manuel, who is as outgoing as Ledecky is reserved. Before the 1,500 final at the 2013 worlds, Ledecky laughed herself nearly silly as Manuel danced around the team room. That could happen again in Rio, where the 20-year-old Manuel, soon to be Ledecky's Stanford teammate, earned spots in the 50 and 100 freestyles.

"We dance together, we sing together, and I think it just kind of keeps her relaxed and reminds her to just have fun -- no pressure, you're a good swimmer, just go fast," Manuel said.

Ledecky's imitation of teammate Tyler Clary in the rookie skits at the 2012 Olympic training camp is said to have made her, at barely 15, the star of the show.

Those kinds of moments have helped persuade Ledecky to resist the temptation of becoming awash in money, which would abolish her college eligibility. Her intention now is to use all four years at Stanford. Being part of a team means a lot to her.

Still, it's not pocket change we are talking about here. When asked about Ledecky's earning potential leading up to the Rio Games, Olympic sports marketing expert Bob Dorfman of Baker Street Advertising told after Ledecky's performance at the 2015 worlds that she could make up to $4 million before the Games if she turned pro. After her performances at the U.S. trials, he upped the ante.

"With a strong shot at four golds, Ledecky would be the aquatic darling of the Games and could command as much as $5 million annually in endorsement income by turning pro -- especially given that at just age 19, she has the opportunity to win gold in two, or even three more Olympic games and could become the female Michael Phelps," Dorfman said in an email. "Obviously the challenge is maintaining high visibility during non-Olympic years, but with her personality and likability, combined with the ever-growing influence of social media, the potential for longer-term deals is there."

That Ledecky has replaced London Olympic darling Missy Franklin as the face of U.S. women's swimming was evident at trials. On the front of Omaha's CenturyLink Center were two four-story-high photo murals. One was of Phelps. The other was of Ledecky.

"I took a selfie with it," she said. "Yeah, it's cool." But you won't find the selfie on her Twitter, Instagram or Facebook feeds.

Time magazine named her one of its 100 Most Influential People of 2016, a list that also included Lin-Manuel Miranda, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Stephen Curry, Hillary Clinton and Angela Merkel. Vogue magazine featured her with photographs by Annie Leibovitz. The Washington Post has what is essentially a Ledecky beat.

"I try not to pay attention to all the attention," Ledecky said.

Agents have approached her parents via USA Swimming. The reply has been a polite "no."

"It's never something that has entered my mind or I really want to pursue at this moment," Katie said. "I want to go to college, get my education and swim in college. I'm not concerned about money at this point. I enjoy representing my team, my country, my family, myself. I don't think at my age I need to represent something more than that."

In her family, learning counts higher than anything else. Mary Gen's father, Bud, was a doctor who was highly decorated (two Bronze Stars, Silver Star, Purple Heart) for his World War II service as a naval combat surgeon. Dave's father, Jaromir, came to the United States from Czechoslovakia at age 19 to study and was advised by his father to stay when the Soviet occupiers cracked down on his homeland. Jaromir wound up with a bachelor's degree from Rutgers and an MBA and a doctorate in economics from New York University. He was in the process of teaching himself Swedish, his eighth language, at the time of his death.

Dave Ledecky went to Harvard, then Yale Law School. His brother, Jon, co-owner of the New York Islanders, got his undergrad and MBA degrees from Harvard, at which he has endowed fellowships in the names of his mother and father.

"The way our parents believe in education, it was a no-brainer Katie wasn't going to turn professional," Dave Ledecky said.

The 2012 London Olympics, where Ledecky became a champion and broke the U.S. record for the 800-meter freestyle, was her first international event. Martin Bureau/AFP/Getty Images

BEFORE THE 2012 Olympics, Suguiyama had asked Ledecky what her goal was.

"To make the Olympic team," she said with no hesitation.

"OK," he answered, "but let's keep that to ourselves."

He had tinkered with Ledecky's mechanics in the spring and summer of 2011, getting her to breathe just on the right side instead of bilaterally, finding a way for her to use her legs more than most female distance swimmers did at the time. "I wanted to take advantage of her strength and the controlled fury with which she swims sometimes," Suguiyama said.

The result was a stroke with a "hitch" or "gallop," where the left arm glides slightly longer atop the water than the right, a motion that Phelps and others say looks like a man's stroke. It worked because Ledecky had a sense of timing so refined she knew how much longer to keep her left arm gliding and when to move her hips to get the full stroke and to avoid drag after finishing the breathing phase.

"She is very connected, meaning her upper body and lower body work in unison," said Bob Bowman, Phelps' coach for 20 years. "Therefore, she is very efficient."

The result would be something Gemmell now describes in terms he believes originated with Olympic champion Matt Biondi. "She grabs water and pulls like a rock climber," Gemmell said. "Everyone else's hand moves through the water. She moves her body past her hand."

At 14, as she began to mature physically, Ledecky started shredding her personal bests in the 800 meters. Her times went from 9:02.70 to 8:36.05 over a four-meet span from a dual meet in May 2011 to the junior national championships she dominated in August.

By the next year, her 800 time would drop to 8:14.63 in the Olympic final. She swam that fast a few days after John Leonard of the U.S., executive director of the World Swimming Coaches Association, voiced his suspicions about China's Ye Shiwen, then 16, who won the 400 IM in a world-record time and swam the final 50 meters faster than men's winner Ryan Lochte of the United States. "Unbelievable" and "disturbing," said Leonard, comments that opened the door for journalists to question Ledecky about performance-enhancing drugs since, like Shiwen, she was a relative unknown coming into London. Within minutes of her victory, Ledecky was asked whether she doped.

"Was I shocked by the question? Sort of," she said. "It was almost like a laughable matter because I just wouldn't do it.

"I could understand it, and I appreciate the concern people have for it. I think it was almost an honor -- that's kind of the approach we decided to take -- it's like an honor that people are questioning it because that means they think you did something special or out of the world."

German TV network ZDF brought up the issue again at last year's worlds, where Ledecky dominated the competition while swimming 6,200 meters in 10 races, including a 200 semifinal barely a half-hour after she set a world record in the 1,500.

"Is that humanly possible?" the network's reporter asked German head coach Henning Lambertz.

"It obviously is, but it is definitely astonishing how she absorbs all this," Lambertz replied.

"Does that raise question marks?" the reporter continued.

"Not with me," Lambertz answered.

U.S. Anti-Doping Agency statistics show Ledecky has undergone 52 doping controls beginning in 2012, with 15 so far this year. Those numbers include all in- and out-of-competition testing on U.S. athletes conducted under USADA's testing program, as well as USADA-requested tests conducted by other testing agencies on U.S. athletes training internationally.

All of Ledecky's tests through USADA and at international competitions outside the United States have come back negative. She understands that even that does not answer all doubts, given past examples of athletes such as Marion Jones and Lance Armstrong beating the tests through clever subterfuge.

"It's annoying and frustrating when you see athletes that do dope and sometimes they're not punished harshly enough," she said. "It has never crossed my mind to dope. It's not who I am."

In Rio, Ledecky will no longer be the rookie overshadowed by swimmers like Missy Franklin. AP Photo/Sergei Grits

SWIMMING CAN BE a hard sport to watch. Much of the action is water splashing, with the churn of arms and legs in shorter races roiling the pool like gale-force winds. Even sitting at no angle from the finish line, even with a live broadcast on a large video screen, a spectator frequently cannot determine the results.

Athletes often are in a similar position of uncertainty until they lift their goggles and squint through humid, chlorinated air in a search for their time and place on an electronic scoreboard at the other end of the pool. After 50 or 100 or 1,500 meters, when swimmers' capped-and-goggled heads have made their faces nearly invisible to spectators, the end of the race is the first time in 20-odd seconds or nearly 15 minutes when there is a chance to see any emotion or strain on their faces.

Triumph usually brings a smile, a scream, a punch of the water, a thumbs-up -- maybe all those reactions -- then a hug for a competitor in an adjacent lane. Other expressions are rare, even more so if the swimmer is Katie Ledecky. She gets plenty of chances to celebrate, having won every significant freestyle race in an Olympic-length pool, beginning with the 2012 London Olympics, where tears rolled down her face during the medal ceremony. But she usually does not have a demonstrative personality in public.

Yet there have been at least two other moments when Ledecky let the whole world see what she was feeling.

The first came at the 2014 Pan Pacific Championships in Australia. In abominable weather conditions during the four-day outdoor meet, she won the 200, 400 (breaking her own world record), 800 and 1,500 freestyles, swum the 100 free heats and a leg of the winning 4x200 relay. After setting another world record in that 1,500 on the meet's final day, Katie's face contorted in a grimace -- cheeks puffing, eyes squinched - for nearly a minute. "The good news," a TV commentator said, "is she actually looks as if she was in pain."

Gemmell saw something else. "All those races, the weather, and she didn't bat an eye," he said. "That's when I was kind of like, `This girl's pretty good.'"

The second moment was at the 2015 World Championships, in Kazan, Russia, where she had the no-time-to-rest double of the 1,500 final and 200 semifinal. Gemmell and Ledecky discussed the risk of that challenge -- she could be too tired from the 1,500 to make the 200 final. "She looked at me incredulously and said, `That's not going to happen,''' he recalled.

Gemmell counseled her to swim the longer race conservatively. She already had broken her 1,500 world record in the prelims, and had an enormous edge over the competition. At the end of the final, Ledecky had a quizzical look on her face -- part grin, part guilt -- as she made eye contact with the coach. She had won by 14.66 seconds, and broken her day-old world mark by 2.23. "I think she just kind of amazes herself every once in a while," Evans said. In the 200 semifinal 32 minutes later, she rallied from behind to qualify sixth overall and won the final a day later.

That fearless approach is what distinguishes Ledecky from many other distance swimmers.

"Bruce says, `Every race is a sprint; some people sprint longer than others," she explained. At the Olympic trials, Ledecky led every lap of her seven races except for the first two in the 200 final. In the 400 and 800 finals, the outcome essentially was decided after 50 meters, but Ledecky held the fans' interest by staying ahead of the red line on the video screen that shows world record pace for most of each race. Red-lining is just the way she swims.

"I take it out fast to challenge myself to bring it home faster," she said.

In January, Ledecky swam faster in both halves of a world-record 800 - out in 4:03.22, back in 4:03.46 - than Evans had while setting a world record for the 400 (4:03.85) that stood from 1988 until 2009. "There was a point people thought no woman would ever break it," Bowman said. And then Katie goes 4:03-4:03. When people ask me what is the most amazing swim I've ever seen, before that I probably would have said Michael's 400 IM at Beijing [2008 Olympics], but now what Katie did might be it."

There is a perfect, repetitive symmetry about 4:03-4:03. It is who Katie Ledecky is. Amazing. Over and over again.

Philip HershHersh, former Olympic specialist of the Chicago Tribune, is covering his 18th Olympics.

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