Day One, two golds, Ledecky is ... 'incredible'

BUDAPEST — It’s only Day One of the swim action of these 2017 FINA world championships, and here is the dilemma.

How many different ways are there to say Katie Ledecky is great?

In the first final in a meet she is expected to — strike that, absent something freaky, will — dominate, Ledecky set a new championship record in the women’s 400 freestyle, winning by more than three seconds.

Katie Ledecky on the medals stand after the 400 free // Getty Images

Katie Ledecky on the medals stand after the 400 free // Getty Images

People, here is maybe one way to say how great Katie Ledecky is. You can not be disappointed when she does not set a world record. That is absurd. She set a championship-meet record. She won by three-plus seconds. That much of a margin in a race that goes about four minutes: that is … crazy great.

As she would say later, “It’s my second-best time,” meaning in the 400 free. “There’s no disappointment. It’s a world championship gold medal. There’s nothing to complain about there.“

Later Sunday night Ledecky raced in the winning women’s 4x100 free relay, so Day One meant two golds; that means her world championships career totals 11; that means she and Missy Franklin are tied, at 11. At least until Tuesday. Which brings the 1500 freestyle final.

Katie Ledecky is gracious. Always. “It’s a great honor, just to be on a relay and do it that way,” she said of world gold No. 11.

These 2017 championships are of course the first year in the four-year cycle that will culminate in the 2020 Tokyo Games. It is the nature of the first year that new names pop up. Budapest 2017: No Phelps, no Lochte, no Missy. If you know who Zachary Apple is, you either are his relatives or friends, you follow Auburn sports or you are a hard-core swim geek to the max (All-American Auburn freestyler who swam a leg in Sunday morning’s U.S. 4x100 men’s relay prelims).

How many recognizable names does that leave?

The likes of Olympic gold medalist sprinter Nathan Adrian, who — in his usual anchor spot — carried the U.S. men to a stirring 4x1 relay final victory in Sunday night's last race, in 3:10.34, Brazil coming up next in 3:10.34, the home crowd going crazy with the Hungarians third in 3:11.99.

Two Ledecky golds plus one for the U.S. 4x1 guys equals three, which in one night went a long way toward equaling the eight golds the U.S. team won in the pool at the last world championships, in Kazan, Russia, in 2015.

The thing about this meet is that for most casual fans of swimming, who at the most might see snippets of a race on ESPN, if that, it’s likely to be all Ledecky. Indeed, the SportsCenter Twitter account dutifully played its part.

If the American sway in the relay (think back to Jason Lezak in 2008 in Beijing) is not your thing, or you last tuned in to swimming in Rio, here is the Ledecky update:

First and foremost, she is now 20.

Not 19, gently correcting a reporter at a pre-meet news conference, and gently is the appropriate description, because Katie Ledecky is well-mannered and well-spoken and has consistently been that way over the five years since she burst onto the international scene. Imagine your ordinary American teenager at the microphone before tons of cameras. Katie Ledecky is at once so not ordinary and yet manages to keep about her the very essence of all that is best about being normal.

She just wrapped up her freshman year at Stanford.

Besides the world championship medal haul, she has five Olympic gold medals.

She holds world records in the 400-, 800- and 1,500-meter freestyles. Four times at prior world championships, Ledecky has raced to world-record times: in the 800 and 1500 in 2013 in Barcelona, and again in both races in 2015 in Kazan.

In 2015, Ledecky won five golds, winning individual golds in the 200, 400, 800 and 1500 and that year in the 4x2 relay. The plan in Budapest: repeat. Add the 4x1.

This is where the elasticity of the English language starts getting fuzzy, because trying to describe her performance — again, it is only Day One — gets, in a word, kooky.

In Sunday morning’s 400 preliminaries, Ledecky, in Lane 4, looked like she was out for the swim version of a casual jog around the eucalyptus-lined Stanford campus. Like, you know, maybe she was ambling over to the Trader Joe’s at the Town & Country Village shopping center across the street from campus on El Camino Real.

When she touched the wall, the clock said 3:59.06.

This was a championship-meet record.

American Leah Smith, who herself is a world-class racer, swimming in another heat, was nearly three seconds back, 4:02 flat.

For reference:

In Kazan, Ledecky won the 400 free finals in 3:59.13.

Here in Budapest, in the morning swim, she was seven-hundredths of a second faster.

This of course was just the warm-up.

On the blocks for the finals, again in Lane 4, Ledecky clapped once before diving in.

The 400 world record — Ledecky set that in Rio last year, 3:56.46 — was never really in play. The Budapest plan calls for her to race every day for seven straight days, 6,300 meters in all, nearly four miles. This is the worlds; the worlds are a big deal; but they are not the Olympics.

On Sunday night, Ledecky went 3:58.34, the U.S. going 1-2, Smith touching in 4:01.54. The race marked the first time since the 1978 FINA worlds the U.S. had put two swimmers on the podium in this event.

China’s Li Bingjie took bronze, in 4:03.25.

Seriously, Ledecky was asked afterward if she was disappointed. The reply:

“It’s my second-best time ever in the 400. So a really good swim for me. I can take a lot of positives away from it. Every year is not going to be faster, faster, faster. So just trying to build toward 2020 and a good first step.”

Ledecky, center, celebrating the U.S. 4×1 relay victory // Getty Images

Ledecky, center, celebrating the U.S. 4×1 relay victory // Getty Images

On the medals stand, presented the gold by the Kuwaiti Olympic power broker Sheikh Ahmad al-Fahad al-Sabah of Kuwait, flowers by the International Judo Federation president Marius Vizer, Ledecky was all smiles.

Then a quick change out of her warm-up suit, and the 4x1 relay.

The U.S. women were third when Ledecky dove in, on the third leg. The Americans were first when she finished her 100 meters. The Olympic sprint champion Simone Manuel finished it off, the U.S. winning in 3:31.72, Australia second, Holland third.

Look, it’s hard even for people who are swim experts or who see this all the time to find the right words to describe what we are — lucky enough to be — witnessing.

No Phelps, no Lochte, no Missy — it’s Ledecky time, and this week in Budapest has only just begun.

“It’s one of those things where you see her win so much, you kind of — you expect it,” said Blake Pieroni, who swam the third leg on the winning U.S. men’s 4x1 relay. At the same time, he said, “Every time she does it, it just shocks me again.”

"It’s crazy how she wins so much,” echoed Townley Haas, who swam the second 4x1 leg and who won gold in Rio as part of the 4x2 relay.

He added a moment later, “It’s — incredible.”