Vulnerable, not dominant, Katie Ledecky summons the will to win

GWANGJU, South Korea — Over the course of her brilliant career, Katie Ledecky has had all manner of memorable swims.

There was the race in London in 2012 when she announced herself to the world by winning gold in the 800 freestyle as a 15-year-old. The 1500 free at the world championships in Barcelona in 2013 that made for 15 minutes of thrilling theater. The 14 freestyle world records in the 400, 800 and 1500. And on and on.

Maybe no race, however, tested Katie Ledecky like the 800 free here Saturday night. 

Typically, Ledecky goes out hard and fast puts the race away. Not this time. She had been sick all week. She was vulnerable. She knew it. Everyone knew it. Incredibly, she fell behind in the middle of the race. Even so, she somehow summoned the heart, the soul, the will of the great champion that she is — one of the great athletes of this or any time — to come back late and win, in 8:13.58.  

Katie Ledecky at the end of Saturday’s 800 free // Getty Images

Katie Ledecky at the end of Saturday’s 800 free // Getty Images

Ledecky holds the world record in the event, from Rio in 2016, 8:04.79. Her swim Saturday was faster than any woman except — herself.

She became just the second woman in history to win a world title in a single event four times in a row, along with Hungary’s Katinka Hosszu — who did it earlier at these 2019 worlds, in the 200 IM.

That, though, is not the story.

This is: 

Ledecky pulled out earlier this week of the 1500 and the 200 free because of illness. At a news conference late Saturday, she said she was super sick — from what, exactly, remains unclear, “some sort of viral thing” that sent her Tuesday to a local hospital for seven hours. Seven hours!

Upon return to the United States, she intends to have batteries of tests run — both at Stanford and in the Washington, D.C. area — to make sure everything is OK. She said she is confident she’ll check out fine.

Meantime, she endured it all this week — headaches, irregular pulse, abnormal heart rate and more. She fell asleep at 3 Saturday morning and woke up at 8. On the pool deck Saturday morning, she suddenly felt hot and nauseous, thought “for a minute” about pulling out, got in the water — “it’s a lot cooler in the water, it always feels good” — and decided to suck it up.

Ledecky said one of her great strengths is, as it turns out, a weakness. Or vice-versa: “I’ll give 100 percent every time. If I’m at 80 percent, I’ll give 100 percent of that 80 percent.”

So when she decided to go, “I knew I just had to tough it out and whatever happened happened at that point.”

In typical style, she went out hard and fast. 

She led through 450 meters. 

Then, though, Italy’s Simona Quadarella caught her. 

There were literally gasps from those in attendance.

Ledecky said later she just “tried to stay calm and relaxed from the 500 to the 750,” trying to decide when to make a move — with 100 to go, or 50. 

As it turned out, 50.

Ledecky had enough in her to swim the last lap in 29.19, a second and a half faster than Quadarella’s 30.78. 

The difference in the race: 1.41. Quadarella touched in 8:14.99. Ariarne Titmus of Australia, who beat Ledecky in the 400, finished third, in 8:15.70.

Ledecky is typically not the emotional sort on the deck. After this race, though, she let a little bit slip out. 

“There was a lot of emotion there,” she said.

“I think a lot of that came from a sense of gratefulness for my family, my coaches, my teammates, my friends who helped me through this week with all of their support and helped me manage all of this. [They were] supporting me all the way and reminding me of that toughness inside of me. Being able to pull that out for them meant a lot.”