Kathleen Genevieve Ledecky (born March 17, 1997) is an American competitive swimmer. Having won 7 Olympic gold medals and 15 world championship gold medals, the most in history for a female swimmer, she is considered one of the greatest swimmers of all time. Ledecky is the world record holder in the women’s 400-, 800-, and 1500-meter freestyle (long course). She also holds the fastest-ever times in the women’s 500-, 1000-, 1500-, and 1650-yard freestyle events.
In her international debut at the 2012 London Olympic Games as a 15-year-old, Ledecky unexpectedly won the gold medal in the women’s 800-metre freestyle. Four years later, she left Rio de Janeiro as the most decorated female athlete of the 2016 Olympic Games, with four gold medals, one silver medal, and two world records. In total, she has won 38 medals (30 golds, 7 silvers, and 1 bronze) in major international competitions, spanning the Summer Olympics, World Championships, and Pan Pacific Championships. During her career, she has broken fourteen world records.
Ledecky’s success has earned her Swimming World‘s Female World Swimmer of the Year a record-breaking five times. Ledecky was also named Associated Press Female Athlete of the Year in 2017, international female Champion of Champions by L’Équipe in 2014 and 2017, United States Olympic Committee Female Athlete of the Year in 2013, 2016 and 2017, and Sportswoman of the Year by the Women’s Sports Foundation in 2017. Ledecky’s 11 individual gold medals at the World Aquatics Championships and 17 combined individual titles at the Olympics and World Aquatics Championships are records in women’s swimming.
Kathleen Genevieve Ledecky Early life, swimming, and education
Ledecky was born in Washington, D.C., and raised in the suburb of Bethesda, Maryland, the daughter of Mary Gen (Hagan) and David Ledecky. Her paternal grandfather, Dr. Jaromír Ledecký, PhD (1927–2011), was born in Prague, Czechoslovakia (now Czech Republic), to Catholic parents who married at Kostel svaté Ludmily in Vinohrady. His father was a quarter-Jewish procurator who had visited America in 1921. Jaromír arrived in New York City on September 8, 1947, as a student, later becoming an economist, and married a Jewish woman named Berta Ruth Greenwald (Ledecky’s paternal grandmother) in Brooklyn on December 30, 1956, who lost relatives in the Holocaust. Ledecky’s mother is of Irish descent. Ledecky is Catholic. Her uncle is businessman and New York Islanders owner Jon Ledecky.
Ledecky began swimming at the age of six due to the influence of her older brother, Michael, and her mother, who swam for the University of New Mexico. In Bethesda, she attended Little Flower School through eighth grade and graduated from Stone Ridge School of the Sacred Heart in 2015. During her high-school swimming career, Ledecky twice set the American and US Open record in the 500-yard freestyle, and she twice set the national high-school record in the 200-yard freestyle. Ledecky finished her high-school career as the holder of the Stone Ridge school record in every swimming event except the 100-meter breaststroke.
During the summer of 2012, she trained with the Nation’s Capital Swim Club (formerly the Curl Burke Swim Club) under coach Yuri Suguiyama. Following Suguiyama’s departure to coach for the University of California, Berkeley, she continued to train with the Nation’s Capital Swim Club under coach Bruce Gemmell through the 2016 Olympics. During the summers prior to 2012, she swam for Palisades Swim Team in Cabin John, Maryland. Ledecky accepted an athletic scholarship to Stanford University, where she swam for coach Greg Meehan’s Stanford Cardinal women’s swimming team.
In December 2016, Ledecky was chosen as one of the sponsors of the US Navy aircraft carrier USS Enterprise alongside gymnast Simone Biles. They are the first Olympians to be given this honor.
In December 2020, she completed the required courses for a bachelor of arts in psychology from Stanford University and graduated in June 2021.
Kathleen Genevieve Ledecky Swimming career
US Olympic Trials
At the 2012 United States Olympic Trials in Omaha, Nebraska (her first senior national competition), Ledecky made the Olympic team by placing first in the 800-meter freestyle with a time of 8:19.78, which was over two seconds ahead of second-place finisher Kate Ziegler. In Omaha, Ledecky also placed third in the 400-meter freestyle (4:05.00) and ninth in the 200-meter freestyle (1:58.66). Her third-place finish in the 400-meter freestyle was the fastest time ever swum by a 15- to 16-year-old American. At 15 years, 4 months, and 10 days, she was the youngest American participant at the 2012 Olympic Games.
Summer Olympic Games
At the 2012 Summer Olympics in London, Ledecky qualified to swim in the final of the 800-meter freestyle by placing third overall in the heats with a time of 8:23.84. In the final, Ledecky stunned the field, winning gold by more than four seconds, with a time of 8:14.63, the then second-fastest effort of all time just behind Rebecca Adlington’s world record of 8:14.10 set in 2008. In addition, she broke Janet Evans’ American record of 8:16.22 that had stood since 1989. In the final, Ledecky went out hard and, by the 200-meter mark, she had already established an almost body-length lead. Her 400-meter split was 4:04.34, a personal best for Ledecky in that distance, and would have placed fifth in the individual 400-meter freestyle. At the 750-meter mark, Ledecky was 3.42 seconds ahead of Mireia Belmonte García, and 0.31 seconds under world record pace. Ledecky won by 4.13 seconds and just missed the world record by 0.53 seconds. Her gold was the first international medal of her career, earning her the 2012 Best Female Performance of the Year and Breakout Performer of the Year at the Golden Goggle Awards.
At the 2013 US National Championships, Ledecky qualified to swim in four individual events and the 4×200-meter freestyle relay at the 2013 World Aquatics Championships in Barcelona, Spain, though she later dropped the 200-meter freestyle from her program. At the National Championships, she finished first in the 400-, 800- and 1500-meter freestyle, and second in the 200-meter freestyle.
At the 2013 World Championships, Ledecky won gold in the 400-, 800-, and 1500-meter freestyle, and in the 4×200-meter freestyle relay, and set two world records. In winning the 400 through 1500-meter titles, she became the second woman ever to win the events in a World Championships since German Hannah Stockbauer in 2003. In her first event in Barcelona, the 400-meter freestyle, Ledecky became a world champion for the first time by winning in 3:59.82, setting a new American record and becoming the second-fastest performer of all time in the event.
In her second event, Ledecky won gold in the 1500-meter freestyle in a world record time of 15:36.53, breaking the record held by compatriot Kate Ziegler by six seconds. The hard-fought race saw Ledecky overcome Dane Lotte Friis in the final few hundred meters after losing the lead at the 300-meter mark and included a final 50 split of 29.47.
In her third, and first relay event of her international career, the 4×200-meter freestyle, Ledecky and teammates Shannon Vreeland, Karlee Bispo, and Missy Franklin won gold in 7:45.14. Anchor Missy Franklin overtook Australian Alicia Coutts in the last 200 meters, giving the US the gold. Ledecky provided the US with an early lead, swimming the first leg in a personal best of 1:56.32.
In her fourth and last event, the 800-meter freestyle, Ledecky won gold in a world record of 8:13.86, bettering Rebecca Adlington’s world record of 8:14.10. Much like the 1500-meter freestyle, Ledecky let Lotte Friis lead most of the race, making a move at the 650-meter mark to eventually win the race by 2.46 seconds.
Ledecky scored more points than any other swimmer to earn the FINA trophy for best female swimmer of the meet.
At year’s end, Ledecky was named the World Swimmer of the Year and American Swimmer of the Year by Swimming World magazine. She was also named the best female swimmer for 2013 by FINA Aquatics World magazine.
Ledecky began the year by breaking her own world records in the 800- and 1500-meter freestyle at the 2014 Woodlands Swim Team Senior Invitational in June. Despite being in season and swimming multiple events, Ledecky was able to first break the world record in the 1500-meter freestyle with a time of 15:34.23, bettering her previous mark of 15:36.53. Three days later, Ledecky then broke the world record in the 800-meter freestyle with a time of 8:11.00, bettering her previous mark of 8:13.86.
At the 2014 US National Championships, the qualifying meet for both the 2014 Pan Pacific Swimming Championships and the 2015 World Aquatics Championships, Ledecky finished first in the 200-, 400-, and 800-meter freestyle. In the 400-meter freestyle, Ledecky set her third world record of the year by breaking Federica Pellegrini’s 2009 world record of 3:59.15 with a time of 3:58.86. With her mark in the 400, Ledecky became the first female since Janet Evans to hold world records simultaneously in the 400-, 800-, and 1500-meter freestyles.
Pan Pacific Championships
At the 2014 Pan Pacific Swimming Championships in Gold Coast, Australia, Ledecky won five gold medals and broke two world records. Her wins came in the 200-, 400-, 800-, and 1500-meter freestyle and the 4×200-meter freestyle. Ledecky almost broke the world record in the 800-meter freestyle, finishing with a time of 8:11.35. Her world records came in the 400- and 1500-meter freestyles, with times of 3:58.37 and 15:28.36, respectively. She became the first woman to win four individual gold medals at a single Pan Pacific Championship.
In the 200-meter freestyle final, Ledecky had over a half-second lead on the field at the halfway point before winning by 1.46 seconds with a meet record time of 1:55.74. Less than an hour later, Ledecky won the 800-meter freestyle, swimming under her world record pace for most of the race before touching in at 8:11.35, the second-fastest time ever, to win by 7.52 seconds over New Zealand swimmer Lauren Boyle.
The next day, Ledecky added her third meet record by swimming on the American 4×200-meter freestyle relay team with Shannon Vreeland, Missy Franklin, and Leah Smith. Swimming the anchor leg, Ledecky erased a 1.2-second deficit going into the final leg of the race, passing Australia’s Melanie Schlanger with a 1:54.36 split over the final 200 meters. She also swam in the 100-meter freestyle heats.
On the third day of the meet, Ledecky set her fourth meet record in the 400-meter freestyle prelim heats with a time of 4:03.09. That night, Ledecky lowered the record again, setting the first world record ever at the new Gold Coast Aquatic Center with a time of 3:58.37. Ledecky’s winning time was over six seconds quicker than American teammate and silver medalist Cierra Runge.
On the meet’s final day, Ledecky set her fifth world record of the year, lowering her record in the 1500-meter freestyle by nearly six seconds with a time of 15:28.36. Ledecky swam the second half of the race faster than the first, completing the final 800 meters in 8:14.11—faster than any other woman has completed a regular 800-meter race in a textile suit. Ledecky lapped three competitors in the final and finished 27.33 seconds ahead of silver medalist Boyle. National Team Director Frank Busch described Ledecky’s 1500 performance as “the most impressive race I have ever seen, and I’ve been in the sport for 50 years…. She’s blazing a completely different trail than anyone who has come before.”
During the championships’ closing ceremonies, Ledecky was named the female swimmer of the meet.
At year’s end, Ledecky was named the World Swimmer of the Year and American Swimmer of the Year by Swimming World Magazine.
At the 2015 World Aquatics Championships in Kazan, Russia, Ledecky won five gold medals and broke three world records. Her wins came in the 200-, 400-, 800-, and 1500-meter freestyles and the 4×200-meter freestyle. Her world records came in the 800- and 1500-meter freestyles. Ledecky is the first swimmer to win the 200-, 400-, 800- and 1500-meter freestyles in a major competition. Ledecky was also named the female swimmer of the meet.
Ledecky began the World Championships by winning gold in the 400-meter freestyle in a time of 3:59.13, a new championship record and almost four seconds ahead of her closest competitor.
In the heats of the 1500-meter freestyle on the second day of competition, Ledecky broke her own world record in a time of 15:27.71.
On the third day of competition during the morning session, Ledecky swam in the heats of the 200-meter freestyle and qualified first with a time of 1:55.82. In the evening session, Ledecky faced a tough double with the 1500-meter freestyle final and the semi-finals of the 200-meter freestyle shortly after. In the 1500-meter freestyle, Ledecky broke her own world record in a time of 15:25.48. Twenty-nine minutes later, Ledecky qualified 6th in the 200-meter freestyle with a time of 1:56.76.
In her only event on the fourth day of competition, the 200-meter freestyle, Ledecky won her third gold medal of the meet, winning in a time of 1:55.16. Unlike her other races, it was not an easy win for Ledecky, which featured the likes of Missy Franklin and Federica Pellegrini. In the end, Ledecky was able to hold off a fast charging Pellegrini, eventually winning by a 0.16 margin. Ledecky’s final 50-meter split of 29.33 was the second-fastest in the field behind Pellegrini’s 29.23.
On the fifth day of competition, Ledecky, with Missy Franklin, Leah Smith, and Katie McLaughlin won gold in the 4×200-meter freestyle relay. Swimming the anchor leg, Ledecky recorded a split of 1:55.64 and the Americans finished with an aggregate time of 7:45.37.
On the seventh day of competition, Ledecky completed her World Championships run by winning gold in the 800-meter freestyle in a world record time of 8:07.39, breaking her own record by 3.61 seconds.
Ledecky began 2016 at the Arena Pro Swim Series at Austin. On the final day of competition, she reset her world record in the 800-meter freestyle, clocking a time of 8:06.68. Earlier in the meet, she set world-leading times in the 200- and 400-meter freestyles and a U.S.-leading time in the 100-meter freestyle.
US Olympic Trials
At the 2016 United States Olympic Trials in Omaha, Nebraska, Ledecky won the 200-, 400- and 800-meter freestyles to qualify for her second Olympic team. Ledecky opened the Trials with a win and meet record in the 400-meter freestyle (3:58.98). Two days later, she recorded a time of 1:54.88 en route to winning the 200-meter freestyle. On July 1, Ledecky broke Janet Evans’s 28-year-old national championship record in the morning preliminary heats of the 800-meter freestyle (8:10.91) before placing seventh that evening in the 100-meter freestyle (53.99). The next day, Ledecky lowered her meet record, winning the 800-meter freestyle final by nearly 10 seconds (8:10.32). With her pair of swims in the 800-meter freestyle, Ledecky took control of the top 11 fastest times in the event’s history. At the conclusion of the week, Ledecky was named the female swimmer of the meet
Summer Olympic Games
Ledecky’s first event in the 2016 Summer Olympics was the 4×100-meter freestyle relay, swimming the anchor leg for the United States in both the prelims and final. Ledecky recorded a split of 52.64 in the heats. In the final, she joined Simone Manuel, Abbey Weitzeil, and Dana Vollmer and recorded a split of 52.79, helping the team earn a silver medal (behind Australia) with a time of 3:31.89, a new national record for the United States.
Her first individual event was the 400-meter freestyle. Ledecky qualified in the heats with a time of 3:58.71, an Olympic record. In the final, she won the gold medal with a world record time of 3:56.46––nearly two seconds faster than her previous record from 2014 and almost 5 seconds ahead of the silver medalist, Jazmin Carlin.
Ledecky won a second gold in the 200-meter freestyle with a personal best of 1:53.73, beating Sarah Sjöström by 0.35 seconds.
Ledecky claimed her third gold in the 4×200-meter freestyle relay, with Allison Schmitt, Leah Smith, and Maya DiRado. Swimming the anchor leg again, Ledecky provided the fastest split of the field (1:53.74) to turn a 0.89-second deficit into a 1.84-second victory, stopping the clock at 7:43.03.
She won a fourth gold in her final individual event, the 800-meter freestyle. She qualified in the heats with an Olympic record, 8:12.86, and set a world record in the finals of 8:04.79, over 11 seconds faster than the silver medalist, Jazmin Carlin.
With three individual titles, Ledecky became the first swimmer to win the 200, 400 and 800 m freestyle at the same Olympics since Debbie Meyer did so in 1968 in Mexico City. Ledecky’s final medal total (four golds, one silver) is the most decorated single-Olympics performance by a U.S. female athlete in terms of gold medals, topping Missy Franklin (2012; four golds, 1 bronze), Simone Biles (2016; four golds, 1 bronze), and Amy Van Dyken (1996; four golds). Ledecky was also the 2nd most decorated Olympian at the 2016 games behind Michael Phelps (5 golds, 1 silver)
Continued Swimming Success
Under the guidance of new coach Bruce Gemmell, Ledecky showed that her 2012 Olympic performance was merely the tip of the iceberg. Proving capable of winning both middle- and long-distance events, she established world records in the 800- and 1,500-meter freestyles en route to four gold medals at the 2013 FINA World Championships. She claimed another four golds at the 2014 Pan Pacific Swimming Championships, and at the 2015 FINA World Championships, she became the first woman to win the 200- 400- 800- and 1500-meter freestyles in a major competition. Her victories often coming via huge margins, Ledecky has been honored as the FINA Swimmer of the Year, the USOC’s Olympic SportsWoman of the Year and a three-time Golden Goggle Female Athlete of the Year.
The champion swimmer was accepted to Stanford University prior to her graduation from Stone Ridge in 2015, but she elected to defer enrollment to focus on training for the 2016 Summer Olympics. Proving to be in peak form well before the start of Olympic competition, she set her 11th world record with a time of 8:06.68 in the 800m free at the Arena Pro Swim Series in January 2016.
Additionally, Ledecky headed into the summer as the world-record holder in the 400- and 1,500-meter freestyles. Unbeaten in all major international competition, she was expected to add to her already impressive gold medal count and become one of the American team’s most celebrated Olympians by the close of the 2016 Rio Games.
Kathleen Genevieve Ledecky 2016 Rio Olympic Games
Ledecky did not disappoint in Rio. In her first individual event, the women’s 400-meter freestyle, she won gold, soaring past the competition early on and finishing with a time that was two seconds better than her own world record and four seconds more than her second place finisher. She also helped her teammates win silver in the Women’s 4×100 meter freestyle relay. She went on to win gold again in the 200-meter freestyle race, edging out Swedish swimmer Sarah Sjostrom, who won silver. After the grueling race, Ledecky spoke about finding the strength to grab the gold. “I did come pretty close to throwing up during that last 50,” Ledecky said. “I knew I just needed to get my hand on the wall and be done. Everything was hurting . . .I just had to dig deep and do my own thing. I had no idea whether I touched first . . .I was done when I touched the wall. I knew I’d given it everything I had to.
She continued to dominate as the anchor in the 4×200 meter freestyle relay, winning the gold medal with teammates Allison Schmitt, Leah Smith and Maya Dirado. She also defended her 2012 world title in the 800-meter individual freestyle in a stunning victory, finishing the race at 8:04:79 and smashing the world record. With this gold win, Ledecky became the second woman to win three individual freestyle events at a single Olympic Games, a feat also accomplished by Debbie Meyer at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City.