A change of scenery worked out just fine for Katie Ledecky.
Shifting coasts and coaches after last summer’s Tokyo Olympics, the American swimmer turned in another stellar performance at the world championships, set a pair of world records and capped 2022 as The Associated Press Female Athlete of the Year, selected by a panel of 40 sports writers and editors from news outlets across the country.
Ledecky, who previously won the award in 2017, edged out American track star Sydney McLaughlin in balloting announced Wednesday.
The two tied in total points, but Ledecky got the nod based on 10 first-place votes to McLaughlin’s nine. Basketball standout A’ja Wilson finished third.
”I know so many great athletes have won this honor,” Ledecky said. ”I’m really happy – happy with how my year went, and also excited about the future.”
Ledecky, who won her first Olympic gold medal in 2012 at age 15, has managed to stay on top in female freestyle swimming’s longest pool events for the better part of a decade.
She has held the long-course world record in both the 800- and 1,500-meter free since 2013, rarely facing a serious challenge in either of those grueling races.
At this year’s world aquatics championships in Budapest, Hungary, Ledecky touched first in the 800 by more than 10 seconds and won the 1,500 by nearly 15 seconds. She also claimed gold in the 400 free and was part of the winning U.S. team in the 4×200 free relay.
Before 2022 was done, Ledecky added two more world records to her ledger. She set short-course marks in both the 800 and 1,500 a week apart – even though she rarely competes in the 25-meter pool.
But the real enjoyment for Ledecky comes when no one is cheering her on, when it’s just her and her coaches and teammates, putting in the long, lonely hours of training.
”I might be one of the few swimmers who loves the training even more than the racing,” she said. ”Don’t get me wrong: I love the racing, too. But I truly enjoy going to practice every day. I’m excited when I go to bed for practice in the morning.”
Last year, after an Olympic performance that was a slight disappointment by her lofty standings, Ledecky left coach Greg Meehan and the Stanford University team where she had competed and trained while earning a psychology degree.
Her top priority was getting closer to her family in the Washington, D.C., area. She was intrigued by the program that Anthony Nesty, a rising star in the coaching ranks, had built at the University of Florida.
One of Nesty’s freestylers, Bobby Finke, surprisingly swept gold in the men’s 800 and 1,500 free at Tokyo. Another, Kieran Smith, captured an unexpected bronze.
So, Ledecky moved nearly 2,800 miles (4,500 kilometers) from Palo Alto, California, to Gainesville, Florida.
”It’s been a lot of fun every day,” she said. ”This is the right place for me to be at this point in my career. I’m training really well and learning a lot along the way.”
The shift to Nesty and a program where she usually trains with the men seems to have pushed the 25-year-old Ledecky to even greater heights.
Nesty said one of his main challenges is making sure Ledecky doesn’t train too hard.
”She needs to understand that once you get older, the body is different,” the coach said. ”I have to tell her, `Katie, you’ve got understand you’re not 18 anymore.’ The body will get tired. When it gets tired, it’s OK to throttle back a little bit.”
Moving to Florida has led to other changes.
Always a bit reserved, Ledecky now seems far more willing to speak up – even holding her own in good-natured trash talk with her male teammates, according to Nesty.
”This group is a very competitive group, a fun group and, at times, pretty chatty,” he said. ”It seems to have made her pretty chatty. You’ve gotta be with our group. I think our group has kind of made her come out of her shell a little bit.”
”Guys are guys. They love to trash-talk with each other,” she said with a smile. ”I’ll poke a little fun at the some of the guys, give them a little push here and there. I’m definitely pretty comfortable in this environment now.”
Ledecky tackled a brutal program at the Tokyo Games, where women competed in the 1,500 free for the first time. As expected, she swept the 800-1,500 double but came up short to Australian rival Ariarne Titmus in two shorter freestyle events.
Ledecky settled for silver behind Titmus in the 400 and didn’t even win a medal in the 200, finishing 1 1/2 seconds behind the Aussie in fifth place.
It was the first time Ledecky failed to win a medal in an Olympic race.
”There were some things I would’ve liked to be better in Tokyo,” she conceded. ”But also, I was really stretching myself, I was swimming 1,500 at the Olympics for the first time, while also swimming the 200 free. The events were even on the same day, which is something I don’t think anyone else was doing. It was a challenge I had set my mind to for many years, something I wanted to take on. I don’t regret taking that on.”
The fifth-place finish was certainly an anomaly in Ledecky’s stellar career.
Over three Olympic appearances, she has claimed seven gold medals and three silvers. At the biennial world championships, Ledecky has piled up a staggering 19 gold medals along with three silvers.
She has every intention of going faster.
Ledecky is focused squarely on the 2024 Paris Games, where she’ll likely compete in at least four events. She even is glimpsing ahead to her home-country Olympics at Los Angeles in 2028.
She’ll be 31 by then but sees no reason why she can’t stay on top.
”I’m always setting new goals for myself,” Ledecky said. ”I enjoy the process more and more every year. What it takes to stay at this level. What it takes to continue to have your eyes set on something that’s a couple of years away.”
Paul Newberry is a national sports writer for The Associated Press. Write to him at pnewberry(at)ap.org
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