NBC Insider Exclusive

Create a free profile to get unlimited access to exclusive show news, updates, and more!

Sign Up For Free to View
NBC Insider Olympics

All About Olympic Swimmer Katie Ledecky and Her "Unbelievable" Performance in the Pool

The greatest female swimmer of all time is just three medals away from becoming the most-decorated American female athlete in Olympic history. 

By Andrew Woodin
Katie Ledecky walks the carpet of the 2022 Golden Goggle Awards

In less than 100 days, the United States will send a bevy of its most-decorated athletes to represent the Stars and Stripes at the 2024 Olympic Games in Paris, France – the iconic City of Light’s third time hosting the illustrious Games. Among those competing for glory and country is a who’s of who America’s best, including NBA legendary veterans LeBron James and Kevin Durant, U.S. Open tennis winner Coco Gauff and bronze medal-winning sprinter Noah Lyles in addition to a potential women’s gymnastics artistic squad that could feature an unprecedented powerhouse trifecta of gold medalists – Simone Biles, Sunisa “Suni” Lee and Gabby Douglas.    

Despite the greatness of those athletes, there is yet another seeking the type of timeless triumph that many dream of, yet few ever have legitimate chance of ever achieving. That honor belongs to the one and only Katie Ledecky, Team USA’s spectacular swimmer, who at just 15 years old, defeated the reigning champion Kate Ziegler in the 800m freestyle during the 2012 Games in London, England to capture her first of seven Olympic gold medals. She is the Yin to Michael Phelps’ Yang, having even surpassed the 23-time men’s gold medalist in World Championships after putting on a historic performance during the 2023 World Aquatics Championships in Fukuoka, Japan.

RELATED: What Olympic Swimmer Michael Phelps Has Done Since Making History at the Summer Games

Now, as she prepares to plunge into her fourth Olympics and become the first female swimmer to ever win the 800m freestyle event four consecutive times, she’s not just hoping to add to her trophy cabinet, she’s seeking to etch her name into the history books as one of the most dominant athletes, male or female, to ever compete in the Olympics.  

Her Childhood

Born in 1997 in Washington, D.C., Katie Ledecky fell in love with swimming when she was just six years old. Nurtured by her mother, who was a collegiate swimmer, as well as her brother Michael, who swam for Harvard, that love for the pool propelled Ledecky into shattering several high school records, earning her a scholarship to Stanford University in the process. Beginning in her early days on the Palisades Porpoises swim team, the growth she achieved through the support of her loving family cannot be overstated.

“I just always enjoyed swimming with him [Michael], and I think that’s how I really found my love of the sport,” Ledecky told WBUR in 2015. “I think if I didn’t have my brother swimming with me, I don’t know if I would have loved it as much as I did and still do.”

Katie Ledecky smiles after winning a race

While repping red for the Cardinals, she compiled an immaculate career at the prestigious university, netting eight NCAA titles to go along with her 15 NCAA records.

Part of Ledecky’s near superhuman power has always been to find something worthwhile, even during the tough times, that she can focus on and learn from. According to the Olympics site, it’s that type of positivity that she uses to not only motivate and inspire herself, but also the future generations of Olympic swimmers.

“I hope that we will continue to pass that inspiration on to future swimmers,” Ledecky stated on the social media platform X, formerly called Twitter. “I think there are. A lot of champions out there that we can inspire to get into the sport.”

RELATED: Who's on Team USA? Here's a List of the Athletes Qualified for the 2024 Paris Olympics

Medals and Achievements

In addition to her plethora of college accolades, which also includes two consecutive Pac-12 Conference Team Championships, and her 21 World Championship titles, freestyle swimmer Katie Ledecky is an Olympic champion at every distance from the 200m, to the 1500m, to the team relays. A full list of Olympic achievements can be found on the Olympics site.

Though her 13-year unbeaten streak in the 800m freestyle event – one that planted her atop the podium, per The Guardian, 29 times – was recently broken by 17-year-old Canadian teenager Summer McIntosh, according to Swimming World Magazine, Ledecky’s record of 8:04:79 during the 2016 Games is still nearly seven seconds faster than McIntosh’s 8:11:39. And while Ledecky’s pace may be slowing incrementally, her internal fire to compete still burns as bright as ever.

“I really feed off [my teammates’] energy, and I try to bring my best every day so that I can give them as much as a push as I can,” Ledecky said at the Golden Goggle Awards, per Swimming World Magazine. “Some days, it’s more than others. It’s a great environment, and we’re all working toward similar goals. We work really hard, but we’re having a lot of fun doing it.”  

How old was Katie Ledecky in her first Olympics?

Inspired as a child by her mother Mary Gen — who swam at the University of New Mexico and qualified for nationals three times — a 15-year-old Ledecky was on the precipice of making history at her first Olympics, during the 2012 Games in London, England. Ledecky made her first and perhaps biggest splash in the pool after she unexpectedly defeated the reigning world champion Kate Ziegler in the 800m free. With a time of 8:14:63, Ledecky eclipsed the field by nearly four seconds, breaking Janet Evan’s American record of 8:16:22 in the process of capturing her first international and Olympic gold medal in the event. Just a few years into being a teenager, Ledecky’s sensational effort earned her the 2012 Best Female Performance of the Year and Breakout Performer of the Year at the Golden Goggle Awards.

Katie Ledecky holds up her two Gold and two Silver medals

Where is Katie Ledecky now?

Now, at 27, ahead of the Paris Games, the record-smashing Katie Ledecky seeks to join Michael Phelps in the exclusive club of Olympians who have won four golds in the same event. Despite Summer McIntosh and others swiftly ascending the ladder of worthy challengers, Ledecky is still favored in the event that jettisoned her to stardom: the 800m freestyle. She’ll have her work cut out for her in Paris since she'll also be competing in the 400m freestyle and the 1500m freestyle. Besides Canada’s McIntosh, Australian swimming phenom Ariarne Titmus also poses a viable threat to Ledecky, having already eclipsed her 400m time.

Still, when it comes to the pool, there’s room for only one shark, and all eyes will surely be on Ledecky. If she can leave Paris with three gold medals, according to Swimming World Magazine, Ledecky — whose memoir Just Add Water debuts June 11 — will cement herself as the most-decorated, American female athlete in Olympic history.

Three-time Olympic champion and NBC swimming broadcaster Rowdy Gaines, who has covered Ledecky’s international career since it began more than a decade ago, put her talent and legacy into perspective.

“She is the greatest female swimmer of all-time,” revealed Gaines, per Swimming World Magazine. “When you look at all she has done, it’s unbelievable. No one has shown that kind of dominance. In the longer events, it’s like she’s racing in a different pool. And she’s done it all with such professionalism.”

Coverage of the swim trials gets underway on Saturday, June 15, at 6:30 p.m. ET on USA Network. Qualifying heats will air live on Peacock with same day delayed coverage each day on USA Network. Coverage of every final will air live on NBC and Peacock each night beginning at 8 p.m. ET.

Read more about: