Katie Ledecky’s first Olympics: Revisiting 2012 stunning gold medal win in the 800m freestyle

Katie Ledecky has become arguably the greatest female swimmer in world history.

She has 28 world championship and Olympic gold medals to her name. She won four Olympic golds and a silver in the 2016 Rio Olympics, the most medals of any female athlete in that year’s games. She has set three world records in distance freestyle events, two of which have stayed strong to this day.

Like any athlete, there was a time that Ledecky was an unknown. Unlike even some of the best, Ledecky made her splash right away and in stunning fashion. She stunned the world in the 2012 London Games when she made her international debut at only 15 and claimed an Olympic gold, setting the stage for her shining career.

Ledecky is preparing to compete in the 2024 USA Olympic team trials, where she will all but certainly qualify in four individual events for the 2024 Paris Games. That will then set her up for a chance to continue to bolster her all-time great resume.

How did she begin her career? Here’s what you need to know about her Olympic debut.

Katie Ledecky first Olympics

No one really knew what to expect from Ledecky at the 2012 Olympic Trials. Ledecky had impressed at several junior national championship events in 2011, including sweeping the 400, 800, and 1500 freestyle events at the Speedo Junior National Championships.

She continued to post impressive numbers at the NCSA Junior National Championships in 2012 leading up to the Olympic team trials in June, which included winning the 800 free at the NC Charlotte UltraSwim.

Among the spectators in Charlotte was U.S. Olympic women’s team coach Terri McKeever, who was impressed by watching Ledecky post a career-best time in the 800.

“I came home and told one of my assistants, ‘She’s going to make the Olympic team,’” McKeever said, per The Washington Post. “You could see the intangible things. … Her focus is really impressive for a 15-year-old. … She’s a smart swimmer. It’s not just get-in-there-and-go.”

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At the Olympic trials, she was set to compete in the 200, 400, and 800.

Ledecky, a sophomore at Stone Ridge School of the Sacred Heart in Bethesda, Md., narrowly placed third in the 400 with a time of 4:05, coming in behind Allison Schmitt (4:02.84) and Chloe Sutton (4:04.18) for the two Olympic team spots.

Next up was the 800 free. Ledecky posted a time of 8:27.91 in the heats, just off the 8:27.61 time of Kate Ziegler, the 2007 world champion in the event. In the finals, Ledecky pulled off a stunner, posting a time of 8:19.78 to beat Ziegler, who was second at 8:21.87. 

“It’s unreal,” Ledecky said, per The Washington Post. “It’s unbelievable.”

The time by Ledecky sealed her ticket to the Olympics, along with Ziegler, who also qualified in the event. Ziegler, who missed the finals in the 2008 Olympics in both the 400 and 800 frees, said she would help to mentor the young Ledecky.

“I’m excited for her,” Ziegler said, per The Washington Post. “I started out on my first international team when I was 16 or so, and I looked up to the older swimmers … I would love to be able to leave the sport saying that I helped mentor or shape or whatever, give advice to the future of our sport. I think that’s one of the greatest gifts I could ever give.”

Ledecky placed ninth in the 200 free, but with her 800 time, it ensured she would be making her international debut competing for the United States in London.

The time of 8:19.78 placed Ledecky second in the world leading into the race behind only Rebecca Adlington, the British swimmer who won gold in the event in 2008, with a time of 8:18.54. They were the only two swimmers in the world who had posted a time below 8:20 in 2012 at the time of the Olympics.

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“Four years ago, I never knew how to qualify for an Olympic trials,” Ledecky, who went wire to wire leading the 800 free race, said, per The New York Times. “I thought it was an unreal thing.

“It’s just unbelievable to think back at where I was, and think about the work I’ve put in these last couple of months with my coach, Yuri Suguiyama. He’s really prepared me and I had a lot of confidence.”

Ledecky appeared to be a slight step behind the leaders when it came time for the race in London. In the heats, she placed third with a time of 8:23.84 to ensure she would reach the finals. But Adlington swam a time of 8:21.78 and Denmark’s Lotte Friis had a time of 8:21.89, both about two seconds ahead of Ledecky to establish the two of them as the early frontrunners in the race.

Leading up to the race, Adlington was the clear favorite to win. She was the reigning champion and the hometown hero. As the swimmers walked up to the pool, the crowd began to chant, “Becky! Becky!” for Adlington. Ledecky walked out with a wish of good luck from Missy Franklin and a high-five from Michael Phelps.

When it came time to swim the race, Ledecky was again dominant. She went wire to wire as the leader in the race. Not only was Ledecky leading, she was ahead of the world record pace until the final 15 meters of the event when she fell just behind the pace. It was still more than enough to claim the gold, finishing at 8:14.63. Spain’s Mireya Belmonte Garcia won silver at 8:18.76 and Adlington earned the bronze at 8:20.32.

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“It’s one of the biggest shocks I’ve ever seen in the Olympics,” USA Swimming National Team Director Frank Busch said, per The Washington Post. “Stuff like this just doesn’t happen.

“That’s a young lady that just showed resolve,” Busch continued. “[She seemed to be saying] ‘I don’t know what I’m doing, but if somebody is going to go with me, I’m going to make you hurt.’ Nobody could go with her. This is a young lady just determined to win.”

Ledecky’s time set the American record, which had been held by Janet Evans at 8:16.22 since Aug. 20, 1989. Ledecky was the second-youngest American woman to win a gold medal behind only Beth Botsford, who won the 100 backstroke in 1996, by a matter of days. 

“I didn’t really expect gold, but I’ll take it,” Ledecky said after the race. “To break that record is really cool and really special.”

Her counterpart, Adlington, had only praise for Ledecky, saying “That time is unbelievable. She has got a bright career ahead of her.”

Adlington was right. Ledecky won four gold medals in the 2016 Rio Games and two more in the 2021 Tokyo Games. She has won 21 gold medals at the world championships and another eight in the Pan Pacific Championships.

No longer the underdog, she’ll compete in the 2024 Paris Games hoping to add to that legacy.

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