Katie Ledecky, a 15-year-old from Bethesda, Md., was the wire-to-wire winner in the 800 freestyle Friday night at the Aquatics Centre, upsetting world-record holder and hometown favorite Becky Adlington. The rising high school sophomore was the youngest of the 529 athletes the United States sent to the Games. She becomes the second-youngest swimming medalist in Team USA history, 77 days older than Beth Botsford, who won gold in Atlanta in 1996.
Ledecky dictated the pace of the long-distance event from the start, flipping first on the opening turn and maintaining her lead until the end. "I just wanted to go out controlled and try to get out there," Ledecky told the BBC after the race.
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The comparisons to 1980s American swimming sweetheart Janet Evans were instantaneous, but after their shared nationality and favored race, the similarities cease. Evans was 17 during her magical Seoul Olympics and was already an established swimmer entering the meet. She set three world records in the world championships one year before.
Ledecky has been pegged for greatness since she was before a teenager, but she didn't swim a major competition until the U.S. trials in June. She was known in American swimming circles but not far outside that. Compare that to Adlington, who probably has more magazine covers in her career than Ledecky has mentions.
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The youngster went 21 seconds faster in London than she had one year before, a credit to a dedicated work ethic and a cautious career plan instituted by her coaches in Maryland. Instead of swimming senior nationals last summer, Ledecky swam in junior nationals. Her coach, Yuri Suguiyama, has said he believes that the experience at juniors -- where she won three events and the high-point trophy -- was an important step in her career. It's the old "walk before you can crawl" cliche. Ledecky learned how to win at that meet and, 12 months later, she's an Olympic champion.
Adlington was a double gold medalist in Beijing and was Great Britain's great swimming hope in London. She finished with the bronze in the 800 to go along with another third-place finish in the 400. These were disappointing finishes considering the lofty expectations, but Adlington wasn't dwelling on it. Her disposition was as bright in defeat as it was when she took the swimming world by storm in Beijing.
"The pressure and expectations has been a bit of a battle," she told a BBC interviewer who looked more upset than her, "but I'm so pleased with [my performance]."
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